Manchester United might have become champions of England for a record 20th time tonight and also be on course for a record haul of points in the Premier League this season, but only one member of this side would make it in to my own all-time Manchester United XI.
Starting with a goalkeeper, the decision to select Peter Schmeichel is probably the most straight forward.
United’s two other European Cup-winning goalkeepers Edwin van der Sar and Alex Stepney provided only fleeting competition, because if I was choosing a greatest XI from the entire history of the game, Schmeichel would be in that too.
You might assume after 687 games Gary Neville would claim the right-back position, but though he always made the best of himself, for me, he didn’t offer enough of an attacking threat.
Instead, I moved United’s greatest ever full-back, Denis Irwin, across to right-back. Though he mostly played on the left, he was naturally two-footed and played his first season on the right before Paul Parker’s arrival.
Irwin was a player of unrivalled consistency, brilliant at augmenting United’s attacks, and he could score free-kicks and penalties too.
At left-back is the captain of the Babes, Roger Byrne, whose life tragically ended at Munich two days before his 29th birthday, but by then he had already proved himself an exceptional leader and full-back.
A place in the side had to be found for Duncan Edwards. Blessed with both a colossal frame and an elegant touch, his most regular position of half-back is now redundant in the modern game, but he was renowned for his versatility and also played in the centre of defence.
Team-mates and opponents all testify to him being the Busby Babes’ best defender. Nobby Stiles has recalled when United wanted to protect a lead during their dominance of the FA Youth Cup in the 1950s, they always put Edwards in central defence.
While United’s current defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand came close to partnering him, Jaap Stam was simply the best defender I have ever seen.
Tough as teak and almost never outpaced, the Dutchman brought supreme authority to the back four as he was almost never beaten in the air or on the ground. His premature sale remains the greatest mistake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign.
On raw talent alone, you could argue Cristiano Ronaldo is Manchester United’s greatest ever player. The only United player to win each of the individual World, European and English Footballer of the Year awards, in six years at United he also won every trophy possible, and yet he doesn’t make it in to my side.
The feeling always persisted Ronaldo was only ever passing through United, biding his time before Real Madrid called.
It felt important each player in this side enjoyed the best years of their career at United and individually Ronaldo has probably become an even better player at Real Madrid.
Crucially, I wanted the side to capture the spirit of United and simply couldn’t countenance including Ronaldo at the expense of either George Best or the only member of the current side, Ryan Giggs, who were both obvious choices as geniuses who dominated their generations.
In this side, Giggs would play on the left side of midfield, and Best, brilliant with both feet, would start on the right and roam all over.
The decision to choose between Roy Keane and Bryan Robson in the centre of midfield was my hardest.
In the 1980s, Robson, along with Norman Whiteside, was my hero. He was a world-class player to be proud of during often bleak times but while Robson scored more goals, Keane edges it for bringing greater success to United with his presence and ability to constantly inspire all those around him.
A few years ago I asked Robson: who is the better player, him or Keane? “If you put 1,000 people in a room, 500 would say me, and 500 would say Roy.” But history has been kinder to Keane and several people in that room will have swapped their votes by now.
In contrast, the selection of Keane’s partner in central midfield, Sir Bobby Charlton, scorer of a record 249 United goals, a record 49 England goals and the owner of both World Cup and European Cup winners’ medals, was one of my easiest decisions, even if it meant that there was sadly no room for Paul Scholes.
Upfront Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney’s sheer weight of goals, 347 between them and increasing, made strong cases and Ronaldo could also have been deployed as a striker, but ultimately it had to be the two "Kings," Eric Cantona and Denis Law.
They were meant to play together, too; Cantona sitting just behind Law, penetrating defences and providing chances for the Scot, the most natural goal scorer in United’s history.
Aside from Giggs, as good as this United side is, only Wayne Rooney comes close to joining him in this side, and would maybe earn a place on the bench if I selected substitutes as well.
In another decade maybe players like David De Gea, Rafael, Phil Jones and Robin van Persie will have done more in their United careers to barge their way in to an all-time XI, but they will have to win a lot more titles than just this one in 2013.
Sam Pilger is the author of Manchester United's Best XI. Follow him on Twitter here
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