Manchester United: An Irish XI

Paul MurphyCorrespondent IAugust 17, 2012

Manchester United: An Irish XI

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    Manchester United are among the biggest and most successful football clubs in the world.

    Some of the best players the game has ever seen have lined out at Old Trafford.

    Players from every continent (Antarctica aside) have called Manchester United home over the years.

    But no country has enjoyed as long and fruitful a relationship with United as the Island of Ireland.

    Since John Peden joined the club in 1893, there has been a regular stream of Irishmen into the club.

    Here is a lineup of the greatest Irish players to strut their stuff at Old Trafford.

Goalkeeper: Harry Gregg

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    Most people remember him as the hero of Munich and rightfully so. What he did there was truly heroic and he deserves huge admiration for it.

    That said, he himself has asked that people remember him for what he achieved as a player rather than for his heroics in Munich.

    And what a player he was.

    Busby signed him in 1957 for £23,000, which was a world-record fee for a goalkeeper at the time.

    He was hard as nails and became a rock at the back for United in a time of huge transition.

    He would be voted the best goalkeeper in the world in 1958 for his performances at the World Cup in Sweden.

    Sadly, he ended his career at United without any medals due to a string of unfortunate injuries.

Left Full-Back: Denis Irwin

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    Irwin is surely the most consistent and unassuming player to play for United.

    In 12 years at United, he made 529 appearances and scored 33 goals.

    Equally dependable at right-back or left-back, he was among the first names on the team-sheet during one of the club's most successful era's.

    So solid was he that Sir Bobby Charlton says in 'Sir Bobby Charlton - My Manchester United Years - The Autobiography' : "You never worried about Denis Irwin; I remember him once making a mistake, an occasion so rare, I found myself thinking, 'Really, I never thought I would see that.'''

    In 2003 he was named on the Premiership Team of the decade. In fact, according to Alan Hansen said at the time: "In any team of the decade, the full-back slots are already nailed down—Denis Irwin at right-back and Denis Irwin at left-back.''

    On top of his impressive legacy is the fact that he is one of the reasons Eric Cantona joined United.

    At the time, United were in the market for a striker after Dion Dublin broke his leg.

    Names like Brian Deane and David Hirst were mentioned, but no one thought Leeds would sell Cantona.

    Alex Ferguson was sitting in Martin Edwards office one day when Leeds United rang to inquire about signing Irwin.

    Almost jokingly he asked would they trade Cantona and when he heard the pause on the other end of the phone he knew he had his man.

    The rest is history. 

Right Full-Back: Tony Dunne

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    Just ahead of Irwin on the all-time appearance list in another great Irish full-back.

    Tony Dunne was signed by Busby in the wake of Munich and he would become an omnipresent fixture in the team for the next 10-plus years.

    At a time when full-backs spent most of their time kicking wingers around the park, Dunne was the exception to the rule.

    He had bags of pace and an incredible head for the game. Bobby Charlton would say of him in 'Sir Bobby Charlton - My Manchester United Years - The Autobiography': "He read an opponent so well that, with his speed, he could go out against any winger on Earth confident of putting him in his pocket."

    Dunne was ahead of his time and wouldn't have looked out of place in any era of the game.

    He would rank among the best full-backs ever, not only at United.

Centre-Back: Paul McGrath

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    Were it not for the injuries and then the alcohol, I have no doubt that McGrath would rank among the best centre-backs ever.

    He was an astute reader of the game and was good enough with the ball to spend significant time in midfield.

    He quickly became a fan favourite and "Oooh-aaah Paul McGrath" would ring out at Old Trafford every time he touched the ball.

    He had suffered a difficult childhood and football was his escape. When he was injured at the end of his first season at United, he lost that escape.

    To help with the frustration and to help settle into strange environs, he turned to alcohol. He would say in his autobiography 'Back from the Brink': "I thought it was a confidence-booster but, of course, it turned out to be a chain around my neck.''

    The arrival of Sir Alex Ferguson in 1986 would lead to a culling of the club's drinking club, of which McGrath was a member.

    He would come back to haunt Fergie many times over the next 10 years. After one inspiring performance, Fergie would remark to Brian Kidd: "You have to wonder what a player Paul McGrath should have been.''

    He won't be the last player on this list to suffer from the demon drink. It must be in our blood.

Centre-Back: Kevin Moran

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    Becoming the first man to be sent off in an FA Cup final ensured his place in the annals of history.

    What many forget is that Moran was a top player for United over the years.

    An old school centre-half who some might describe as dirty, I remember him as tough and uncompromising.

    He was renowned for putting his body on the line in pursuit of victory and often left the field with blood on his shirt.

    He also had a remarkable scoring record for a defender.

    In four seasons between 1981 and 1985, he scored 23 goals.

    He was another to be culled after the arrival of Fergie, but would be the perfect foil to line up beside the elegant Paul McGrath.

Centre-Midfield: Roy Keane

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    For me, Roy Keane is the greatest United player of the last 40 years for many reasons.

    His relationship with Sir Alex may have ended in tears, but Ferguson found his perfect foil the day he signed Keane.

    They were kindred spirits and presented a united front for many years despite their stubbornness.

    His hard work and drive fostered a ethos at the club that continues to this day. There was no excuse for failure with Keane. Nothing less than perfect was good enough.

    He inspired those around him to push themselves to their limits and expected nothing less than 100 percent from his teammates.

    His defining moment is surely that balmy night in Turin when he inspired United as they fought back from 2-0 down to reach the Champions League final despite knowing he would play no part in it.

Center-Midfield: Norman Whiteside

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    While Whiteside never reached the heights a player of his ability should have, he did enough to earn a place in this team.

    Who knows how good he could have been had he had access to modern-day medicine. The injuries that derailed his career are easily cured these days.

    He was just 16 years old when he made his debut for United and became the second-youngest player in club history.

    He would replace Pele that year as the youngest player to appear in the World Cup.

    Though far from the quickest, he had a great footballing brain and was blessed with strength beyond his years. According to the Daily Telegraph Ferguson would later bestow the following praise upon him:

    He rarely surrendered possession and he increased the angle and weight of his passes so well that the receiver never had to fight the ball. His eyes were as cold as steel and he had the temperament to match. As a player he was close to the genius category.

    He would be nicknamed the "Scourge of the Scousers" for scoring winning goals in Cup finals against both Liverpool and Everton.

    Sadly, the injuries began to take their toll and his career at United came to an end just after his 24th birthday.

    He would battle on at Everton for two more years, but he was forced to retire at age 26.

Left-Midfield: Shay Brennan

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    Though he was a full-back by trade, Brennan had the ability to play what was then called outside-left.

    He was one of the youngsters drafted to fill the void left by the Munich disaster and made his debut in the club's first fixture after the crash.

    While not many knew who he was at kickoff, they certainly knew who he was by full-time after he scored two goals in an emotionally charged game.

    He would go on to make 355 appearances for United in various positions on the left flank.

    His defining moment is surely the 1968 European Cup Final when Busby fulfilled his long-time ambition.

Right-Midfield: George Best

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    As the saying goes, Pele good, Maradona better, but George Best.

    Best was quite simply the greatest natural talent to ever grace the hallowed turf at Old Trafford.

    It's hard to believe that he left United with his career in free fall at age 27 after having achieved so much.

    He had it all. He wasn't lighting-quick but was so elegant that he seemed to glide above the mud-soaked pitches, and he had a keen eye for goal.

    After his debut performance Graham Williams shook the then 17 year old Bests hand and said "Stand still son so I can have a look at your face. I've been looking at your backside all day disappearing up the touchline."

    What many forget was how hard he was. He spent his career getting kicked every time he touched the ball, but he always stayed on his feet and gave as good as he got.

    Some would say that he was somewhat of a wasted talent. But when it comes to genius, you have to take the good with the bad, and, boy, could he do bad.

    But I like to remember the good: The glistening locks and snake hips as he beat another defender, the six goals against Northampton or taking that extra touch to round the keeper in 1968 when could've rolled the ball into the corner.

    Michael Parkinson summed the tragedy of Best up when he said to the BBC after Best's dead: "The only tragedy George Best had to confront is that he will never know how good he could have been."

Striker: Sammy McIlroy

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    Some call him the last Busby Babe. He was the last youth player to be signed on Busby's watch.

    In 1974, he took the reins of a United team in decline. They had been relegated the previous season and many of the heroes of old had moved on.

    The fans were looking for a new hero and McIlroy stepped up to the plate. Though a midfielder by trade, he had the ability to play up front and often did.

    He was the star player during the fallow years and left the club with only one FA Cup winners medal to show for his 11 years of service.

    He is quite possibly the only player to bow out after scoring a hat trick for the club. No sooner had he scored his third goal against Wolves than the club sealed a deal to sign Bryan Robson to replace him.

Striker: Liam 'Billy' Whelan

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    Though he died in Munich at age 22, I had to pick Whelan as striker for this team of heroes ahead of Frank Stapleton..

    In the 1950's he was what was called an inside-forward. A position we might call playing "in the hole" today.

    He wasn't quick, but he more than made up for that with intelligent movement and great vision.

    In his withdrawn role, he had a scoring rate of a goal every second game in his short career.

    Though his position in the team was under huge pressure from a young man by the name Bobby Charlton, there is not doubt Busby would've found space for them both in the team.

    Already a nervous flyer before Munich, he is said to have accepted his fate as the plane attempted to take off that night. As mentioned in his obituary he turned to Harry Gregg and said: "If the worst happens, I am ready for death. I hope we all are.''

Manager: Jimmy Murphy

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    There is a bit of anomaly here. Welsh only managed the club for a matter of months. Statistically, he is among the least successful managers we have ever had.

    That said, anyone who knows his story will understand why I picked him.

    He was born in Wales to a Welsh mother and an Irish father. He would become the man behind the scenes at United for almost 30 years.

    Hardened by four years fighting in the desert during World War II, he was the chalk to Busby's cheese.

    He scouted, trained and mentored the young men who would be called the Busby Babes.

    Though Busby had supreme command, there is no doubt that he trusted Murphy's judgment without question.

    On top of all this, he was the man who was tasked with holding United together post-Munich and starting the process of rebuilding.

    He suffered as much as anyone that day as many of those who died that night were his boys. He looked on them as sons.

    But hold United together he did, and he would stay on as Busby's trusted aide until 1971.

    While he may not have the acclaim of Busby and the like did, it is fitting that each season the Jimmy Murphy Trophy is awarded to the best player in the club's youth system.

    It's a fitting tribute to a forgotten hero.

Who's Next?

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    While no Irish player has scaled the heights of these great men, the club maintains strong links with Ireland.

    John O’Shea was a key squad member for years and Jonny Evans looked great last season.

    There are also some talented kids in the academy who could be the next great Irish player.

    First in line behind Evans is Robbie Brady.

    An athletic winger with a wicked left foot, he is on the fringes of the first-team squad. Ferguson has flirted with converting him into a left-back.

    While the link is tenuous, we Irish are never slow to claim someone with Irish heritage as one of our own, so we will watch the progress of Will and Michael Keane who have dual nationality.

    Will is further along in his progression, but suffered a broken leg this summer just as he was promoted to the first team. Scouts and coaches rave about his ability and big things are expected.

    Michael, on the other hand, is a versatile defender with bags of potential. Defenders tend to mature later,  so he might yet surpass his brother.

    Whoever it is, I hope that United and Ireland continue their long and fruitful relationship.