There is a saying that goes, "If you wish to determine how great a club is, seek not the multitudes that flock there; instead, count the hordes that envy them."
And judging from the legion of opposition fans who speak of Manchester United in the bitterest of bile, surely the club is right up there with Jesus of Nazareth and Samuel Jackson in the race to greatness.
Just this past weekend, the Red Devils overtook Liverpool as the most successful club in England. Securing their 19th league trophy, the Old Trafford outfit officially cemented its reputation as the greatest English football club of all time (yes, Liverpool fans, you heard what I said...*wink*).
And a quick glance at our history proves that label is well-deserved. From its humble beginnings as Newton Heath LYR (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway) to their first league trophy in 1907-08, from the highs of three successive championships to the lows of the Munich Air Disaster, the club boasts a tumultuous history.
So join us as we examine 19 of the most radiant jewels adorning the lush fabric of Manchester United's history.
We begin our stroll down memory lane six years after a dog saved the club from extinction.
Spoiled as we are by the constant influx of silverware at Old Trafford, United fans in the Premier League era can scarcely believe there are worse places to finish than second in the league. However, there are such times, and it was during the first dark period in our history that Ernest Mangnall (pic) was hired as club "secretary"; the position of manager did not exist until shortly afterward.
Making some astute purchases, including the original "Welsh Wizard" Billy Meredith, Mangnall lifted United from the depths of Second Division relegation to First Division champions within six years! But then, with that glorious moustache-and-hat combo, how could he not?
Do You Know?
In a curious parallel with our resident "Welsh Wizard" Ryan Giggs, Billy Meredith was plucked at a young age (32 was considered fairly young back then!) from local rivals Manchester City. However, unlike the current holder of that esteemed title, Meredith was caught bribing an Aston Villa player to throw the title-deciding match. United fans will find themselves giddy with glee when they read about the resulting firestorm that City became embroiled in.
By 1908, the fantastic team assembled by Mangnall had borne fruit. After two seasons of under-achievement in the league (although this was tempered by an FA Cup win in 1909), United won their second league title in 1910-11.
Quite unlike their first league win, this was a hard-fought affair with the Red Devils clinching the trophy on the final day of the season courtesy of a 5-1 hammering administered to Sunderland. The victory propelled them above runners-up Aston Villa by a solitary point, bringing the league trophy to Old Trafford in United's first full season at the newly-built stadium.
With a trophy in their first season at Old Trafford, things certainly looked peachy for United. Little did they know that they would have to wait over four decades for their next trophy.
The 1910-11 season was memorable for being United's first full season at Old Trafford, for the 5-1 thrashing of third-placed Sunderland and for being (according to certain historians) the last time Emile Heskey scored a goal.
Do You Know?
United played their first match at the newly-constructed Old Trafford on 19 February 1910. It turns out they moved venues just in time, as a storm blew down the wooden stand at the old Bank Street venue merely four days after their last game there! And here I thought Stamford Bridge was a dilapidated old pile of...
Following their league triumph in 1910-11, United were destined to roam the footballing wilderness for nearly four decades before the arrival of a man named Matt Busby.
Having signed on in 1945, the legendary pair of Busby and assistant Jimmy Murphy led United to a runner-up finish four times in six years. In his seventh year, just as United seemed destined to forever play the role of bridesmaid, a dressing room upheaval saw the departure of several experienced players.
United fans—who panicked then just as we panicked at the exit of Beckham, van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo—were soon stunned by the impact of Busby's prodigious youth talent.
In a curious parallel to "Fergie's Fledglings," the "Busby Babes" began with two youngsters promoted to first-team football in 1951-52. Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne (the Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs of their day) proved to be such a hit that United won the title and boasted a scintillating plus-43 goal difference—18 better than their closest challengers!
Now that sounds a lot better than "they won the league by four points," doesn't it?
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That season, United won no less than nine games by a margin of three or more goals! And as anyone who read about the Germany-England quarterfinal at the World Cup should know, "it is only beyond a three-goal margin that a win becomes a drubbing...a hammering...a Mullering, if you will."
By this time, the full contingent of Busby Babes had emerged to dazzle the Old Trafford faithful. True to their moniker, the squad had an average age of 22.
Along with the prodigious Duncan Edwards, Babes like Tommy Taylor began rewriting the history books by sweeping all before them. Indeed, at the end of this season, United led the table by eleven points.
Do You Know?
The plunging V-necks of the United jerseys were designed to show off chest hair, and the tight-fitting shorts were designed to emphasize their "manhood," which was apparently a fashion in the 50s. And since this was before the advent of spandex, we believe the photographer placed the football between the captain's legs for strategic censorship purposes.
As though determined to prove that their best was yet to come, the youthful United team went one better and won the League by 12 points in the 1956-57 season, scoring a staggering 103 goals in the process!
Sir Matt's side rapidly gained the attention of the footballing world during the season and began to be regarded as the best footballing side in Europe.
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United lost only three of their 21 away games this season, winning a scarcely believable 14 away matches! Also—and here we enter the realm of humorous conjecture—United won this season so comfortably that Captain Roger Byrne (pic) had time to film an advertisement for a mud-wrestling competition before returning to lift the league trophy.
Today, Liverpool are said to be a club "in transition." United fans who are aware of the more humorous chants that ring around Old Trafford will know that Manchester City have been "in transition" for nearly 32 years.
The point is that there was a time when that phrase actually had a more significant meaning than "we need a meaningless term to obscure the fact that Christian Poulsen can easily get into our first team".
Following the Munich air disaster of 1958, the patched-up United side plummetted from being league leaders to ninth place. It was only when Sir Matt returned to the club months later that the real rebuilding began.
Relying mainly on the skeleton structure of players who survived the crash—such as Sir Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes—Sir Matt fortified the team with record signing Dennis Law and youngster George Best, who would go on to take the footballing world by storm.
That season, the Red Devils tied Leeds United on points and took home the trophy courtesy of a stunning plus-50 goal difference compared to Leeds United's plus-31.
Do You Know?
During an interview in 1973, Sir Matt mentioned that this generation (who would go on to win the European Cup) was one of the best, but no one could come close to his league-winning Busby Babes side. How about that for a back-handed compliment?
The Charlton-Law-Best trio were at it again during this season, which United won comfortably by five points. There was little drama and the league was settled with a week to go. Indeed, by United standards, this was a positively boring season.
However, this did place the Red Devils in the European Cup the following season. Ten years after the Busby Babes seemed destined for European glory only to see their journey brought to a brutal end, Sir Matt led his rebuilt team to the promised land.
Finally exhausted, finally satisfied, the legendary manager retired in 1969. He carried with him a quarter century worth of memories, a knighthood and the hearts of millions of United fans.
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Of the succession of managers that tried successfully to replace Sir Matt, none failed more spectacularly than Tommy Docherty. "The Doc" (you can't make these nicknames up!) proceeded to let Denis Law leave on a free transfer, only to see him score the goal for Manchester City that relegated United to the Second Division. After reaching a high with promotion and an FA Cup fnal victory over Liverpool, Docherty was sacked 44 days later for shacking up with the club physiotherapist's wife.
Alas! A scandal worthy of Stamford Bridge!
By 1992, the number of hairdryers sold around Old Trafford had been steadily declining for about six years. After the farcical reigns of several managers including the ill-fated Tommy Docherty (whose time at United was marred by an adultery scandal worthy of John Terry), Scot Alex Ferguson had taken the reins at Old Trafford.
Having already captured an FA Cup and a European Cup Winners Cup, Sir Alex was effectively given the keys to the castle when Leeds United agreed to sell part-time prolific striker (and full-time madman) Eric Cantona. Armed with the final piece to the jigsaw, United stormed to victory with three weeks remaining in the league.
In a curious parallel with the Busby Babes of 1952, Fergie began promoting the products of United's youth setup to first-team action: the first being a Welsh winger with a chest hairy enough to elicit "caveman" jokes from his teammates.
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In the months leading up to his transfer, budding star Roy Keane gained notoriety for a row with his Republic of Ireland captain Mick McCarthy. After a tournament in Boston, the players were given the night off. When Keane was a half-hour late for the bus the next morning, McCarthy reportedly took him to task, asking "You call yourself a professional footballer?" to which the fearless teenager replied, "You call what you have a first touch?"
In 1993-94, United seemed to coast to victory, leading the league for much of the season and finishing eight points ahead of their closest rivals Blackburn Rovers. Significantly, they also won the FA Cup, marking the first time both trophies were simulateously at Old Trafford.
It was during this season that—during United's trip to Anfield—Liverpool fans famously posted up a banner reading "Au revoir Cantona and Man United. Come back when you've won 18," effectively sealing their fate less than two decades later. United fans don't hold a grudge any more, particularly as this set up a brilliant bit of television during United's 18th title win in 2009.
Midfield stalwart and long-time captain Bryan Robson found his playing time greatly reduced by injuries and rookie Roy Keane happily stepped in, making the most of his opportunities.
Another pattern that began this season was that of dangling a win under the noses of local rivals Manchester City, only to snatch a late victory. Trailing 2-0 at Maine Road, United rallied to win the game 3-2 with Keane scoring the telling goal.
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At the start of the season, a record transfer fee was paid to snatch budding star Roy Keane out from under the nose of a furious Blackburn boss Kenny Dalglish. Keane tells in his autobiography of how King Kenny launched into a foul-mouthed tirade when Keane explained that he wished to join United instead of, as they had earlier agreed, Blackburn Rovers.
Destined to forever decorate the walls of the Football Comedy Hall of Fame, Kevin Keegan's rant on air defined this season for many a young viewer.
So iconic was the image of him shattering that veneer of calm that I wish someone had followed up with the question, "Excuse me Kev, but just to be clear—how would you feel if you beat them?"
The season began with Fergie's Fledglings having established themselves well in the first team. However, a soaring Newcastle United found themselves with a 12-point lead at the summit of the table in January.
Then, following the most sensational fiasco in the Premier League era, Newcastle contrived to flush it down the drain and then some. The end result was that the Red Devils class of Becks, Scholes and the Nevilles led the league by a point with a week left.
Cue the mind games...
Do You Know?
This season saw the return of King Cantona from an eight-month ban for practising mixed martial arts on a football pitch. But even after being sent off for kicking a Crystal Palace player and subsequently assaulting a belligerent Palace fan, King Eric simply oozed class.
At the post-match press conference, he left the assembled journalists speechless with the simple yet enigmatic pronouncement, "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much."
The Source of Said Whining
This season began with TV viewers treated to a curious whining sound at the end of every Arsenal game. Regardless of the source, the north-London club began to present a serious title challenge to United, along with Liverpool and Newcastle United.
The Red Devils took the title when Liverpool and Newcastle failed to win their penultimate games and as such, United were presented with the league trophy on the final day of the season.
It is also believed that this was the season when Liverpool's 1991 title euphoria finally wore off, and the realization began to set in that United had begun forging ahead in a relentless quest to overtake their trophy haul.
Bizarrely, as though determined to help the Red Devils as much as humanly possible, the Liverpool hierarchy set about bringing an incompetent Frenchman, followed by a perfectly competent Spanish waiter (if rather less competent as a manager) to take charge at Anfield. Needless to say, Liverpool have not moved forwards so much as moved in every other direction possible.
There is nothing I can say about this season that does it justice. Has there ever been a more magical season in football anywhere? Has there ever been a team closer to the brink of exit in every single competition, only to emerge victorious time and time again?
The image of Ryan Giggs peeling away in celebration, the image of Roy Keane not celebrating his finest performance in a United shirt because he was suspended for the final and, above all, the image of Solskjaer sticking out a leg and poking home Sheringham's header as United "reached the promised land"...
What else is left to say except:
"Football... Bloody Hell!"
Not Those Balls, You Fool!
Nobody knows whether it was the momentum from their Treble-winning season or Fergie's blood pressure, but some invisible force drove United to steam roll their way to victory by a stunning 18 points!
Well-placed in second behind Leeds United at the turn of the millenium, the Red Devils applied an extra dose of spice to their traditionally strong late-season form to explode to the top of the table and win the league with nearly a month remaining.
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United eschewed their defence of the FA Cup in order to participate in the FIFA World Club Championship. On their return, Sir Alex decided to invest in a new goalkeeper to replace the retired Peter Schmeichel as Mark Bosnich did not seem to be cutting the mustard. And so it was that a bald French calamity landed in Manchester...
Armed with the best team in the Premier League (and a Frenchman who we shall label "eccentric" out of common courtesy), Sir Alex set about dominating the Premier League for another season. Indeed, his campaign was so successful that most bookmakers had closed the books on anyone catching them before December.
The high point of the season came on 25th February, when a hapless Arsenal were spanked raw at Old Trafford. That 6-1 drubbing remains, to date, the biggest victory I can remember over a title challenger. Not to mention the best birthday gift I could ever ask for.
Quite apart from the fact that Dwight Yorke probably never played a better game in his life, the highlight of the night was Arsene Wenger conceding that the title race "was over before the game." In reality, United officially won the title in the first week of April, a feat that has not been replicated during my 23-year life (I think).
United took home a fourth title in five years (a feat equalled by the current United squad only last week) and an eighth league trophy in 11 years. This achievement was made all the more remarkable considering that Arsenal went into March with a sizeable eight-point lead at the summit.
The refusal to give in that has become a characteristic of Ferguson's teams was again apparent, as United strung together a series of wins while the Gunners dropped points about as regularly as their talented left-back (at the time) dropped his pants.
In addition, the season high might well have been a 4-0 demolition of rivals Liverpool, with United winning 2-1 at Anfield to complete a memorable league double. A notable addition to the squad that season was Rio Ferdinand, and it was evident, when he missed most of the following season through a suspension, just how much steel he added to the Reds' defence.
Glossing over the brief period of madness we like to think of simply as the "Djemba-Djemba period," we arrive at the new generation of "Fledglings": youngsters such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Nani who were plucked young and raised with a United mindset.
Expert adjudicators have since determined that growing up on the Portuguese island of Madeira was where the metrosexual Portuguese wizard picked up his ballet-like skills on the ball and his trout-like skills on the ground.
Nonetheless, alongside the old hands such as Giggs, Scholes and Neville, the new boys quickly made a name for themselves. Ronaldo won the PFA Player of the Year award en route to his first Premier League winner's medal.
And after a three-year absence, United finally returned to the throne of English football, wrestling the crown away from the self-anointed special one at Stamford Bridge.
Do You Know?
Is Cristiano Ronaldo a closet case or is he so metrosexual that he is practically a transvestite? We actually do not know, please feel free to provide your input. On the other hand, if the input involves photos, maybe we aren't so interested.
While most United fans will remember this as the season Cristiano Ronaldo scored 42 goals or the season John Terry slipped in Moscow, we will forever remember this as the season when Cristiano first assumed that less-than-appealing stance while taking free kicks. You know the one...one-step, two-step, three-step, four-step back...spread the legs...stick my tailbone out... exhale!
Astute summer signings, including Owen Hargreaves and Carlos Tevez, bolstered the squad and placed United in the ideal position to challenge for honours on all fronts. The most touching memory was Ryan Giggs scoring the winning goal at Wigan on the final day of the season to cap a 17th league win before completing a marvelous double in Moscow.
Following Ronaldo's decision to stay at United, the Portuguese redoubled his efforts to ensure Real Madrid came sniffing again the next summer. Fortunately for us, this meant that he was in stellar form for the whole season.
Although he never matched the heights of the previous season, others including Rooney and new man Berbatov emerged to provide the necessary goals that allowed United to wrap up the title in the penultimate week.
All the while, ominous sounds were heard along Merseyside as Liverpool fans struggled to feign nonchalance at the good fortune of their great rivals. The sentiment was captured brilliantly by Sky Sports, who might well have been promised an exclusive interview with Sir Alex, judging from their obstinate focus on the banner (pic) we displayed at Old Trafford.
Well, this season has rarely been comfortable. What with our questionable form away from home, in stark contrast with a glittering home record, the squad seemed just deep enough to get us through to the end.
We cannot pretend that, at times, our hearts didn't shoot right up to our tonsils. But the innumerable comebacks and late wins bear witness to a strength of character which has revealed itself in one of the youngest United attacks since the Busby Babes.
Chicharito has been a revelation, Rooney has followed the path of recovery and stands knocking on the door to redemption and, come the end of May, Sir Alex will have the chance to set the only remaining record straight with a European Cup win over Barcelona.
We march into Wembley as underdogs, but when has that ever stopped us? Now, with that 19th title firmly under our belts, all that is left to say is:
COME ON YOU REDS!!