Sir Alex Ferguson has caused something of a stir with his comments in his latest book suggesting he only had four world-class players during his time as Manchester United.
Ferguson lists Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes as the quartet who elevated themselves above all the other great players to have played under him during his 26 years in charge at Old Trafford.
It’s hard to argue with that calibre of player, and equally difficult to dismiss Ferguson’s comments that the term ‘world class’ is given out far too freely in the modern era. Yet, at the same time, to just pick out four players from his time as United manager as ‘world class’ is a slight on some of the other footballers who deserve to rank alongside the likes of Giggs and Scholes.
To redress that imbalance, here are four players who, and we can use the phrase arguably here if required, proved themselves to be world class during their time at United under Ferguson.
It’s perhaps telling that the profile of Roy Keane on United’s official website starts off with the comment that Ferguson described the Irishman as the best player he’s ever worked with. It’s clearly a shame that the manner of Keane’s exit from United, and falling out with Ferguson, has prevented him from being included on the list of world-class players to play under the Scot. If ever there was a player who embodied the spirit of Ferguson on the pitch, then Keane was it, and maybe in some way, that’s part of the issue. Keane’s achievements for United should not be overlooked. He may never have had the natural talent of some of his team-mates, but Keane was the orchestral conductor who set the tempo for the star soloists to take centre stage. He dictated the pace of United’s play and, as a competitor, he was as fierce as they come. Famed for his performance in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Juventus in 1999, there are probably few players who would have had such an impact by force of will and personality alone. He made almost 500 appearances for United and won seven Premier League titles in his 12 years at the club. To say United have missed a warrior such as Keane in the past decade would be an understatement. He crossed the line plenty of times, but he was always the type of player you wanted in your team and would be the first name down on the team-sheet.
Another player to famously row with Ferguson, Schmeichel at least left United on good terms in 1999 after his memorable cartwheel celebration after the 2-1 Champions League final win over Bayern Munich. His career could have turned out very differently if Ferguson had followed through with a threat to sack the Dane in January 1994 following a row after the 3-3 draw at Liverpool when United let a three-goal lead slip. Thankfully, peace was restored and, during his eight years at Old Trafford, Schmeichel arguably had no peer when it came to being ranked as the best goalkeeper in the world. His performance in the 1-0 win at Newcastle in 1996 will forever be remembered as will his save from Dennis Bergkamp in the FA Cup semi-final win over Arsenal in 1999. A flying one-handed save against Liverpool at Anfield earlier in his United career also sticks long in the memory. He even managed to score for United against Rotor Volgograd in the Uefa Cup. Perhaps, though, the biggest indication of why he should be considered world class by Ferguson is the fact it took six years to find a keeper to even come close to replacing his presence in goal when Edwin van der Sar was signed.
Ferguson has acknowledged that selling Stam to Lazio in 2001 was his biggest mistake as manager. It came amid suggestions that Stam’s comments in his own autobiography, about how he came to join United from PSV Eindhoven three years earlier, were the reason behind his departure. Ferguson pointed towards an Achilles injury and the money being offered by Lazio as the factors behind his decision. Either way, it proved to be the wrong time for Stam to be sold after the Dutchman had been the game’s best centre-half in his three seasons at the club. He won the Premier League title in all three seasons and was a crucial difference in United finally making the transition to Champions League winners in his first year at the club. For a player with such formidable presence and heading ability, perhaps the only surprise is he scored as many goals for United as Schmeichel, with his only goal coming in the 90th minute of a 6-2 win at Leicester in January 1999.
RUUD VAN NISTELROOY
In his first two, maybe three, seasons at United, Van Nistelrooy was as lethal a striker as any in the world and he would have easily walked into any team in the world as well. He had that clinical edge that Andy Cole occasionally lacked and that United have only had fleetingly in their team since. Anthony Martial, who is already at the time of writing 14/1 with betfair to finish top scorer this season, has the potential to emulate Van Nistelrooy. He has been backed to lead the line by the Dutchman, but, when you look at the stats, you can see how tall an order that’s going to be for the French teenager to live up to a striking predecessor. Van Nistelrooy scored 36 goals in his debut season at United and 44 the following year. In both of those seasons, he had a run of scoring in 10 games in a row in all competitions. He also scored the penalty to end Arsenal’s record unbeaten run. He scored 100 goals in his first three seasons at United and also surpassed Denis Law as the club’s leading scorer in European football. He was top scorer in the Champions League in three of the five years he was at the club. Like the others on this list, there was a sour note to his time at United as he was only on the bench for the League Cup final win over Wigan in 2006 and was largely on the fringes for the rest of that season before being sold to Real Madrid. With 150 goals in 219 appearances for United, it’s a ratio that any player in the world, perhaps save for Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, would be proud of.