A few legends don’t make the cut.
During his 26 years as Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson coached some of the greatest players to have ever graced a football pitch.
Flying wingers, prolific strikers, colossal defenders: Fergie coached them all.
Naturally, given the sheer depth of talent at Ferguson’s disposal over the years, he always found it difficult to nail down his greatest Manchester United XI.
Alex Ferguson on his ultimate Man United XI.
Ferguson has never gone as far as naming his ‘ultimate United XI’ but, in his 2013 autobiography, he was willing to name five players that ‘could never be left out of a Man United side’.
“You couldn’t leave out [Paul] Scholes and you couldn’t leave out Bryan Robson,” wrote Ferguson.
“They would both give you at least ten goals a season. But then that raises the question: how can you leave out [Roy] Keane?
“You would have to play the three of them. But if you do that, who do you play with [Eric] Cantona, who was always better playing with another forward?
“Try picking one striker from [Brian] McClair, [Mark] Hughes, [Ole Gunnar] Solskjaer, [Ruud] van Nistelrooy, [Teddy] Sheringham, [Dwight] Yorke, [Andy] Cole, [Wayne] Rooney and [Robin] van Persie. You couldn’t disregard [Ryan] Giggs.”
Alex Ferguson: “It always felt like an impossible task.”
Looking through those names, you can see Ferguson’s problem. He coached so many world-class players, each with their own matchwinning set of skills.
After listing the attacking royalty that graced Old Trafford during his tenure, Ferguson then arrived at his indispensable five.
He wrote: “So it always felt like an impossible task to select a best XI, yet you would have to say Cantona, Giggs, Scholes, Robson and Cristiano Ronaldo could never be left out of a Man United side.”
Five United legends, for sure. Robson was for so long the heartbeat of United’s midfield, making 461 appearances during a 13-year spell.
Robson won two Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the European Cup Winners’ Cup during his time at Old Trafford, before joining Middlesbrough as player-manager in 1994.
And Cantona, for many, remains United’s greatest-ever player. Signed from Leeds in 1992, the Frenchman proved to be the transformative final piece in Ferguson’s puzzle, his ingenuity in attack helping to lift United to four titles in five seasons between 1993 and 1997 before his retirement.
As for Giggs and Scholes, they managed to shine at the highest level over such a long period of time (1681 appearances combined). It’s pretty much impossible to exclude either of them.
Ronaldo’s inclusion is equally unsurprising. After all, Ferguson called the Portuguese attacker the greatest player he had ever worked with.
Keane’s exclusion from the five would be surprising to many. Simply put, he was one of the most important players in United history, and Ferguson’s uncompromising on-field lieutenant for over a decade.
Perhaps the acrimonious nature of the Irishman’s departure from United in 2005 factored into Ferguson’s thinking.
Even without Keane, though, any team would be flying if they were able to line up with Cantona, Giggs, Scholes, Robson and Ronaldo.
(Originally published on December 15, 2020).