Manchester United: 10 Greatest Red Devils Captains Ever
Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic may become one of their greatest captains ever—but not yet.
Similarly, great characters from the past may have been as great in their way as some who are selected here, but it is hard to compare their relative merits other than on historic achievements.
Harry Stafford was great for United. He was the first ever captain and held the honour for seven years, until he retired in 1903. He also found John Henry Davies, the first benefactor of the club, who saved it from bankruptcy. Newton Heath in green and gold became Manchester United, and the legend of the Reds was born.
Charlie Roberts was captain for eight years, during which he won two league titles. Not until 1983 did another Englishman, Bryan Robson, captain the side to FA Cup success as he did in 1909. He played a total of 299 matches, scoring 23 goals. He was also a founder of the Players Union and was capped three times for England.
Jack Silcock captained United during two periods, from 1930-1931 and 1932-1934. He played 423 times for the club and three times for England.
Bill McKay was a Scot who also captained United for two spells, from 1934-35 and 1939-40. His career was then disrupted by the war, and he guested for other clubs before leaving Manchester at the age of 40.
Bill Foulkes holds the third highest number of appearances for the club at 683. He was captain in 1958/9 in the immediate aftermath of the air crash, but for years, was unable to come to terms with the tragedy, so it was no surprise that Dennis Violet took over. Bill went on to become unarguably one of the greatest United players ever, including winning the European Cup in 1968.
Manchester United has a great tradition and history built on such great players as these. For our selection of the greatest captains, we start in the Matt Busby era with the first Irishman to achieve success and two of the legendary trio of Best, Charlton and Law.
The All-Rounder: Johnny Carey
On 21 September 1949, Johnny Carey captained the FA of Ireland when they inflicted England's first ever home defeat by a non-UK side against one of the greatest sides in the world at the time. Even without Lawton and Matthews. This was no mean feat.
It was also not unusual for Carey to inspire teams at all levels, both as a captain and a player. He was an extraordinary sportsman, having played both soccer and Gaelic football as a young man. He also captained Europe against Great Britain in 1947—a huge honour at the time.
For United, he was the then John O' Shea, playing in no less than nine different positions, including goalkeeper, although he was most commonly found at inside forward or full back.
In a career spanning 17 years, he played 344 games for United, scoring 18 goals. His career was also punctuated by the Second World War; otherwise, he could have topped 500 appearances for the Reds and well over 50 caps for the various Irish international teams.
While it is difficult to compare those years with the stellar recent times at Old Trafford, the achievements especially post-war, and under Sir Matt Busby, provided the platform and the style patterns for the modern day United.
Carey was first appointed captain by Sir Matt in 1946 and remained such until he retired in 1953.
He first signed as an 18-year-old and helped United win the Second Division title in 1936/7, returning to the top flight after "yo-yoing" between the two divisions for 45 years. They then remained in the First Division for the next 37 years, including Carey for almost half that period.
As captain, he led the team to second place four consecutive seasons before they won the title for the first time in 41 years and only the third time in history. During this period, he also lifted the FA Cup in 1948 and the Charity Shield in 1952.
Following his retirement, United wanted him to stay on the coaching staff, but he went to Blackburn Rovers to commence a successful 18-year managerial career, including guiding both Everton and Forest to second place.
He lived long enough to see Sir Alex win the European Cup Winners Cup and United's first ever "Double" before dying in 1995.
The King: Denis Law
Although Denis Law was co-captain with Noel Cantwell from 1964 to 1967, he led the team on his own until Sir Bobby Charlton took over for the European Cup Final in 1968, which Denis was forced to miss due to a knee injury.
Denis was a natural leader who also led the most famous forward line United ever had, along with Charlton and Best. All three of them won the European Player of the Year.
"The King" scored goals for fun. Very few players in history have emulated his scoring ratio. In all, he played 404 times for Manchester United, scoring no less than 234 times, at .58 goals per game.
Who knows how many more goals he would have scored and appearances made if he hadn't had a progressive knee injury, which remained untreated for years. Nowadays, cartilage trouble can be treated by keyhole surgery in a day, but Denis had to play in pain or with injections for almost eight years.
Maybe the greatest pain he suffered personally was when he back-heeled the goal for Manchester City that sent United down to the Second Division in 1974:
"I was inconsolable. I didn’t want it to happen. How long did the feeling last? How long ago was the game? Thirty-odd years."
But the fans could forgive him almost anything. Thirty years on, he remains one of the greatest heroes at Old Trafford despite playing in two periods for United's cross City rivals.
Sir Bobby Charlton
Sir Bobby Charlton captained Manchester United from 1968 to 1973. This video finishes with one of the two greatest moments of his career: lifting the European Cup trophy. This could only be matched by his winning the World Cup two years earlier.
There isn't enough space to describe every aspect and detail of such a stellar career for one of the five greatest players ever to pull on the red shirt.
It is in some ways unfortunate that his period as captain was one of relative mediocrity for the Reds, battling against relegation rather than winning trophies. But who is to say what would have happened without him?
In a career spanning 18 years, he is one of the greatest "one club" men ever, playing 758 times for United, scoring 249 goals—still a record at Old Trafford. He also had 106 caps for England during this period, scoring 49 goals and captaining them three times.
And yet, things could have been so very different. He was one of the original Busby Babes and, by a miracle, survived the Munich disaster, after which he contemplated giving up the game. Luckily, he didn't, and Sir Matt went on to rebuild the team around him, changing history in the process.
In many ways, Sir Bobby is the keeper of the United tradition, sitting on the Board of Directors and acting as a universal ambassador of the club. At the age of 73, he remains one of the most recognised and revered figures in world football.
For many people who supported Manchester United through the transitional years after the 1968 European Cup win, Martin Buchan was one of the all-time heroes.
He was arguably United's most influential player during the 10 years or so that he played for the club, a classy central defender who was the first man to captain both English and Scottish Cup Finals.
The period during which he was captain was one of the most difficult in United's history, with a succession of managers and lost direction. He is revered for that alone. He experienced relegation almost as soon as he joined the club, but decided to stay and was influential in their return to the top flight.
Under his leadership, United reached a total of three FA Cup Finals, winning in 1977. In total, he played 456 times with four goals, including the spectacular long range blast in the clip above.
He played 34 times for Scotland, including the World Cup Finals on two occasions, also captaining his country.
Roger Byrne: Fallen Hero
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Several of the Busby Babes were legendary. To captain the pre-Munich team, you would have to be someone special. That man was Roger Byrne.
On the team were Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Tommy Taylor and Harry Gregg, who were among the greatest heroes ever for Manchester United.
Roger was not a classy player, but, like Nobby Stiles a decade or so later, he had a phenomenal work ethic. He almost invented the attacking full back role before Sir Alf Ramsey popularised it.
He was, however, hugely charismatic, very popular with the fans and an inspirational leader. So no surprise that Sir Matt Busby appointed him to succeed Allenby Chilton as captain in 1955.
He is unarguably one of the greatest captains ever and, having played in the title winning United side of 1952, he led them to two further titles and an FA Cup Final in 1957.
There is no knowing what he would have achieved if he had survived Munich. A one club man, as well as playing 245 times for United and scoring 17 goals, he also had an unbroken record of 33 games for England from his debut in 1954 until 1957the only man to do so.
He is in the middle of the Busby Babes Memorial photo above.
Robbo: Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel or Captain Courageous, Bryan Robson was the greatest and the longest serving Manchester United captain ever.
Some will remember him for his goals, some for his tackling, others for his courage despite injury and most for all of these and more.
He ranks third to only Bobby Moore and Billy Wright as captain of England, playing 90 times with 65 as captain.
He joined Manchester United in 1981 for a then record fee of £1.5 million. The following season he became captain and remained so for the rest of his 13 year career at Old Trafford, sharing the role with Steve Bruce for the last two years.
In all, he played 466 times for United, scoring 99 goals, and is also regarded as one of their best players ever. Like Roy Keane later, Robbo always led from the front.
His finest moment may well have been the 1984/5 FA Cup Final, where he scored two goals, declining the chance to take a penalty to make him the first hat-trick Finalist in 30 years when Arnold Muhren made it 4-0. He was, however, only the second Englishman to lift the trophy for United.
He went on to collect the trophy a total of three times. Most important, he led United to their first two Premier League titles in 1993 and 1994, returning them to the summit of football for the first time in 26 years.
It is greatly to his credit that Bryan straddled the period from the doldrums through to Sir Alex's era, during which he was central to the building of a second dynasty that survives to this day.
While the above video captures many of his best goals, nothing can capture the enormity of his service to the club as player, captain and now ambassador and the number of times he literally put his body on the line in the cause of success.
Steve Bruce: Greatest Player England Never Had
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My father supported Gillingham, so I watched Steve Bruce build a career as a young man at Priestfield Stadium, first as player and then as captain. He is undoubtedly the best to ever play for the Gills. Many think he is also the best player never to play for England.
When you look at what Brucie has achieved in the game, and especially his legendary partnership with Gary Pallister, it seems extraordinary that they weren't first choice for their country for years, Pally was born in Kent, and the younger man will almost certainly have watched Steve at the Gills before he commenced his own professional career.
Towards the end of his career at United, Bryan Robson missed more and more games through injury. During this period, Steve captained the side.
He always led like a captain anyway—fearless in defence and attack, scoring a total of 36 goals in his 309 appearances for the club.
None was more important than the two which beat Sheffield Wednesday to win United the inaugural Premier League title in 1992/3. If anything was destined to make Bruce a legend, that was.
After Robson left, Bruce retained the captaincy for a further two years. During the four that he was captain or co-captain, United won three League titles, two FA Cups and the League Cup. They were winners or runners-up in the top division for every one of those years.
Keano: Captain Fantastic
How do you sum up someone as complex as Roy Keane? He could do almost anything on a football pitch and played with a fierce Irish passion.
He did some bad things: the Alf-Inge Haaland tackle and the odd stamp, lashing out at Shearer, being sacked from the Irish World Cup squad.
But when he was on your side, he didn't know the meaning of defeat. He would drive the team to impossible heights, like coming back from the dead against Juventus.
He scored so many crucial goals—against Manchester City, for example—and made many, many, vital and even crunching tackles. And for eight years, he was the most successful Manchester United captain ever.
He played for two of the most successful, committed and contentious British managers in history, Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson, but was on the verge of joining another, Kenny Dalglish, at Blackburn Rovers before Fergie hijacked the deal, paying a record British fee for him.
Roy was schooled in "get, give, move," which was Shankly's mantra at Liverpool and which worked well for him at every club he played. Roy's moves so often left him in an outstanding position, such as scoring a goal coming from midfield at the last minute.
Despite United having an established partnership in midfield with Paul Ince and Brian McClair, Keane quickly broke into the team and scored on his home debut. He then became a firm fans' favourite by scoring the winner in the Manchester derby.
In his first season, United won the Double. He went on to win 17 major trophies, including three Doubles. During his tenure as captain, United won four League titles, two FA Cups and of course, the Champions League (although he was suspended for the Final thanks to his heroic self-sacrifice against Juventus).
He has the 11th highest number of appearances, with 480, and scored 51 goals.
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Eric Cantona has been voted the greatest player ever at United, and he is certainly the most infamous.
How do you find words to capture everything he brought to the club? Despite being convicted of assault and depriving the club of his services for months, he is even fondly remembered for his "kung fu" kick on a Crystal Palace "fan."
His skills were sublime, he was a great goalscorer, wore the red shirt with passion and led from the front.
People were stunned beyond belief when he was snatched from Leeds United in 1992. He was a steal at £1.2m, probably the best piece of business Sir Alex ever did.
In his five-year stint, he won the hearts and minds of every United fan, played 185 times and scored 82 goals.
He was appointed captain for 1996/7, following Steve Bruce's departure. Although he won the league title, he immediately and suddenly retired at the end of that season, leaving a lasting legacy of affection.
While only captain for one year, he makes our list for everything else he brought to United: usually special.
This video sums up Gary Neville's undying passion for Manchester United that he brought to the club for almost 20 years as a professional and six as captain.
He ranks fifth in the all-time appearance list for the club with 602, scoring seven goals in the process, almost all of which were memorable.
He was one of Fergie's Fledglings and like Paul Scholes, who also retired last year, he is a 'one club man'. He has now joined the club's coaching group and is a presenter on Sky Sports.
One of his greatest contributions as captain has been in the Champions League, where as a United player, he has 117 appearances. Very few players can match that.
Finally, he has 85 caps for England.