Greatest Manchester United XI Who Were Only Great Elsewhere
Paul Pogba is tearing up Serie A. Shinji Kagawa is drawing unfavourable comparisons with Juan Sebastian Veron.
It is as good a time as any to have a look at the ones that got away and the ones who turned up but, like anchovies on a pizza, were not what was ordered.
Manchester United have been blessed with some of the most talented players in history reaching their peak in a red shirt, but this list is not about them.
This list is about those who would have been wearing a red shirt if Manchester United were the Starship Enterprise.
It is about the players who make you look longingly at their career and think "what if" and the players who make you raise an eyebrow as they do a bad impression of their former selves on the Old Trafford pitch.
Without further ado, the XI...
And here's hoping Juan Mata never finds his way onto one of these. (He won't. I just wanted to mention Juan Mata).
When the news broke that Manchester United were going to sign Fabien Barthez in the aftermath of Peter Schmeichel's retirement, I was giddy. The French keeper had been something of a talisman to their fabulous World Cup-winning side in 1998 and had the whole package—command of the area, shot stopping, a famously kissable head, the lot.
His time at United was not terrible. But, marred by lapses in concentration at key moments, Barthez never managed to fill Schmeichel's enormous gloves. He won the league but will not be remembered as a great.
However, no one can question that he achieved true greatness, if only for a memorable month in the summer of 1998.
OK, Gerard. We get it. You left, went back to Barcelona, played in possibly the greatest club side in history, won everything that exists and married Shakira.
Bet you miss the M62, though.
Legend amongst United fans has it that Gerard Pique was let go without much of a fight because Sir Alex Ferguson preferred Jonny Evans.
And whilst it has not worked out too badly for United in the interim, few would argue that Pique made a mistake in not pursuing his career at Old Trafford. The lad has done OK for himself.
Sir Alex Ferguson had long admired Laurent Blanc from a distance. After claiming to have tried to sign him four times, by the time Sir Alex had finally got his man, it was probably too late.
It did not help Blanc's cause that he was brought in to replace one of United's finest-ever defenders, Jaap Stam, who left in his prime.
Blanc was most certainly not in his prime when he arrived at United, and whilst the ability was still there, the pace was not, and Blanc was unable to exert the kind of influence on games that he was used to.
United was the last place Laurent Blanc played, and whilst he was never great for us, it was still good to see him at Old Trafford.
Johnny Giles made his debut for the Manchester United first team in 1959, part of the team being rebuilt from the ashes of the Munich air disaster. He fell out of favour and left in 1963 to join Leeds United.
He claimed he would come back to haunt United. He won the league twice with Leeds, a prospect which, of course, is not a comfortable one for the Manchester United faithful.
A gifted and tough midfielder, Giles' partnership with Billy Bremner was at the heart of a great Leeds side.
His relationship with Sir Matt Busby, which he describes as "very, very poor," meant that it would not be at Manchester United that he fulfilled his huge potential. But fulfil it he certainly did.
David Platt began his career as a Manchester United apprentice. He left before he ever made the first team but went on to have a fine career.
Those of us old enough to think of Italia '90 as a relatively recent World Cup will always remember Platt's magnificent contribution to that England side. The goal he scored against Belgium was one of my formative footballing memories.
Remembered fondly at Aston Villa, Sampdoria and Arsenal, and earning 62 caps for his country, Platt proved there can be life after Manchester United, and in the late '80s and early '90s he would have been a fine addition to United's midfield.
Juan Sebastian Veron
I find it difficult to talk about Juan Sebastian Veron. His name is a byword for what might have, could have, should have been.
Paul Scholes said he was better than Eric Cantona. The signing was certainly the most excited I had been about a player since Cantona.
But it didn't work. Sure, there were moments. Beautiful, magnificent, eternally memorable moments of sheer footballing brilliance. The pass with the outside of his boot to set David Beckham running free against Birmingham City was as fine a pass as you will ever see.
Attempting to break into a side which had won the treble, with two of Manchester United's finest-ever midfielders in Paul Scholes and Roy Keane at its heart, there turned out to be no place at United for the Argentinian genius.
But on those occasions when it did go right, it was a sight to behold.
Peter Beardsley had moved from Carlisle United to the Vancouver Whitecaps when Manchester United signed him, in 1982. Sir Alex apparently wanted to sign him again but settled on some French guy from Leeds United instead.
Beardsley did not make it at United, returning to the Whitecaps after a season under Ron Atkinson.
He certainly did make it in football, though, excelling at Newcastle United and Liverpool and making an enormous contribution to Gary Lineker's Golden Boot-winning performances at the Mexico '86 World Cup.
A beautiful footballer to watch, Beardlsey's wonderful gift for a dribble, a pass and a goal made him a key part of the last great Liverpool side.
There are plenty of "what if..." stories in football, and certainly things worked out OK for United in the long run, but Beardsley would certainly have graced Old Trafford if he had stuck around.
His time at Manchester United was brief and unspectacular. Five appearances on loan from Madrid in United red were all he managed. But there is absolutely no doubt that greatness is a fitting description of his career elsewhere.
The first black player to play for England, Cunningham was a pioneer as well as a wonderful footballer. He paved the way for a generation.
Tragically killed in a car accident in 1989, football fans around the world owe Cunningham a debt, and those lucky enough to see him in action remember him to this day.
Diego Forlan has folkloric status at Manchester United. His name is sung often, invoking the memory of the time "he made the scousers cry."
However, he also made us cry, a bit. Forlan's post-Manchester United career has been replete with goals and accomplishments. With Golden Shoes and Golden Balls, Diego hasn't been able to stop scoring since he left us.
It is hard to know exactly why it didn't work out for him at United. A combination of an excess of competition and the wrong kind of studs brought a premature end to his time in Manchester.
However, despite that he, like Veron, is a byword for players who went on to better things, his place in the pantheon of those that are loved by the Old Trafford faithful is forever assured because he scored against Liverpool, and we like that sort of thing.
As Giuseppe Rossi rose through the ranks of the United academy, excitement built. After winning the awards for best player in his year group two years in a row, many United fans hoped Rossi would end up being a mainstay of United's first team.
His name means Joe Red, for goodness sake—it was clearly meant to be!
However, it turns out that it was not meant to be. Rossi's key error was being born at the wrong time. By the time he was ready for the first team he would have to compete with Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.
Choosing instead to seek his fortune in warmer climes, Rossi excelled for Villareal, scoring 32 goals in 56 games in the 2010-11 season.
United fans wish Joe Red well.
Like Diego Forlan, Michael Owen's place in United folklore is assured thanks to a significant goal against a rival club.
However, his time at United was certainly not categorised by greatness. It included five goals in 31 appearances, and the joke that Sir Alex signed him to have someone to chat with about horses gathered momentum as the years went on.
The truth is, Sir Alex always had an eye for a gamble in the transfer market, and Owen was a reasonable bet, given the price (free).
Some time after his heroics against City, Owen promised United fans a big goal, but it never came.
However, he can look back on a career full of big goals, and whilst he may never have quite lived up to his early remarkable potential, he achieved a great deal—but more or less all of it before he came to United.
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