Ranking Manchester United's 15 Greatest Captains
“Wayne has led by example all season,” the Red Devils manager remarked following the victory, as per Sky Sports. “He wants to take responsibility and I think you always want players who take responsibility.”
Current club captain Nemanja Vidic is set to join Inter Milan at season’s end, and his deputy—Patrice Evra—is nearing the end of his contract at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, veteran defender Rio Ferdinand continues to struggle with fitness and form and is also about to see his United pact expire.
Will Rooney take over the captaincy on a permanent basis following the World Cup?
If so, he’ll be following in the footsteps of some remarkable players—characters whose willingness to lead by example helped to forge a steely, even exceptionalist, mentality at Manchester United.
Over the following slides we’ll have a look at 15 United captains, and we’ll rank them according to the impacts they made and the imprints they left at one of world football’s most famous clubs.
15. Jack Silcock
Jack Silcock’s 449 appearances for Manchester United has him 18th on the club’s all-time appearance list.
The full-back, who scored only two goals during his time at Old Trafford, captained the team in two stints—from 1930 to 1931 and again between 1932 and 1934, bookending the tenures of George McLachlan and Louis Page.
14. Bill Foulkes
Only Ryan Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton and Paul Scholes are above Bill Foulkes on Manchester United’s all-time appearance list.
The defender, who was part of the Busby Babes sides that won back-to-back First Division titles in 1956 and 1957, succeeded Roger Byrne as captain, but the horrors of the Munich Air Disaster—in which Byrne perished—haunted him, and he gave up the armband to Dennis Viollet.
Still, Foulkes would win another two titles and also lift the European Cup before retiring in 1970.
13. Martin Buchan
Martin Buchan joined Manchester United from Aberdeen in 1972 and succeeded Sir Bobby Charlton as club captain in 1973.
The following spring United were relegated—a hardship that would come to both symbolise his career at the club and make him a rare figure of stability to those who followed it during those tumultuous times.
Still, the Red Devils managed to qualify for three FA Cup finals during his seven-year captaincy—winning in 1977.
12. Harry Stafford
So much is owed to Manchester United’s first-ever captain.
A Newton Heath debutante in 1896, Harry Stafford was appointed skipper the following year and kept the armband until his switch to Crewe Alexandra in 1903.
Stafford’s biggest contribution to United, however, was convincing John Henry Davies to purchase the struggling club, and together the two changed the green and gold of Newton into the red and white of United.
11. Eric Cantona
When Eric Cantona received the armband following Steve Bruce’s move to Birmingham City in 1996, he became the first Manchester United captain from outside the United Kingdom or Ireland.
At the helm for only a year before retiring from football at age 30, the Frenchman nevertheless delivered a fourth title of the Premier League era to Old Trafford while contributing 15 goals in all competitions.
10. Johnny Carey
Johnny Carey was Manchester United’s first captain of the post-war period.
In 1952 he skippered the club to its first title in 41 years, and he also lifted the FA Cup as captain in 1948.
During World War II, in which competitive football was not played, Carey served with the British Army in Italy and the Middle East.
9. Gary Neville
The sudden and uncomfortable exit of Roy Keane in 2005 left an obvious leadership vacuum at Manchester United, and it fell to Gary Neville to fill it.
Manchester born and raised, United through and through, the club could have hardly found a better successor to one of the most iconic figures in its history.
During six years with the armband, Neville helped the Red Devils to a pair of Premier League titles (he was injured the entire 2007-08 season) and also picked up a second Champions League winners medal.
8. Sir Bobby Charlton
Sir Bobby Charlton played his best football during the captaincies first of Roger Byrne and then Denis Law and Noel Cantwell.
But after wearing the armband as Manchester United beat Benfica to win the European Cup in 1968, he set off on a six-year spell as skipper.
He was replaced by George Graham after leaving the club in 1973, and the next spring United were relegated to the Second Division.
7. Charlie Roberts
Charlie Roberts was perhaps Manchester United’s first “great” captain.
During his seven-year stint with the armband, the club won its first two titles (in 1908 and 1911) and also lifted the FA Cup in 1909.
Roberts also played a leadership role in the greater sense as a founder of the Players Union.
6. Denis Law/Noel Cantwell
Denis Law and Noel Cantwell co-captained Manchester United between 1964 and 1967.
Together they led the club to a pair of First Division titles, and in 1968 Law helped United qualify for the final of the European Cup, which he eventually missed after sustaining a knee injury.
Law scored 237 goals for United while Cantwell, a full-back, represented the club more than 100 times and also served as chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association.
5. Nemanja Vidic
Nemanja Vidic joined United for just £7 million in January 2006, but over the next few years his defensive capabilities and sturdy bearing made him the obvious successor to outgoing captain Gary Neville.
In fact, the Serbia international had skippered the club on numerous occasions while Neville battled injury, and with four titles already to his name, he added a fifth as captain during Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season as manager in 2012-13.
Vidic will leave the club in the summer, at which time his trophy cabinet will include five Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the UEFA Champions League title.
4. Steve Bruce
Not just anyone would have been able to fill the shoes of Bryan Robson.
But Steve Bruce, who co-captained United with "Captain Marvel" between 1992 and 1994, had quickly grown into a leadership role after arriving at Old Trafford from Norwich City in 1987.
During four years with the armband, Bruce led United to a trio of Premier League titles as well as three FA Cup wins.
3. Roger Byrne
Roger Byrne might have captained Manchester United another 10 years.
Tragically, however, the England full-back perished at the site of the Munich Air Disaster and was succeeded as captain by Bill Foulkes.
But the then-28-year-old Byrne had already left his mark with three First Division titles—two of them (1956 and 1957) won as skipper.
2. Bryan Robson
Few Manchester United captains, past or present, generate as much universal goodwill as Bryan Robson.
For 12 years between 1982 and 1994, “Captain Marvel” served as United captain—the longest in club history—and delivered a pair of Premier League titles, three FA Cups, the League Cup and the Cup Winners Cup during his illustrious tenure.
But he also earned plaudits for his play with England. In 90 appearances he led by example and found the back of the net on 26 occasions.
1. Roy Keane
No Manchester United captain compiled as much silverware as Roy Keane.
The bullish, inspirational Irishman was given the armband by Sir Alex Ferguson in 1997 following the retirement of Eric Cantona.
By then he already had a trio of Premier League titles to his name, and as skipper he would win another four.
His performance in the 1999 Champions League semifinal against Juventus is the stuff of legend.
After drawing the first leg 1-1 at Old Trafford, United needed a clear win at the Stadio Delle Alpi, and despite picking up a booking and being ruled out of the final through suspension, Keane pulled his side back from a 2-0 deficit and willed United to a 3-2 victory.