Anyone who’s been reading here for any length of time will know that I support Manchester United; that I do so because I tuned into the 1976 FA Cup Final by accident and began shouting for the losing side; that “support” lost a great deal of its former meaning on the day of the Heysel Disaster. I still find soccer exciting and often outright beautiful, but anything sectarian still brings the bodies of Italian children back to my mind, as I know it does to many of my generation.
Fortunately for me, at least in the face of the kind of fan who thinks you have to be local to support a side, I was born in Widnes, a northern chemical town short of its own football club (rugby‘s there, of course) and only a short train ride from the Geras manor. Where I live now – for a few more days – Sutton, in Surrey – is packed with the Famous Chelsea, for all that there’s a perfectly good upper echelon non-league club here that still stands for good values that the town itself forgot a long while ago.
There it is, and it’s why when I came across Bobby Charlton’s best XI in the Times – a brief light moment in an otherwise desperately dark excerpt from his forthcoming memoirs – I thought I’d try my own.
Charlton’s choice of goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, is hard to argue with; United have boasted international goalkeepers in the past, but never a Shilton, Clemence, Seaman or Jennings. It’s forgotten now that Schmeichel felt himself to be in decline in 97-99 – and forgotten that his bad games could be appalling ones. But let’s be sensible. The best the club has ever had, and in the top four of the last twenty years of English football.
Again, it’s hard to see beyond Gary Neville. Manchester United’s defences have never been the equal of the classic Liverpool back fours, and every year for as long as I can remember there have been calls for reinforcement in defensive areas. For two years, Cicinho was on the verge of coming in to supersede Neville, or so it was said – but he hasn’t let it happen.
Bobby says Pallister/Stiles, which I would replace, nervously, with Bruce and the late Roger Byrne. Both pairs of men share the same qualities of strength, timing, and forceful leadership. Bruce has the advantage of late goals against Sheffield Wednesday, whilst Byrne captained England’s pioneering club in the European Cup.
All of Byrne, sadly:
Denis Irwin, says Bobby – and who else could it be? Stewart Houston? Gabby Heinze? Irwin is far and away the best performer in the position since… I don’t think there’s a since.
Manchester United’s first great side
Bobby Charlton’s side is based on post-1955 players, which means no one from the 1948-51 team, and no one from the forgotten 1908-12 side. I’ve spent a lot of the last few months poring over Edwardian football footage, and only one of the Edwardian United side stands any chance of getting so much as close to the best-ever XI. That’s Billy Meredith, of course, but Meredith is a right-winger: so is Beckham… As for ’48-51, the Babes were so clearly superior as a team to their predecessors that the question doesn’t really arise.
Bobby lines up Bryan Robson alongside Roy Keane. There’s a bit of the Lampard-Gerrards there for me, in all honesty, and I’d want Paul Scholes in place of the Irishman for disciplinary reasons. Part of me wants to say Veron, in honour of the year’s abuse he took from English fans and press whilst winning UEFA’s “Most Effective Player” in that year’s Champions League.
Why is Cantona on Charlton’s right wing? I’ll have Beckham there, please – a man who delivered the goods right to the end of the ’99 Champions League Final, only for two late substitutes and David May to steal all the glory.
As for the other wing, the names flow: Colman, Giggs, Best, Charlton himself. It’s often been said that Charlton was most effective as a winger, rather than the more predictable midfield hub he later became. I agree.
This leaves me with five names for two positions. Giggs, because he has to be considered right up until the end, although he’s no striker. Duncan Edwards, because he’s the best all-round player the club has ever had. Denis Law, of course, and the late Tommy Taylor, and the late George Best.
This is how inexplicable out-of-position situations come about, isn’t it? Edwards and Best.. Charlton went Law and Best up front, pushing Edwards back into midfield where I wanted Sir Bobby himself.
Sir Bobby doesn’t name a manager, and I can’t have Jack Charlton for obvious reasons. Who’ll I plump for – Sexton, O’Farrell? Busby and Ferguson are too obvious; Wilf McGuinness would probably rather remember his playing days. No, my manager is the builder of Old Trafford, the creator of the first great United team, a man of whom there is no hint that he ever kicked a ball himself… Ernest Magnall. It’s Ernest Magnall’s red and white army, I suppose. Here’s one of the original Magnall babes, on the left of the picture looking cold: