With Manchester United in dire need of strengthening their defence and possibly goalkeeping areas this summer, supporters speak of possible replacements in the ilk of Rio Ferdinand and Peter Schmeichel.
Those players matured into the best players in their position during their time at Old Trafford and both arguably walk into United’s best ever eleven. They both, too, had specific skill sets that are expected or even demanded by supporters – Victor Valdes’ debut this past week, where he came in for some criticism for the quality of his kicking, brought back memories of Schmeichel’s replacement, Mark Bosnich, being castigated for the same thing. It mattered not that Valdes is a winner of numerous titles and championships, it mattered not that Bosnich was arguably the best shot stopper left in the league.
Distribution was perceived as important attribute for their goalkeeper and that is why, for a while, Fabien Barthez was considered a suitable replacement. However, Schmeichel wasn’t the pioneer of attacking goalkeeping. At Old Trafford, at least, that can be traced back to Harry Gregg, a man often unfairly dismissed as a legend solely by virtue of his heroics in Munich 1958.
Gregg hated staying on his line and introduced the concept of a goalkeeper bossing his area, much to the initial bemusement of his defenders. Consequently, United played a higher defensive line than what was used throughout a typically defensive and negative league. The ripples were felt for generations afterwards.
Gregg is typical of a few players who aren’t perhaps heralded for the job they did and the elements of their own game which influenced the identity or blueprint of what is expected of a Manchester United player.
Two years ago today, we lost Brian Greenhoff, another of these players whose contribution is mostly understated. It’s a given that as the ghost writer for his autobiography, I am biased and maybe even a little sycophantic, but when my opinion is provoked by the thoughts of others and shared by them, then I can rest easier in sharing it.
It’s worth adding the caveat before describing what Brian did that after moving to a traditional four at the back, they were not found wanting for capable footballers to play there. Martin Buchan was described as a Rolls Royce and you don’t get descriptions like that without being cool, calm and collected in possession.
Brian’s manager, Tommy Docherty, describes the replacement of Brian into central defence as an accident. A holding midfielder by trade, Brian’s versatility saw him played in a number of positions. With United struggling for goals in their relegation year, he was even played up front, and enjoyed a little success, though Docherty ultimately preferred a natural number 9. Injuries to Jim Holton and Steve James saw Brian moved back into defence on occasions in the year in Division Two but it wasn’t until later on in that year that the penny dropped for the manager.
Docherty himself claims that the FA Cup tie against Wolves the following year gave him the confidence to play Brian in defence full time. What Greenhoff offered in addition to Buchan was an attacking impetus – Buchan was steady but uncomplicated, preferring to move the ball on as quickly as possible. Greenhoff, on the other hand, sought to move further forward, bringing the ball out of defence, playing riskier passes and occasionally joining the attack. Again, it presented a problem that opposition teams did not know how to deal with, an extra man to mark who had composure and intelligence with his ball movement. It had a huge impact on United’s success during the rest of Docherty’s spell.
Since then, all of United’s successful teams have included a player in the ‘Greenhoff’ role. Paul McGrath, Gary Pallister, and even Ronny Johnsen who was signed as a holding midfielder but made the same move back into defence, but, most famously of all, Ferdinand, who arguably played the role better than any before. In his later years, Brian was keen to see defenders bringing the ball out in the same way that he had.
Typically, as it often does, it takes the passing of someone and the eulogies that follow to truly appreciate what someone contributed in their life, and the accurate reflections can sometimes get lost in the natural overstatements which are part of the tributes that elevate someone’s reputation in their absence.
There can be no taking away from what Brian contributed in his time at United. Rightly remembered as a legend, he may have lamented the lack of a league winner’s medal with the club, but he left behind something of greater importance – a legacy.