Premier League - Ferguson's greatest United XI

Sat, 05 Nov 08:12:00 2011

We select the greatest side from all of the players Alex Ferguson has fielded in his incredible 25 years in charge of Manchester United.

1996-97 Premier League Manchester United Eric Cantona shrugs - 0

Over his glittering 25 years in charge of United, Alex Ferguson has seen more players come and go at Old Trafford than he probably cares to remember.

While he has been blessed with more than his fair share of exceptional home grown talents, he has bought and sold many world class players en route to claiming 37 trophies in an astonishing quarter of a century in charge.

Here is a stab at the best XI Fergie could field from the players who Ferguson signed or handed United debuts to over the course of his 1,409 matches at the helm.

GK: Peter Schmeichel

Ferguson has described the purchase of Schmeichel from Brondby for the sum of just £550,000 in 1991 as the "bargain of the century", and it's hard to disagree. His agility and reflexes were at odds with a man of his large frame, and his long throws after claiming a cross or set piece instigated many a dangerous counter-attack.

Schmeichel was a fearsome presence guarding the United goal during his eight years at the club - not just for opposition strikers but also for his own defenders, who would frequently cop an earful from the man nicknamed 'The Great Dane'.

That Ferguson struggled to adequately replace him for so long before finally snatching Edwin van der Sar from Fulham in 2005 shows just how special a keeper Schmeichel was.

RB: Gary Neville

The older of the two Neville brothers may not have won too many friends outside of Old Trafford - particularly in the blue half of Manchester and on Merseyside - but he was a right-back par excellence for United for more than a decade.

As well as being a top defender he was surprisingly handy going forward, playing the ever-willing support role in The David Beckham Show on the right wing.

He fought tirelessly for his one and only club, a gutsy yet assured presence who consistently seemed to perform above the level of his natural talent. His honest commitment to the United cause was such that, when it became clear he could no longer deliver the necessary quality, he immediately announced his retirement midway through the season.

CB: Jaap Stam

He may have only spent three years at United, but Stam certainly made his presence felt. The big Dutchman's facial features resemble those of the Easter Island statues and he appeared to be carved from the same stone, such an impenetrable figure as he was.

After joining from PSV Eindhoven in 1998 for a fee of £10.75 million - at that time an obscene amount for a defender - he immediately set about repaying that amount by helping the club to their famous treble in his very first season.

Two more titles followed in as many years, before he was shipped off to Lazio for comments published in his book, but his mark at Old Trafford remains indelible.

CB: Nemanja Vidic

Rio Ferdinand may be by far the classier player of United's current first-choice centre-backs, but if push came to shove and you could only have one from England's 'merker-in-chief' or man mountain Vidic, it is the big Serb who emerges as the indispensible component of the United defence.

Like Stam, Vidic was not well known when Ferguson signed him from Spartak Moscow for £7m, but in the five years since he arrived he has become club captain and one of the world's top defenders.

The lynchpin of United's defence as they won three Premier League titles in a row, he is a regular in the PFA's Team of the Year, and is the latest in a long line of top United that Ferguson has convinced to quit international football early.

LB: Denis Irwin

The very name Denis Irwin has become a byword for consistency in football. The Irishman was the type of player every manager craves - one who would give you seven out of 10 in every match he played. Irwin knew his job, he stuck to it and he excelled at it.

On top of his unwavering reliability in his 12 years of service - providing outstanding value for the £625,000 that United paid Oldham for his services - Irwin certainly knew how to strike a ball, too, with many of his 33 goals for the club coming from free-kicks or penalties.

Irwin was as staunch in his refusal to play the media game as he was a defender, but the seven Premier League winners medals he left Old Trafford with say everything that needs to be said.

RM: Cristiano Ronaldo

Despite leaving United as the reigning World Player of the Year, Ballon d'Or and a world record signing, Ronaldo's selection ahead of David Beckham will still be poorly received by many.

Another bone of contention will be his place on the right of midfield, given he evolved from a lightweight show-pony of a winger into the world's most complete forward during his six years in Manchester.

Still, the bare facts show that he totted up 118 goals in all competitions for United, including a mammoth 42 in the 2007-08 campaign, when United won a domestic and European double, as well as gobbled up individual awards by the shed load. Were it not for some chap called Lionel, his place among the greats may well have been assured by now.

CM: Roy Keane

Nothing less than a colossus in the United midfield, Keane was very much Ferguson's personification on the pitch. The fighting Irishman's running battle with Arsenal skipper Patrick Vieira was a perfect allegory for the peak years of the fierce rivalry between the two clubs.

Keane was the driving force behind United's dominance of the Premier League in the 1990s, a quality of which there is no better example than when he dragged United to Champions League semi-final, second leg victory over Juventus in 1999 despite knowing he would miss the final through suspension.

His outspoken nature off the pitch and his intensity occasionally morphing into outright violence on it made him a controversial figure, but he will be remembered first and foremost as a thorough competitor and a born winner.

CM: Paul Scholes

While the widespread eulogising following his retirement last summer would almost have you believe he never put a foot wrong in his 18-year professional career at the club, Scholes was undoubtedly one of the greatest midfielders of his generation.

No lesser authorities than Zinedine Zidane, Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso has professed their admiration for the diminutive midfielder, who seemed to enjoy the same view of the pitch from ground level as those watching from up in the stand, and he had the ability to effortlessly complete the 50-yard passes he envisioned.

Another of Fergie's great players who habitually shunned the media spotlight, his 10 Premier League titles will be of some solace as he embarks on a new career as a coach.

LM: Ryan Giggs

His legacy may now be tainted by the revelations about his private life, but in terms of his football there are few who can hold a candle to what Giggs has achieved.

His personal haul of 12 league winners' medals is more than that of most clubs. If United retain their Premier League crown this season, he will have won as many league titles as Arsenal have in their entire history.

The Welshman's longevity has been greatly aided by his adaptability - he has made the centre of the midfield his patch in recent years, and even filled in at left-back in April's comeback win at West Ham which was instrumental in United winning their record 19th title last season.

FW: Wayne Rooney

Newcastle may have made a cheeky last-minute bid for the absurdly talented teenager who had just come back from the 2004 European Championships a global star, but there was only ever one place Rooney was going to end up once Everton finally agreed to part with their prize asset.

More often than not the best player on the pitch for both club and country, no player defines this particular evolution of Ferguson's team than Rooney with his combination of stamina, persistence and footballing intelligence.

In the absence of Ronaldo he has flourished winning plenty of personal awards to go with his four league titles and a Champions League winner's medal. Having already scored 11 goals for his club this season it's as though his year-long malaise - which took in an awful World Cup, tabloid scandal and a bitter contract wrangle - never happened.

FW: Eric Cantona

For all of the myriad talents the rest of this XI can boast, it seems unimaginable that any of them will ever hold quite the same place in the hearts of United fans the world over as their enigmatic former captain. He became a symbol not only of United's Premier League greatness, but the greatness of the Premier League itself.

Despite winning the title with Leeds, there were plenty of doubts surrounding the precocious forward's attitude and temperament when Ferguson poached him for just £1m. In the five years that followed he was fully vindicated as Cantona strutted around Old Trafford, collar turned up and chest puffed out, languidly laying waste to opponents with his Gallic flair and technique.

His most iconic moment in a match has to be his glorious chip over Lionel Perez to round off a 5-0 win over Sunderland in December 1996, before turning casually to the crowd and arrogantly lap up the ovation that came his way.

However, perhaps his most memorable moment of all was when he was sent off at Crystal Palace in January 1995, and reacted to a fan's abuse as he left the pitch by leaping into the crowd with a kung fu aimed at his aggressor. That kick resulted in a four-month ban for Cantona. In his five years at Old Trafford, that was the one season that United did not win the title.

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