Manchester United's Top 10 All-Time Defenders

Terry CarrollContributor IIIJuly 9, 2012

Manchester United's Top 10 All-Time Defenders

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    Somewhat amazingly, there are relatively few Manchester United defenders from whom to choose the best 10 ever. Nevertheless, Patrice Evra does NOT make this list.

    He may be one of the best attacking full-backs in the world, but he has been shown to be suspect in his defence and judgement, especially last season. He also doesn't score goals.

    It has often been said that attack is the best form of defence, and Sir Alex has told us countless times that United go out to win every match.

    Whether or not that is true, with a typical 4-4-2 formation, central defensive combinations have been crucial, so it is hardly surprising that some of our choices came in pairs.

    So in compiling this selection, clearly defensive qualities must be paramount. In an era when United have contrived to score very few goals from corners and even less by defenders, the choice of the best becomes fairly straightforward for most candidates.

    To say that Tony Dunne and Phil Neville weren't far away pretty much sums it up.

    This time, there is no attempt to rank the 10 choices. Please make your own proposals for who is No. 1.

Steve Bruce

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    My dad was a Geordie, like Steve Bruce. I was always a United fan from a young age, but we moved to Kent in 1957 and Dad took me to watch Gillingham.

    After I grew up and left home, whenever I went back I used to go with Dad to Priestfield Stadium for old time's sake. Dad passed away in May, and his favourite Gillingham Player of all time was Brucey.

    You had to love the guy. He was fearless, both as a defender and an attacker. He joined the Gills in 1979 and, after more than 200 games, moved on to Norwich City and finally Manchester United where, in 1987, he became one of Sir Alex's early signings.

    No United fan will ever forget the goal above and especially Fergie's reaction. Bruce went on to play nine seasons, with 414 appearances and 51 goals before leaving for Birmingham City at 35. 

    In the 1990/91 season alone, he scored 19 goals in just 50 matches! Many strikers would be delighted at that return.

    They say that centre-backs are like London buses. You wait ages for a good one, and then two come along at the same time.

    Maybe the truth is that two players forge a partnership, where their mutual understanding is much of what makes them great. That was surely the case with Steve and our next choice, because despite his greatness for Manchester United, Bruce never got a full cap for England.

    This next chap did, despite possibly being the lesser of the two.

Gary Pallister

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    Gary Pallister's partnership with Bruce in the centre of defence was described in 2006 (subscription only) by the then-captain, Gary Neville, as the best in Manchester United's history. But that was before Vidic and Ferdinand.

    Above is one of the rare goals he din't score with his head.

    "Brucey and Pally" also nearly made Gary's all-time best United XI in 2011.

    Ironically, Pallister was born near Gillingham and moved to the northeast, where he played for Billingham Town before signing professional terms for Middlesborough.

    He eventually signed for United in 1989 for the then-huge fee for a defender of £2.3 million before going on to make 437 appearances with 15 goals.

    Between them, Bruce and Pallister won 13 major trophies and were the stalwarts of the defence as Sir Alex started to build the dynasty that Manchester United are today. 

    They stand respectively 18 and 21 on the all-time United appearances list, not far behind our next choice, Denis Irwin at No. 8.

    Indeed, six of our ten choices make that all-time top 21 on the United Official website.

Denis Irwin

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    Denis Irwin is undoubtedly United's best left-back ever. If he had been in the team last season, we would have walked the Premier League.

    He is also one of United's most consistently under-rated players. He is humble and a very nice man, who has never crowed of his achievements. He was also a more-than-useful right-back, which prompted Gary Neville to include him in his best 11 in that position, just to fit him in.

    He was one of the most consummate penalty takers ever, also.

    Like Eric Cantona, we could also forgive him for having played for Leeds United.

    Denis moved to Old Trafford in 1990, a "steal" at £625,000 when you consider what he went on to achieve.

    In 529 appearances, he scored 33 goals, many of them penalties. He won 19 major trophies, including seven Premier League titles and of course the Champions League.

    There would be a case for him to be the best Premiership left-back of all time, even ahead of Ashley Cole.

Nemanja Vidic

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    This is what we've missed.

    I can recall almost 60 years of football and watched the great Bill Foulkes play both for England and United.

    But Nemanja Vidic is the greatest centre-back and defender we have ever had.

    He is a throw-back to the old days of blood and thunder, when full-backs kicked wingers up in the air and centre halves flattened the opposition centre forward.

    The difference is that you now have to do it legally...

    Again, you cannot consider Vidic without his world-class partner Rio Ferdinand. Like Bruce and Pallister, they also have had an uncanny understanding.

    In truth, Vidic could do with more pace, as Fernando Torres has proved on more than one occasion, but his timing and execution more than make up for that. Let's hope he returns fully fit from his knee ligament injury.

    With Ferdinand having a renaissance now that his back is better and he has accepted his own limitations, even 30 times next season would be enough for this partnership to bring trophies back to Old Trafford once again.

    So far Nemanja has 243 appearances for United with 18 goals. We've missed him, and now that he has retired from international duty, let's hope we can get at least three more years at the top out of him.

Rio Ferdinand

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    These are two of the giants in United's folklore, who even put the mighty Brucey and Pally in the shade.

    But just imagine if either had played with Jaap Stam?

    Can you believe that Rio's middle name is Gavin? He began his career with West Ham United and, lest we forget, also played for Leeds United, including being their captain, before Sir Alex signed him for £30 million.

    As a lad, Rio played at centre forward, but by the time he was 18, he was already good enough to be called up as England's youngest defender ever.

    Many of us who watched him progress as a young defender saw the greatness of Franz Beckenbauer, but sadly the sweeper role has hardly ever caught on in England. 

    Ferdinand has until recently had the pace and footballing skill to be an attacking centre-back, much in the mould of Mats Hummels of Dortmund.

    Clearly he is under instructions from the manager, because if he had the freedom to roam, he is skillful enough to have scored a lot more goals.

    We must hope that he too is fully fit for the new season, now that his back troubles are behind him (oops!).

    When he joined almost exactly 10 years ago, to replace Jaap Stam, he was the most expensive footballer in British history and the most expensive defender in the world for the second time (previously when he joined Leeds).

    He has been fairly compared to the greats of Italian football, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini, and would surely have become a legend in Serie A.

    If he ever wants a swansong away from Old Trafford, that's where he should head.

    With 398 appearances so far, he will surely grace that United top 21 before he hangs up his boots to become an Old Trafford youth team coach and club Ambassador.

    If there is one tiny criticism, he should have scored more than his seven goals to date.

Jaap Stam

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    Oh dear, oh dear...

    How many times would Jaap Stam have played for United if he hadn't written his book and suffered an Achilles' heel injury?

    Sir Alex has readily admitted that selling Stam, even for £16.5 million at age 29, was a big mistake. He was honest enough to include Stam in his greatest-ever United XI.

    Stam only made 121 appearances during which he won six trophies, including of course a Champions League medal.

    He went on to make a further 143 appearances for Lazio, Milan and Ajax. How much more could United have achieved if he had finished his career at Old Trafford, including playing alongside Rio Ferdinand before Vidic arrived?

Gary Neville

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    If there was ever any doubt—which there wasn't—this is all Gary needed to make himself a United legend.

    There can equally be no doubt that he is the greatest right-back United ever produced.

    Is he our greatest full-back? Tony Dunne and Denis Irwin would have something to say about that, but probably.

    Gary is far from the most skillful full-back you would ever see. Yes, he was an attacking full-back, but not like Roberto Carlos, because first and foremost Gary was a gritty, uncompromising defender. He is in the same school as Brucey and Nemanja in having the capability to have fitted well 30, 50 or even 100 years ago.

    He is arguably the most combative defender United ever had.

    He made himself capable of attacking at an international standard, primarily in his overlapping partnership with David Beckham, for United and England.

    His goal-scoring feats won't be remembered in 50 years, with only seven in 602 appearances, but that made some more memorable.

    This video sums up everything Gary was to United. Who knows, one day he may return as manager...

Bill Foulkes

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    Four players epitomised the Busby Babes.

    Duncan Edwards is enshrined as a legend, despite being killed at the age of 21. He remains the finest footballer I have ever seen in 63 years.

    Sir Bobby Charlton shares that opinion. The Red Knight went on to become one of United's three greatest players of all time.

    But there were two reluctant heroes who, like Charlton, kept the red flag flying in the disastrous aftermath.

    One was Harry Gregg, who is one of United's greatest goalkeepers. More important, he has ever since been feted as the hero of Munich, having saved the lives of his friends, putting his own life at risk unthinkingly. He has never sought reward or attention but was given a testimonial this year in recognition.

    The other was Bill Foulkes.

    If he were playing in 2012, Bill would be a legend, compared to Vidic or Stam. He was also a reluctant hero. He felt guilty to have survived the crash, like Charlton. Like Sir Bobby he had to be pressed into action again and, in Foulkes' case as captain.

    Around these two players, Jimmy Murphy at first and then Sir Matt Busby when he recovered, began to rebuild the shattered team. Without these men, Manchester United may not have become the force they are today.

    Bill Foulkes captained United in the Munich aftermath and eventually got his reward in their European Cup win, having scored the goal against Real Madrid that took them to the Final.

    In all, he made 608 appearances for United with nine goals and stands fourth on the all-time list, behind only Sir Bobby, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.

Paul McGrath

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    You cannot define greatness simply by statistics.

    When we are very old, we can look at the record books and see that Paul McGrath made only 163 appearances for United.

    But like Jaap Stam, Sir Alex would readily tell you that Paul was one of the greatest.

    It is well documented that Paul had personal challenges.

    That he played for Ireland 83 times was in itself a miracle, although if he had been the fully fit athlete that Maldini was, who knows what his achievements would have been.

    Like Ferdinand, McGrath would not have been out of place in Italy. He also had the ability to move at great pace while appearing to lope along.

    When Sir Alex decided he must break the drinking culture at Old Trafford, legends McGrath and Whiteside were the most high-profile casualties.

    At first United were considering retiring McGrath with a testimonial, but their former manager, Ron Atkinson, eventually bought him for £400,000.

    McGrath made a further 252 appearances for Villa and won the PFA Player of the Year award, so much was he endeared to his fellow professionals.

    He was converted to a defender while at United and, but for his alcohol problems, may have finished his career there. 

Martin Buchan

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    Martin Buchan scored one of United's greatest ever goals, which makes it all the more extraordinary that he only got four in 456 appearances.

    Although Manchester United have been blessed with some world-class defenders, there are surprisingly few when it comes to a list of their 10 greatest ever.

    We have already mentioned Tony Dunne, and fans of his era may be similarly outraged as contemporary supporters of Patrice Evra.

    I'm afraid Paddy's irresponsibility last season in the City and Everton home games are bluntly what led me to exclude him, despite his brilliant attacking qualities.

    Also, his behaviour in the 2010 World Cup and anonymity in Euro 2012 have worked against him.

    Having said that, I hope he finishes his playing career at Old Trafford, but we need a younger upstart to alternate in the big matches.

    So Martin Buchan makes the list. He has, in any case, 174 more appearances at 456 and ranks sixteenth on the all-time list.

    Martin was captain of United in the barren late 1970s, having been the club's record signing under Frank O' 'Farrell.

    He was a classy defender who would not be out of place in today's team and remains the only player to captain the winning team in both the Scottish and English Cup Finals.

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