Top 50 Manchester United Players Of All Time : 50-41

Welcome to the first in a new series on TalkOfTheDevils.co.uk.

Christmas is almost upon us. It’s the time for indulging in festive treats and, erm, long reads.

So we have rather foolishly decided to take on the task of compiling a “Hall of Fame” series, of players and games, so that the arguments and disagreements can pour in.

The Hall of Fame will take in the 20 best games and the 50 best players in the club’s history. Obviously the players category is completely objective. We have decided to try and rank using the following criteria; talent, achievement, service, contribution, and legacy.

There are some omissions. So, before we start, the following didn’t make the list : Dimitar Berbatov, Ji-Sung Park, Gary Pallister, Teddy Sheringham, David Pegg, Charlie Mitten, Joe Spence, Jack Silcock, Jack Rowley, Harry Gregg, the Greenhoff brothers, Arthur Albiston. You will think of others.

Players who narrowly miss the cut but only go to show how tough the competition is for the top 50.

51 Brian McClair

471 appearances, 127 goals 1987-1998

Honours – 4 League titles, 2 FA Cups, 1 League Cup, 1 Cup Winners’ Cup, 1 Super Cup, 5 Charity Shields

It says everything about how tough the competition is that McClair is number fifty-one on this list. Remember it’s all about opinion. We cheated to add him in!

In his first season at Old Trafford, McClair scored 24 league goals, the first player since George Best  in 1968 to score more than 20. As United began to win trophies under Sir Alex, McClair was the main goalscorer, netting 21 in 90/91 and 25 in 91/92.

When Eric Cantona signed in November 1992, McClair successfully adapted into a midfield role, with his experience and composure proving quietly important for the on-pitch development of the class of 92. Though he didn’t score in his last two years, the Scot did provide assists for two of the most memorable goals in the club’s history — David Beckham’s against Wimbledon, and Eric Cantona’s against Sunderland, both in the 96/97 season.

After retiring he returned to Old Trafford to coach the younger players, winning the 2003 FA Youth Cup before becoming reserve team manager and then director of the academy.

50 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.

49 Marcus Rashford MBE

322 appearances, 101 goals, 2016-present day

Honours – 1 Europa League, 1 FA Cup, 1 League Cup,1 Community Shield

Rashford broke on to the scene in that most Manchester United youth player fashion; a late emergency call-up to the team after not really threatening to demand a place in the senior set-up, but the expedition process occurred because of an injury crisis. Rashford immediately looked at home, though, at the top level – scoring twice on his debut against FC Midtylland and then twice on his league debut against Arsenal. A winning goal in the Manchester derby in just his eighth game wasn’t even the highlight of a dramatic first four months, as Rashford started in a winning FA Cup final side.

When Jose Mourinho came in and signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it was speculated that Rashford’s game time would diminish; in fact, he would play more games than anyone in Mourinho’s first season, which ended in understated glory, with the League Cup and Europa League.

Rashford has played under five different managers and an interim boss and remained integral to the club’s plans. As a world crisis hit, the player suffered his greatest dip in form – coinciding with a long-standing back injury – and for a while it seemed as though he may leave the club. In this spell, Rashford was awarded an MBE for his remarkable humanitarian efforts to address child poverty.

Under Erik Ten Hag, Rashford has enjoyed a return to form and broke through the 100 goal landmark at the club; comfortably one of the most beloved and admired players of his generation, Old Trafford hopes that sooner rather than later he will have a league title medal to go alongside his others.

48 Michael Carrick

464 appearances, 24 goals, 2006-2018

Honours – 5 League titles, 1 FA Cup, 2 League Cups, 1 Champions League, 1 Club World Cup, 6 Community Shields

Signed in the summer of 2006 and handed the number 16 shirt, Michael Carrick was given the unenviable tag of being a natural successor to Roy Keane. It took many a long time to get over that and in truth some never did. Carrick was a completely different player to Keane, but had an instant impact that could be compared with Keane’s in regards the transformative effect it had on the team’s midfield. 

His impact was instant, as he settled alongside Paul Scholes to form the premier midfield partnership in the league, helping United win the league for three years on the bounce. The second of those years, of course, included the Champions League victory. 

Carrick won five league titles in his United career and while it could be said that at times his contribution was viewed differently by some fans, he was certainly appreciated more as time went on. A fine passer of the ball, something obvious from his time at West Ham and Spurs, the first year of his time at Old Trafford suggested the club might have got a more proactive playmaker on their hands, especially when he scored two fantastic goals in a 7-1 win over Roma. 

His style became understated as years went by, less pronounced, but no less important. That understated-ness led to a lack of England caps which, as in the case of Paul Scholes, was certainly the country’s loss. 

Carrick remains under-appreciated, possibly due to the period in which he played and the strong personalities who played in midfield alongside him. He spent some of his career trying to make a name for himself as a different player to Keane and some more of it as an even more understated midfielder than Paul Scholes. Perhaps that’s why it still feels difficult to assess Carrick on his own merits, though his accomplishments certainly deserve it.

 

47 Charlie Roberts 

302 appearances, 23 goals, 1903-1913

Honours – 2 League titles, 1 FA Cup

Roberts was signed by Ernest Mangnall for the princely sum of £600 from Grimsby Town, and duly became the first great captain in the club’s history. The significance of this cannot be understated.

Roberts was described as the best in his position ‘either in this country or across the border… (a player) whose enthusiasm in itself inspires the other members of the team’.

Another report said of Roberts after the 1908 league title success “…he will feel that he more than any man has played a big hand in the winning of the League honours… Roberts has been the man of the club. He has led the side with an enthusiasm that has put life and confidence into the team. In match after match his energy has been remarkable, and he has been great alike in attack and defence.”

In other literature he would be described as a ‘scientific’ defender; this meant he liked to play with the ball rather than just lump it. As a centre-half, in the pre-WW1 days this meant he often ploughed a lone furrow in the middle of the defence, so his organisational skills had to be magnificent.

His is not a name often spoken when referencing Manchester United’s great captains – but he was undoubtedly the first, and as such, a standard setter par excellence.

46 David Herd

Honours – 2 League titles, 1 FA Cup, 1 European Cup, 1 Charity Shield

Two goals in the 1963 FA Cup Final stand out as the most notable day of hot-shot Herd’s United career. The striker scored 17 in his first season but was getting better and better as each year passed, scoring 28 goals in 64/65 and 33 in 65/66 to underline his quality in a squad that included Law, Charlton, Best.

In March 1967 he suffered a broken leg which caused a significant setback in his career. He was never able to really reclaim his place in the squad and when Denis Law was ruled out of the European Cup final in 1968, young Brian Kidd was preferred to Herd. The former Arsenal striker left soon after but left with an average goal to game ratio of better than 1 in 2.

Herd sadly passed away in October 2016.

45 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.

44 Nemanja Vidic

300 appearances, 21 goals 2006-2013

Honours – 5 League titles, 3 League Cups, 1 Champions League, 1 Club World Cup, 5 Community Shields

A blood-and-thunder style defender, in equivalent terms, the £7m paid for Vidic in 2006 is up there with the greatest bargains of the Sir Alex Ferguson era.

The Serbian star was at the club during the period where it was at its greatest from a defensive perspective, breaking and creating records.

43 Gordon Hill

134 appearances, 51 goals 1975-78

1 FA Cup

Hill’s spell at Old Trafford lasted from November 1975 to April 1978, an improbable length of time for a player to make such an impact that he is included in a list like this. But it is a testament to the outstanding ability of the Southerner that his place can be fully justified. The first post-Busby United player who really fit the bill as a true entertainer, Hill was both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, with a left foot volley regarded by his peers as the best in the game.

Hill – dubbed ‘Merlin’ at Millwall for his mercurial ability, a moniker he kept at Old Trafford – was, according to Tommy Docherty, the ‘final piece of the jigsaw’, and took to life in Manchester like a duck to water. Highlights included 2 stunning goals against Derby County in the 1976 FA Cup semi-final and a rasping volley against Juventus in the UEFA Cup later that year.

When Docherty was sacked, his successor Dave Sexton did not take to Hill’s cavalier approach and attempted to encourage the winger to partake in defensive duties. When he did not, Sexton promptly sold him for a club record fee, to Docherty’s new club Derby. The transfer was met with protests, with some fans painting graffiti on the Old Trafford walls.

Hill was gone but the relative briefness of his career at the club only amplified the magic that came with his nickname. With a goal ratio similar to Cristiano Ronaldo’s, Hill was the shining light of Docherty’s team and whilst the romance associated with him is now mostly a ‘what if’, there was enough evidence to suggest he would have been one of the all time greats.

Only the length of his time, and his single winner’s medal, prevents him from being higher on this list. Hill was a star, one of the players with the most natural talent to represent the club.

42 Patrice Evra

5 League titles, 3 League Cups, 1 Champions League, 1 Club World Cup, 5 Community Shields

After arriving at Manchester United, Evra went to the Megastore and bought a bunch of DVDs about the club’s history. He had prepared himself for the move watching videos of Eric Cantona.

During one of the most glittering periods of the club’s history, Evra was a constant, both in terms of reliability and the fact that he seemed a universally-loved member of the squad. For some years he was untouchable in his position and, like Vidic, who came at the same time, turned out to be remarkably good value for money. Tenacious, rapid and an excellent footballer, Evra became a solid attacking outlet as much as he was a defensive cornerstone.

His bond with United fans was strengthened as he became the victim of racial abuse from Liverpool striker Luis Suarez; as the Anfield club unwisely chose to defend the Uruguayan, United supporters stood in the corner of their own player. (Needless to say, Evra had the last laugh.)

In the 2012/13 season Evra became an unlikely threat at corners, scoring four headers from such situations despite only being 5ft 9in. Evra played at least 33 league games in each of his last five seasons for the club, underlining that reliability.

In 2014 he left to join Juventus where he went on to enjoy further success.

41 Edwin van der Sar 

266 appearances, 2005-2011

4 league titles, 1 league cup, 1 Champions League, 1 Club World Cup, 3 Community Shields

There are plenty of United supporters who would have a reasonable argument to say Van Der Sar is the best goalkeeper the club have had in their eyes. Had he signed for the club in 1999 instead of 2005, we may well be having that discussion. For this writer it is difficult placing legendary figures this high up the list but that is a reference of how spoilt for choice we are and that is most certainly the case in the goalkeeping department.

A £2m signing from Fulham, the Dutch stopper immediately instilled a sense of calm into a backline that desperately needed some composure. Standing at almost 6ft 6in, Edwin made the difficult seem ordinary; he was named in the PFA team of the year 3 times whilst at Old Trafford, including his final season.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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