Legends. Football is full of them. Throughout the sport's glorious history as the world's game, there have been individuals who, over the course of their careers, garnered attention that elevated them from popular players to almost mythical status. These are individuals who have had that one moment of brilliance or that one moment of infamy that would make them remembered forever. These are individuals about whom stories are told long after their deaths. These are individuals who have made their marks on the game beyond goals.
Manchester United have had their share of these legends. In this list of the top 10 United legends, I won't focus on who's popular or who's most marketable. These are individuals whose personalities and actions on and off the field made them figures to talk about in terms that transcend statistics or Golden Boot awards. They are men who have made their marks on the team and the game and make United fans proud to have them part of Red Devils lore.
Here they are in rough chronological order.
Known For: Saving Manchester United.
Let's begin with a legend that newer United fans may not be aware of, but indirectly owe their fan allegiance to.
Major's legend dates back all the way to when Manchester United was still known as Newton Heath. In 1901, the club was in dire financial straits, and it looked like it wouldn't pull through.
To help his club, team captain Harry Stafford would even bring his dog, Major, to all the games with a collection tin tied around his neck. As the club lost more and more money, they held a fundraising bazaar in desperation. Stafford brought his dog, of course.
And this was the pivotal moment in United history.
The dog got lost in the middle of the bazaar. For four days, Stafford searched high and low for his prized Saint Bernard, eventually getting word that Major has found his way to a brewery, where he was being kept pretty happy.
When Stafford arrived to claim his dog, he found that the owner of the brewery, John Henry Davies, wanted to keep Major to give to his daughter. Sensing an opportunity to save Newton Heath, Stafford struck a bargain with the wealthy brewer: Davies could keep Major if he kept Newton Heath funded. Davies agreed, paying off debts and assuming ownership. More than that, he also kept supplying the club with funds for transfers and infrastructure improvements, and the team was on its way to becoming the English Football giants they are now.
Simply put, Major is a legend at the club because without him, there would be no Manchester United.
Known For: The Busby Babes, United's first European Championship and sustained period of success.
There is a reason why Sir Matt Busby has both a statue of himself at Old Trafford and a street named after him (Sir Matt Busby Way). Simply put, it's hard to imagine Manchester United being the way it is today if Sir Matt had not instituted his philosophies and style in the 50's.
More than any other United manager until Sir Alex Ferguson came along, Sir Matt Busby understood the club's long-standing desire to be a Manchester team of the city of Manchester. He understood that the club would not succeed unless they stopped overpaying for high-priced players from other clubs and looked to youth to carry them through.
To that end, Sir Matt, ably assisted by Jimmy Murphy, put together a talented team filled with youth (and Mancunians). This team, later to be nicknamed "The Busby Babes" took the country by storm.
Boasting the likes of Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and Bobby Charlton, the Babes were boosted by added veteran presences like goalkeeper Harry Gregg. They looked unstoppable, playing the game as it was meant to be played as directed by Sir Matt.
Indeed, after all the training and the drills (yet another innovation by Sir Matt at Old Trafford), the only thing the gaffer would usually tell the boys before a game was this: "Go out and play".
It took a tragedy to end the Babes' promise, but even then, Sir Matt, after his own recovery, persevered. He would go on to preside over the first period of sustained success for the club, and would be the greatest manager in United history until another Scotsman would come and claim the throne.
Known For: Being the best player in the world at the time and the man who was meant to lead England to World Cup glory.
Duncan Edwards had thighs the size of tree trunks and sure kicked like it. But the young lad could play, too, like a dream. I wasn't there, of course, but everything I've read about him speaks of a player who had a magnificent first touch, good pace, trickery, dribbling skills and an unstoppable shot. He was Lionel Messi's control mixed with Wayne Rooney's power, Zinedine Zidane's guile mixed with Paul Scholes' class.
He could have gone on to become the greatest player who ever lived had he survived the tragedy at Munich.
Instead, his legend has lived on, if not grown, in a different way. He was a lad who was taken before his time, before he could really make his mark on the game. Everybody who has heard of "Big Dunc" would think back and wonder at what might have been, both for United and England. A legend for a tragic reason, he is nonetheless one of the biggest to every stride onto Old Trafford.
Known For: Being the "Hero of Munich."
Aside from the fact that he was, at the time of his United career, one of the best goalkeepers in all of England, Harry Gregg was also one of the survivors of Munich. Not only that, he was one of the few players who actually escaped relatively (physically) unscathed.
After regaining consciousness, the big keeper actually ran back into the plane to try to save as many lives as possible. I will let Harry Gregg himself relate the incident, as there is no way I can do him any justice with a summary:
“We set off once again, and I remember looking out of the window and seeing a tree and a house passing by; and suddenly, everything went black all of a sudden, and sparks began to fly. I was hit hard on the back of my head, and I thought the top of my skull had been cut off.
“The plane went on it’s side, sort of upside down. There was no crying. There was just silence and blackness and then for a second daylight again. I thought I was dead, so I sat there quietly, and a strange idea passed through my mind. I remembered thinking that I had a great life and my wonderful family and that I couldn’t speak German!
“There was a great hissing noise all around me, and I realized that I was still alive. I unfastened my seat belt and began to climb out. Captain Thain appeared with a fire extinguisher and told me to run for it.
“I got out of the plane and there’s five people running for it, and Thain said 'run you stupid bastard, the plane’s about to explode' and I was about to run when I heard a child crying.
“I called out to them 'come back you bastards; there’s a child alive,' but they didn’t come back and I went back in and I was terrified what I’d find. I found the baby and started to carry it out. The radio operator took the child from me, and I went back into the debris, and I found her mother who was in a bad condition. I kicked a hole in the fuselage and I pushed her out.
“I found Albert Scanlon who was badly hurt, and I tried to get him out too, but he was trapped by his feet and I couldn’t move him.
“Peter Howard, the Daily Mail photographer, was with Albert keeping him company. I ran round to the back of the plane, and I found Bobby Charlton and Denis Viollet lying still. I thought they were dead, and I dragged their bodies, like rag dolls, into the seats which had been thrown about 20 yards from the plane. I started calling out for Jackie.
“As I searched for him, I saw the tail end of the plane ablaze with flames. I found Matt Busby, who was conscious, but holding his chest in pain, crying out 'my legs, my legs.' I propped him up and found Blanchie crying, with Roger Byrne lying across him dead.
“Jackie’s arm was in a bad way and bleeding badly, so I tied a tourniquet on it with my tie. I pulled it so hard that my tie snapped in half, but I managed to tie his arm with what was left.
“Suddenly, a man in a long trench coat arrived carrying a syringe. I shouted at him to go and help the injured in the aircraft, but suddenly there were some explosions from the burning half of the plane and the force through the doctor off his feet. He was a strange sight falling on his backside in the snow, with his legs in the air holding the syringe in his hand.
“I turned around and got the shock of my life, for there was Denis and Bobby standing, just watching the fire. I was so relieved; I thought they were dead. Shortly after this, when it looked as though the rescuers had everything under control, I sank to my knees and wept, thanking God that some of us had been saved. I had never seen death before and I never wanted to see it again.”
Gregg saved the lives of Sir Matt Busby, Bobby Charlton, Denis Viollet and a mother and child. He is not only a legend, he is a hero in the very truest sense.
Known For: being one-third of United's Golden Trinity, one of the greatest United and England players ever and a 1966 World Cup hero.
The list of what Sir Bobby means to he club is endless, and we could be here forever. To put it succinctly: He was one of the pivotal leaders of United post-Munich, he was voted the fourth greatest United player ever on Manchester United's official website (behind Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona and George Best), he has the second most appearances for Manchester United and the League itself (both trailing Ryan Giggs) and he is the fourth-most capped player for England behind Bobby Moore, Peter Shilton and David Beckham.
He is one of the game's greatest servants and fully deserves his statue in front of Old Trafford.
Known For: Being the fifh Beatle, being one-third of United's Trinity and "Maradona good, Pele better, George Best".
The wiry Irishman who established the mystique of the No. 7 shirt at Old Trafford is arguably the most skillful player who ever graced the game. The only problem is that his legacy is a volatile and mercurial one, tragically diminished by boozing and womanizing. Like Duncan Edwards, but in a different way, Best was a talent that was taken from the game way too soon, leaving fans to look back and wonder: "What if?"
Known For: The Treble, being the greatest manager in United history, Fergie's Fledgelings and knocking Liverpool off its (bleeping) perch.
The legend of Sir Alex Ferguson is one that is still being written, but as the old great comes to the end of his tenure, looking back on the highlights of his career is becoming increasingly poignant.
He came to a club that had lost its way. The players were undisciplined, the youth team was a joke and the first team was getting used to losing. The principles that Sir Matt Busby had infused into the club were forgotten.
But like Sir Matt before him, Sir Alex came in and blew all the cobwebs away, establishing a winning legacy built on a foundation of youth mixed with strong veteran leadership. He has guided the team through its greatest period of sustained success, and is looking much younger than other managers his age.
Known For: The Kung-Fu kick, Seagulls, great goals and superb leadership.
Eric Cantona was a troubled figure for all his early career. He was temperamental, surly, ineffective and a bane to all his managers. And he was just what Sir Alex needed.
Before King Cantona came to United, sustained success was just out of reach. But Sir Alex recognized that the mercurial Frenchman was not the troublemaker everyone thought he was. Instead, "Le Roi" was possibly the most passionate player to ever lace up his boots, and his temper tantrums came from his overwhelming perfectionist streak. He was, in other words, just the right type of figure to lead his young Fledgeling-filled team.
Cantona's legend blossomed after an ill-thought out kung-fu kick at a fan and the glorious press conference that followed. The only thing he said was: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much."
All hail the king.
Known For: Winning the Treble.
He was never the greatest player, but he had an unerring eye for goal. As a supersub, he was a near-guarantee to score, and he looked to do that when Sir Alex brought him on in the 1999 Champion's League final when United were down 1-0.
The rest is history, and people still talk of that last minute goal to this day.
Known For: Tearing Arsenal apart in the 1999 FA Cup, and basically tearing everyone apart since he arrived.
Forget Ryan Giggs' off-pitch troubles. The one-club Welsh Wizard who defies time has been one of the greatest servants United has ever known. He's scored in every Premier League season to date, he holds the records for most appearances at United and the League, he's won two Champion's League titles and countless Premier League and FA Cup trophies and he's done it all in a United shirt. Had he represented England, he may even have had a World Cup by now.
He's the definitive United player: hard working, skilled and all class (on the field). Nevermind Manchester United; he's one of the greatest legends of the game itself.