We today continue with and conclude our ‘best ever’ vote series, where we put across a selection of players to you, the reader, in attempt to define our readers’ XI. The poll remains open for five days and we will also be running our writers’ XI and revealing our former player contributors XI’s too. The team will be assembled in a 4-4-2 formation.
We are aware that certain difficulties will be presented when considering players from older generations where the formation doesn’t quite fit. The most common example of this is Duncan Edwards who played at half back. This was an era when four man defences were only just coming into the fore and were certainly unfamiliar in British football, and the half back played on the outside of what would be classed as a modern midfield three. However, their duties included pushing wide when defending, assuming the role of a modern full back.
For this reason, where such a player excelled in two roles, we will include the player in both categories we feel appropriate and if that player scores highest in both categories, whichever one he attracted the most votes in will determine the position he will be selected in.
United have truly been blessed in all areas of the pitch, that is one thing for certain that we’ve learned through our ‘best ever series’. That is no different in this category, the strikers, where you can almost get a study of microcosm of the club’s history. There is the lost potential in Billy ‘Liam’ Whelan, who scored 52 times in 98 games before tragically being killed in Munich at the age of just 22. Dennis Viollet was also in the Disaster but survived, going on to play for another five years at Old Trafford, scoring 179 goals in 293 appearances. The two can comfortably claim to be the most prolific strikers from the youth system.
They were ably accompanied by Tommy Taylor, who netted 131 times in 191 games, with an outstanding record of 11 goals in 14 European Cup ties. He had just turned 26 when he too perished in Munich.
Denis Law was the first ‘King’ of Old Trafford and his record of 46 goals in a season for United still stands. 404 games and 237 goals – a ratio of 0.58 goals per game, or roughly, 2 every three. Law is one of three United players to have won the Ballon d’Or, with his 1964 win simply a consolation for the prize that he missed out on. Law missed the 1968 European Cup Final through injury but is widely regarded as the finest predator to have ever played for the club – United’s history has plenty of examples of players who were forced to miss the biggest occasions.
Stuart Pearson may not have been the most prolific – 66 goals in 180 games – but he was one half of a cult favourite partnership with Jimmy Greenhoff in the 1970’s.
Mark Hughes is seen in a different light in his post-playing career but was without doubt one of the most phenomenal strikers in Old Trafford history. A great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, in the early 90’s, Hughes was responsible for some of the most memorable and enduring moments. 163 goals in 467 games does not tell the whole story – ‘Sparky’ had the knack of saving special moments for the big occasion and was one of the best volleyers of a football.
Brian McClair’s goals record is skewed somewhat by his use in a deeper midfield role in his latter years but hauls of 31, 16, 21 and 25 in four of his first five seasons demonstrate how reliable he was in front of goal after arriving at Old Trafford. Mainly used as a substitute in latter years, McClair took a back seat and was kept around by Sir Alex Ferguson in a youth development role – his association with the club only recently ended.
Few men have had as profound an impact on a football club as Eric Cantona had on Manchester United. People talk about ‘missing pieces’ so often it’s become part of the footballing cliché lexicon but it rings true for what Cantona represented when he arrived for just £1m in 1992. Ferguson had been looking for a more conventional predatory striker when the opportunity to sign the enigmatic Frenchman presented itself but this was a case of not knowing what you’re looking for until you found it. The United that Cantona joined was a team of nearly men, and the one he left was a young team filled with confidence and promise, playing for a club set to become the global giant it has since proven to be.
Cantona’s goals at vital times determined league titles and Cup triumphs and the memory of his 6’3 frame strutting around the Old Trafford pitch like a peacock remains strong in the memory.
Andy Cole arrived for an English club record fee of £6m in January 1995, and was quickly forced into an even more high pressured situation when Cantona was suspended and Hughes got injured. He was roundly unfairly blamed for United’s failure to win the league that year but showed tremendous character to recover and become a true great – 121 goals in 277 games included strikes that helped to win league titles in 1996 and 1999, erasing the memory of ’95.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived in 1996 not much was instantly expected of the little known Norwegian. However two goals on his reserve debut against Oldham put him in to the first team picture – he scored, typically as a sub, against Blackburn, and when his double defeated Spurs, he was instantly part of the first team squad. In 1998 there were rumours he would be sold but he stayed to fight for his place, scoring memorably from the bench against Liverpool in the Cup and repeatedly from the bench against Forest in the League, before unforgettably winning the Champions League with the last kick of the game.
Talk of goal ratios and penalty box predators inevitably brings us to Ruud van Nistelrooy. The Dutch forward should have moved to Old Trafford a year earlier but an injury picked up and aggravated during the medical put the move on hiatus. When he did arrive, he hit the ground running and barely stopped scoring – a difficult, injury hit 2004/2005 still heralded an impressive 16 strikes in 27 appearances, contributing 150 in 219 overall. His 44 goals in 2002/2003 helped United win the league and set a post-Law record that hasn’t been matched.
He was sold to Real Madrid where he scored 64 times in 96 games – an indication that he may well have challenged the all time goal records at Old Trafford.
Instead, that responsibility looks like it may fall to Wayne Rooney. With 230 goals in 479 appearances, Rooney will have to have a better-than-his-average season next year – he needs 20 goals to surpass Sir Bobby Charlton, a landmark he has hit four times in eleven seasons. Still, his goal average is just over twenty a season, so Rooney will look to make 2015/16 a landmark year as captain for club and country.
His record and trophy haul (five league titles, two League Cups and a European Cup) should, in some eyes, single him out as arguably the greatest we’ve had. Since the 2010 transfer request he has been harshly judged, as he might have expected he would, by many United fans. He has gone on to win trophies and score sensational goals (that City overhead kick and the lob against West Ham were good enough to silence critics expecting a Newcastle 2005 volley every week) but is that enough for you to vote for him as our best ever forward?
And, to close, George Best and Cristiano Ronaldo, the other two Ballon d’Or winners. They were not conventional strikers but played there on enough occasions to warrant inclusion in the poll – as we have done in other examples, we wish to present a fairer opportunity for those who wish to vote for other players in other areas of the poll.
The vote closes in five days.