Manchester United: 25 Most Popular Players in United History
In its history as a top-flight team in England, Manchester United has both attracted stars of the highest level and created them as well.
These stars have gone on to grace bedroom walls in the form of posters, make appearances in film and on television outside of football, and some of them have even gone on the OBE or earned knighthood. They are spoken of in pubs and cafes all over the world, even after their careers have ended.
In this slideshow I'll be listing the players I believe are the 25 most popular in Manchester United history. Lists like this are always tricky to rank because everybody will have their own opinions, but I'm basing my list on my own observations when scouring message boards, talking to fans, looking at who has books on the shelves, who appears in movies and commercials, and in general what I see when walking around.
I will also have to consider the broadcast and marketing technology of the era. Considering the wide reach football has today, it's inevitable that most of the list will consist of players in the Premier League era. Those that came before get through on the strength of the legends that their careers have built.
25. Fabian Barthez
Let's start with some controversy: Yes, I'm listing the mad Frenchman as one of United's 25 most popular players ever.
Fabian Barthez was brought in by Sir Alex Ferguson as a replacement for Mark Bosnich, whom the manager considered a poor replacement himself for Peter Schmeichel.
At the time, Barthez was riding high on a series of successes at the international level, having just won the FIFA World Cup and the European Championship. As such, his signing was seen as a great move for the team.
For a while, it looked like he was the right choice. His performances in his first season dazzled United fans, who saw him as lovably eccentric. They thrilled to his superb saves and his tricky dribbling skills where he outfoxed opposing strikers with step-overs and feints. He was on his way to becoming a legend, and at the time he was one of the most popular keepers in the world.
Then, it all fell apart. I won't rehash all the things that happened, but suffice it to say that his eccentricity turned to madness, his skill level dropped substantially, and by the end of his tenure, he lost his starting job to... wait for it... Roy Carroll.
It's sad that, after a while, fans started just waiting to see what kind of crazy mistake Barthez would make. But no matter how it ended, he was incredibly popular during his career and he is still spoken of today.
24. Park Ji-Sung
Wait. Hear me out.
When he was first signed, many pundits thought he was brought in purely to broaden United's appeal in the Asian market, not for his football. But the South Korean proved his doubters wrong over his United career. Blessed with pace and stamina, Park has become a valued member of the squad. Never a regular starter, he nevertheless finds himself coming on in important games, and has a particular knack for scoring against Arsenal.
But, despite all that, it's impossible to deny the effect he has had on the United brand in Asia, where I originally hail from. Not surprisingly, United, already popular because of a certain Mr. Beckham, surged in popularity in Korea. But Asian pride is a big thing in the continent, and United's brand increased in a lot of other nations just because they signed a top Asian player.
I have personally seen almost as many United Park jerseys as Giggs and Beckhams in the Philippines, Thailand, and China.
23. Dwight Yorke
The striker from Trinidad and Tobago played for a relatively short time at United, from 1998-2002, but he became an instant hit with fans worldwide. Blessed with a lethal scoring instinct, Yorke formed a legendary strike-partnership with Andy Cole. Together, the two of them would go on to help United to the treble in 1999.
22. Andy Cole
It's almost impossible to mention Dwight Yorke without mentioning Andy Cole as well, and with good reason. The Englishman played for United from 1995-2001, and was in constant competition with Eric Cantona, Teddy Sheringham, Ole Solskjaer, and Yorke himself. But even if he was never spoken of in the same terms as, say, Alan Shearer, he was still one of the best strikers England had to offer and he proved it when he formed that remarkable partnership with Yorke.
It's a testament to the legendary status of their partnership that, to this day, people still ask: "Who is the next Yorke and Cole?"
21. Teddy Sheringham
The first of United's OBE recipients on this list (he has an MBE), Sheringham is higher on this list than Yorke and Cole not just because of his skill as a striker, but also because of his role in winning the Champion's League for United.
For 84 minutes, it looked like the trophy was destined for Munich after United conceded in the 6th minute. But in the 90th, with Bayern's name practically engraved on the trophy, Ryan Giggs fired a shot into the box which looked to be going wide. But Sheringham was well placed, and he then hammered the ball into the goal. 1-1.
A minute later, Sheringham flicked on the ball from Beckham's corner, and it found Ole Solskjaer.
The rest is history. And it is something Sheringham will be remembered for forever.
20. Duncan Edwards
The 1958 Munich disaster was a tragedy that robbed the club of 8 players, all of whom were some of the brightest stars in the game.
But none shone brighter than Duncan Edwards, the youngster who genuinely looked like he was on his way to becoming the Messi of his day.
Even before his name was forever etched into the hearts of United fans after 1958, he was already a popular player due to his exceptional skill. It's a shame we never got to see him develop that talent, and we will always look back and wonder "What if?"
19. Edwin Van Der Sar
The big Dutchman was Sir Alex's first choice to replace Peter Schmeichel, but Italian giants Juventus claimed him first. United ended up getting their own Italian keeper, but the less said about Massimo Taibi, the better.
After his stint at Juventus and a few years at Fulham, van der Sar eventually did wind up at United and has been great ever since. Sir Alex even called him the best keeper United has had since Schmeichel.
His talent, his skills, and his leadership have made him popular to fans everywhere, and his legacy will be just as daunting for young David de Gea as Schmeichels' was for those that came after him.
18. Mark Hughes
Although Mark "Sparky" Hughes spends most of his time as an opponent to United nowadays, he will forever be remembered as a United legend due to his goal-scoring exploits for the club. Over two tenures, 1980-1986 and 1988-1995, Hughes was a dedicated servant to the club as well as a lethal finisher.
17. Jaap Stam
AKA: "Jaap Stam: the one that got away".
AKA: "Jaap Stam: Fergie's biggest regret."
United brought in the towering Dutch defender from PSV for a then record £10.6 million. He instantly made an impression and quickly built a reputation as perhaps the best defender in Europe. He only spent three years at United, but in those three years he won three premier league titles, an FA Cup, and the UEFA Champion's League.
Stam was sold to Lazio following the publication of his autobiography, in which he criticized Sir Alex Ferguson. Sir Alex later admitted that the sale was a mistake.
Nevertheless, Stam spent a short but extremely bright period of time in the United defense, and he'll always be remembered for the strength and power he brought to the back line.
16. Ruud Van Nistelrooy
Ruud van Nistelrooy was one of the most prolific scorers in United history, nabbing 150 goals in only 219 games. In addition, he remains the club's all time top European goal-scorer with 38 goals to his name.
Although he left under a cloud after altercations with both Sir Alex and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Dutchman remains popular with the United faithful due to the sheer brilliance of his scoring touch.
15. Rio Ferdinand
Aside from being an excellent, if a touch injury-prone, footballer, Rio Ferdinand is also a master at utilizing the media to further his popularity. Yes, he is one half of the "Vidic-Ferdinand" partnership that dominated the Premier League last year. Yes, he is the former captain for both club and country. Yes, he is still one of the better defenders in the world.
But he is also well known off the pitch. He regularly interacts with over one million Twitter followers. He hosted a well received prank show called "Rio's World Cup Wind-ups" wherein he pranked fellow English internationals Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, and more. He's also started up a digital lifestyle magazine, a music label, and is currently producing a documentary urging kids to stay away from crime.
14. Bryan Robson
Often referred to as "Captain Marvel" by United fans, Robson remains the longest serving captain in United history. After several stints managing other clubs, Robson returned to United to serve as the club's global ambassador.
13. Gary Neville
Gary Neville received the United captaincy after Roy Keane retired, and there was nobody more deserving. Ever since he came to the team, rising through the youth ranks as part of "Fergie's Fledgelings", Gary Neville lived and breathed all things United.
His passion could get him into trouble sometimes, as when he once ran the length of the pitch to Liverpool fans to celebrate a United goal against Liverpool, but it is that passion that has endeared him to United fans forever.
12. Peter Schmeichel
The Great Dane has left a legacy at United as large and as imposing as the keeper himself. A larger than life figure who often screamed at his own players until his face turned red, Schmeichel was the rock of a lot of dominant United teams.
And even though he played for other teams after he left United (*cough*Manchester City*cough*), he will forever remain a United legend.
11. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
The Baby-Faced Assassin is flat out one of the most popular players in United history.
Hmm. I wonder why?
10. Denis Law
One of United's "Holy Trinity", Denis Law is easily one of the greatest players who ever suited up for the Red Devils. The only Scotsman thus far who has won the European Footballer of the Year, Law scored 237 goals in 409 appearances for the Red Devils, making him the second highest goalscorer for the club behind Bobby Charlton.
He is a legend in the game, and his status was confirmed when he was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002. That same year, a statue of Law, George Best, and Bobby Charlton was unveiled at Old Trafford, where it stands to this day.
9. Roy Keane
They probably won't build statues for Roy Keane, but they should. The fiery Irishman was the heart of the United midfield engine for 12 years, and he forged a lasting legacy as one of the team's greatest captains.
8. Paul Scholes
I've said it before and I'll say it again: if Roy Keane was the heart of the team, Scholes was its soul.
Up until he retired last year, Scholes was a surprisingly underrated player with fans. Quiet and not flashy, Scholes went about his business with dignity. It's with that dignity, as well as his cracking shot and a surprising lack of skill in tackling, that the ginger haired prince will be remembered.
7. Cristiano Ronaldo
Had he stayed at United longer, the Portuguese winger (winker?) might have been ranked higher on this list. Nevertheless, despite having left United for Real Madrid, Ronaldo remains one of the most popular players to have played for the Red Devils.
He first arrived at United as a spindly teenager too easily pushed off the ball. He later developed into perhaps the second best player in the world, and over the course of this development surged in popularity. He's been in commercials, billboard ads, and the covers of magazines. He's even graced the covers of videogames such as this year's PES 2012.
6. Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney burst onto the scene on October 19, 2002 when he scored a last minute screamer for Everton against Arsenal, ending the London side's 30 match unbeaten run. Since then, Rooney was brought into Manchester United where star shone brighter and brighter.
Over the years, he has (mostly) matured into one of the best footballers in the world, and almost everyone knows his name.
5. Ryan Giggs
Although the Imogen Thomas fiasco has dampened the Welsh Wizard's shine a bit, Ryan Giggs is still a name that's synonymous with Manchester United.
No United fan will ever forget that amazing goal Giggs scored against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup, a strike that showcased the Welshman's game in a nutshell: mazy runs, dribbling skills, footballing brains, and a fine shot.
4. Sir Bobby Charlton
Another piece of United's "Holy Trinity", Sir Bobby Charlton IS Manchester United, and is also the finest footballer England has ever produced.
When people speak of the greatest ten players who have ever played the game, Sir Bobby's name is almost always included, and he has the statistics to show it. He has set goalscoring records for both Manchester United and England with 249 and 49, respectively, winning bags of trophies along the way... including the World Cup in 1968.
Like Denis Law, Sir Bobby has a statue sitting in front of Old Trafford.
3. Eric Cantona
"King Eric" ruled Manchester United from 1992 to 1997, becoming one of the most popular players in the team's history before he retired to get into... wait for it... acting. Yes, Eric Cantona traded in his boots and shin-guards for scripts and costumes, and he made his acting debut in Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett.
He's always done well for himself in front of the camera, as evidenced by the string of commercials he's done over the years for Nike. One of those commercials, my favourite one, played on his propensity for folding up his shirt collar. It's a classic, and has led to many footballing kids of a certain generation to flip their collars up while saying "Au revoir." Check it out here.
2. George Best
The third member of the "Holy Trinity", that's him on the left, George Best certainly lived up to his name. There's a reason why the number 7 shirt is revered and worshipped at Old Trafford, and it's not because of Cristiano Ronaldo.
George Best, rocketed to superstardom in the 60's and 70's when his sublime skill and movie star good looks led the press to dub him "The Fifth Beatle." The problem is, the superstar monicker also brought with it the superstar lifestyle, and George Best never really played to his potential due to his off-field problems.
But even then, he was one of the best players in the world. There is a saying in Ireland that goes like this: "Maradona Good, Pele Great, George Best."
I'm inclined to agree. Who knows what would have happened if he did not have those demons lurking over him and he actually did play to his potential?
1. David Beckham
David Beckham is good but is not, I repeat NOT, the best player on this list. But he remains the most popular player to ever put on the United shirt.
Goldenballs is a marketing machine, generating shirt sales galore no matter who he plays for or what the quality of his game is. Beckham jerseys adorn the backs of football fans world-wide, and the man has been featured in more commercials for Adidas and Pepsi than anyone else. He's been in movies, invited to the Royal Wedding, involved in sex scandals, hounded by paparazzi, and has even had a whole movie made around his reputation without his involvement.
The man is an icon and symbol for football in the way Derek Jeter is for the baseball, Michael Jordan is for basketball, and Wayne Gretzky is for hockey. Mention his name almost anywhere in the world, and somebody will know who he is.
If that isn't popularity, what is?
So there you have it. These men are, in my opinion, the 25 most popular players in Manchester United history.
Who will be the next to rise up to iconic status and earn a statue at Old Trafford? Wayne Rooney? Nemanja Vidic? Javier Hernandez? Only time will tell.
Agree? Disagree? Strike back in the comments below and thanks for reading!
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