The second instalment of our Hall of Fame series.
For the players ranked 50-41, go here.
40 Shay Brennan
359 appearances, 6 goals, 1957-1970
2 League titles, 1 European Cup, 2 Charity Shields
Few players had a career quite like Shay Brennan. A product of the famed Busby and Murphy school, the Irish defender’s education was jump-started much earlier than he had expected. In the 1956/57 season he made his breakthrough into the reserve side, scoring 4 goals in 11 games.
He was expected to stay there for at least 18 more months but the Munich Air Disaster meant he was called into action much sooner than anticipated. He made his debut in the highly-emotional FA Cup game against Sheffield Wednesday and scored twice — once from a corner — to give Manchester United supporters hope for the future.
In that game he played as a left-winger but he made his name as a full-back. Where the careers of some others failed to have longevity due to the difficult circumstances of their introduction, Brennan was able to forge a very successful career in his own right.
He was a key member of the team that won the league in 1965 and although he won a medal in 67, by this time the emergence of Tony Dunne and Bobby Noble was beginning to limit his opportunities. He switched to play at right-back, with some success, and played in this role in the 1968 European Cup Final.
He left to become player-manager of Waterford United in 1970, at the age of 33. Sadly, Shay was the first member of the 1968 European Cup-winning team to die, in June 2000.
39 Tony Dunne
535 appearances, 2 goals 1960-1973
2 League titles, 1 European Cup, 1 FA Cup
The other of those European Cup winning full-backs from 1968, Dunne’s place in the top 10 appearance makers in the club’s history just about edges him above Brennan and Evra.
The no-nonsense, aggressive left-back could play anywhere along the back-line but dominated the left-flank at Old Trafford in the 1960s.
38 Paul McGrath
199 appearances, 16 goals 1981-1989
1 FA Cup
There is little doubt about it; Paul McGrath had the potential to become the finest centre-half in Manchester United history. He had the ability, too.
Former United defender Graeme Hogg told me : “I would maybe even say Paul McGrath was the best player I ever played alongside. He was probably the best centre-half I’ve seen. You could play him in midfield and in fact he did often. He never looked out of place. Ron would have a go at him, because Paul would always let strikers get down the side of him before suddenly seemingly deciding to change his pace and recover. He was different class.”
There is a school of thought that the drinking culture at Manchester United did not harm their chances of success in the 1980s because Liverpool were just as bad and won all the trophies. But Paul McGrath is living proof that a more forward-thinking approach to that side of the game could have made all the difference to United in the decade.
He had all the tools required to be a great defender; good in the air, good on the ball, aggressive, a nightmare for attackers and also a threat to the opposition.
His alcohol and physical problems began to limit his first team appearances and it got so bad that Alex Ferguson offered him a retirement package at the age of 29. The Irish international instead signed for Aston Villa. His former boss Ron Atkinson was able to enjoy some fantastic years from his old charge.
Ferguson’s use of McGrath as an example serves as the player’s greatest legacy at United, but it could, and should, have been much more.
37 Andrei Kanchelskis
161 appearances, 35 goals, 1991-1995
2 league titles, 1 Fa Cup, 1 League Cup, 1 Super Cup, 2 Charity Shields
Some might argue that the winger should be higher on the list but as brilliant as he was, it’s worth putting into perspective the argument that he enjoyed 18 months of fantastic performances where he was untouchable. That period feels like too short a time to place him any higher.
Indeed, for his first two seasons he was in and out of the team. In the 1992/93 season he was finding life so tough he asked to leave for the first time, and of course there was the controversial series of events which led to his eventual departure in 1995.
But he was brilliant. He was so fast with the ball at his feet and deceptively strong to resist challenges. He showed capability with both feet but seemed unstoppable at times from the right flank.
United have had fewer more potent tridents than Kanchelskis and Giggs on either side of Cantona. They may never have had something which was quite as brilliant to watch.
It’s no exaggeration to say that even without the injured Giggs and suspended Cantona, United might have won the league in 1995 if Kanchelskis had not had his own troubles. Before a disputed hernia injury, he was in the form of his life.
In 2016, he told me in an interview for a book I was writing that he regretted the way everything happened, and he wished he had stayed at United.
Despite going on to play for City, he remains well-liked by United fans who remember that blistering pace and, of course, the hat-trick he scored against City in November 1994.
36 Alex Stepney
539 appearances, 2 goals, 1967-1978
1 League title, 1 European Cup, 1 FA Cup, 1 Second Division, 2 Charity Shields
The Londoner’s longevity places him above Edwin van der Sar; the pair have similarities in terms of the qualities they brought and the impact they had.
Stepney arrived for a record fee and immediately justified it with his stability. In 1968 he pulled off arguably the most important save in United history when he denied Eusebio in the final seconds at Wembley.
In the club’s infamous relegation season, Stepney was actually the top scorer for a while, with two penalties after Tommy Docherty made the strange decision to appoint him spot-kick taker.
Stepney is as likeable as he was dependable; never flash, never ruffled and always composed.
35 Andy Cole
275 appearances, 121 goals 1995-2002
5 League titles, 2 FA Cups, 1 Champions League, 2 Charity Shields
The story goes that Andy Cole was second choice behind Stan Collymore. In truth, the prior week, Alex Ferguson had also made an offer for Les Ferdinand. However, Cole was in fact Ferguson’s first choice, but he had been so abruptly turned down by Kevin Keegan the first time, he turned his attention to Collymore.
The deal to bring Cole to United was a record £6m, and the sale of Keith Gillespie the other way.
It took Cole time to settle; first, Hughes was injured, then, Cantona was suspended for kicking the fan at Palace.
Five goals in a record 9-0 win over Ipswich Town was a statement of arrival but 7 goals in 17 games aside from that suggested it was a mixed start to life at Old Trafford; on the final day of the season, Cole was repeatedly denied by West Ham keeper Ludek Miklosko to deny United the league title.
Ferguson stubbornly predicted Cole would respond with 30 goals the following season; in fact, that never happened once, with the most being 25 goals in all competitions in 1998.
Despite a difficult relationship with Cantona, Cole began to bloom when the Frenchman retired and when Dwight Yorke arrived, both elevated the other’s game.
Cole worked on his all-round game and became a fine player as opposed to just the (fantastic) goalhanger he had been when he arrived. Goals on the final day of the league season in 1996 and 1999 atoned for the pain of 1995.
It spoke volumes about how well he had done at Old Trafford that when left in 2002 to join Blackburn, United recouped the money they’d spent some 7 years earlier.
34 Nobby Stiles
395 appearances, 19 goals, 1960-1971
2 League titles, 1 European Cup, 2 Charity Shields
Jimmy Murphy once described Stiles as ‘the nuts and bolts’ of Manchester United and there are few players more loved than the Collyhurst-born midfielder. At 5ft 6in and with a slight frame, with his comb-over and gap-toothed grin, Stiles resembled anything but a footballer, let alone one capable of handling himself in the most demanding area of the pitch.
Murphy, as always, was right. Stiles played with a simplicity and tenacity that made him the perfect player for others to play alongside in the middle of the park. He was skilled in the art of tackling and knew his own strengths and weaknesses with an awareness not often found in footballers.
The appreciation for him at Old Trafford was felt elsewhere. Stiles became an important member of the England team who won the World Cup, and his dancing in celebration was one of the enduring images. In 1968 he followed that Wembley triumph with another, doing a fine man-marking job on Eusebio.
Later, Stiles returned to coach some young players at the club, having a notable influence on the class of 1992.
33 Sammy McIlroy
419 appearances, 71 goals
1 FA Cup, 1 Second Division, 1 Charity Shield
The last of the ‘Busby Babes’, Sammy McIlroy made an instant impact, scoring on his debut in the Manchester Derby.
McIlroy was able to remain at the club during the difficult transition periods under Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell. As soon as Tommy Docherty arrived, McIlroy was involved in a car accident that left him with damaged lungs. When he was finally able to make a place his own in the team, United were relegated.
Docherty paid forward the faith invested in him to his young player and from 1974 McIlroy began to develop into the star talent he became; an exciting, clever dribbler who got United fans off their seats.
In 1979 he scored a fine goal in vain in the FA Cup Final – having gone down in history 2 years earlier in victory.
McIlroy was deemed surplus to requirements when Ron Atkinson signed Bryan Robson — but the Northern Ireland star responded to the news of the signing by scoring a hat trick against Wolves. His departure came far too early; his service befitted an entire career at the club.
32 Nicky Butt
387 appearances, 26 goals, 1992-2004
6 League titles, 3 Fa Cups, 1 Champions League, 1 Intercontinental Cup, 4 Charity Shields
Nicky Butt’s place in history is unfairly reflected by the generally accepted opinion that the midfield of Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs was United’s first choice. That often wasn’t the case – and Butt would always be the first name in when it wasn’t. He would be usually asked to play in tougher games and that is a mark of respect to his quality.
Think of Butt and you think of a hard worker and battler but this severely underestimates what a talented player he was. A fine passer, a remarkable tackler and an instinct for goal – Butt was the equal of any British midfielder and would have been the first name in the midfield at any other club from 1996-2002. A beneficiary of the teachings of Nobby Stiles, Butt possessed those same qualities and a little more.
31 Dennis Viollet
294 appearances, 179 goals 1952-1962
2 League titles
Fallowfield-born Viollet is up there with the very best United strikers of all time. Blessed with rapid pace, Viollet formed a feared partnership up front with Tommy Taylor. Their goals helped United win the league in 1956 and again the following year as they were heralded as the best team in the world.
Then came Munich.
Viollet escaped with what were thought to be minor injuries (although the brain tumour he suffered from in later life was thought to be associated to the trauma he suffered to his head in the accident) and even played again that season.
The player performed near miracles for the next two seasons to keep United competitive. His tally of 32 league goals in 1960 remains a record for the club. Without doubt, his strength of character was pivotal in United’s rebuilding period.
For this, Viollet’s contribution to the history of Manchester United extends far beyond appearances, goals and medals.