Manchester United's 7 Most Spot-on Penalty Takers Under Alex Ferguson
Manchester United pay millions of pounds each week to some of the most talented, goal-hungry footballers in Europe.
So you would think finding someone capable of scoring from 12 yards, when faced with only the goalkeeper to beat, would be pretty straightforward.
Yet pressure is a bigger obstacle than distance, and as this season has already shown, a player who can be relied upon to convert from the spot when the occasion demands is a precious asset.
Wholly redeemed, Robin van Persie’s match-winning slot against Liverpool makes him the man in possession. But for how long?
Here’s a glance at seven of the most assured penalty-takers we’ve seen during Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford tenure; and also, some of those who haven’t relished the responsibility.
1. Brian McClair
It’s hard to believe more than 25 years have passed since Brian McClair signed from Celtic.
The Scottish striker wasted no time in becoming the first Manchester United player to fire 20 league goals in a season since George Best.
He was highly proficient at penalties—though fans still remember a miss against Arsenal in a galling 2-1 fifth-round FA Cup defeat in 1988, the only blemish in his debut season.
As his scoring rate tailed off and he was remoulded into a central midfielder-cum-utility man, McClair passed on the penalty baton to an unlikely successor.
2. Steve Bruce
An uncompromising centre-half, it’s probably an indictment of the alternatives that Steve Bruce was entrusted with penalty-taking duties—but what an inspired choice he turned out to be.
The doughty stopper proved extremely reliable for a season or more, with his no-nonsense approach ideally suited to the often-poor Old Trafford pitch.
It’s a pity for England that neither Bobby Robson nor Graham Taylor saw fit to give him an international cap. They could have done with someone of Bruce’s temperament in the Italia ’90 semifinal.
The following season, he scored 19 goals, showing, like the next United defender, that some lads at the back aren’t half bad in the opposition box either.
3. Denis Irwin
Underrated Irishman Irwin, who filled both fullback berths in his day, wasn’t known as dependable Denis for nothing.
A deadball expert, his curling free-kicks frequently found the net.
From 12 yards, he was even more deadly, typically whipping the ball beyond the keeper’s reach or slotting it low, left or right.
He only missed once—but netted the rebound.
The super-consistent Corkonian even scored from the spot despite losing his footing, and the ball went in off his standing leg.
Clearly recalling his only penalty award at Anfield in almost 26 years in the run-up to last Sunday’s fixture, Alex Ferguson said: “Denis Irwin in May 1999.”
Asked did he score, the Scot snapped: “Of course he scored. I don’t think Denis ever missed a penalty.”
4. Eric Cantona
The Frenchman liked to do everything with panache, and his poise from the spot was almost exemplary.
Cantona sent Chelsea’s Dmitri Kharine the wrong way twice with practically identical kicks in the 1994 FA Cup Final to complete the double.
And he marked his return from that suspension in October 1995 with the equalizer at Old Trafford against Liverpool—memorably celebrating his clinically-taken pen’ by swinging from the goal-side stanchion. (When it looked for a second like he might leap into the crowd ... again.)
Still, Eric proved fallible on a few occasions: seeing one saved versus then-rivals Blackburn and dragging his side-footer wide against former club Leeds. Sacre Bleu!
5. David Beckham
There’s scarcely been a better ball-striker in English (and possibly world) football over the past 20 years, and David Beckham’s long-range ability made him a safe bet from closer in.
While he generally hit the mark for United when required, four times in all, unfortunately for England fans, his shooting skills deserted him in several high-profile instances.
And on only one of those occasions could he plausibly have blamed the turf.
Still, when you could bend free-kicks like Becks, the good more than evened out the godawful.
6. Ruud Van Nistelrooy
The Dutch destroyer seemed effortlessly efficient from penalties, usually curling the ball high to the keeper’s left with plenty of power.
A prolific goalscorer, Van Nistelrooy notched a penalty in United’s FA Cup final victory over Millwall in 2004 as all sorts of records tumbled at his feet.
But only the year before, Ruud suffered a series of uncharacteristically lapses, squandering three from three—the third a controversial award against Arsenal which he smacked against the bar, much to Martin Keown’s delight (above).
7. Cristiano Ronaldo
While his free-kick conversion ratio left a lot to be desired, Cristiano Ronaldo was (usually) coolness personified when it came to penalties.
While he liked to vary the direction, more often than not he waited for the keeper to move before gliding the ball home low to either side.
Still, he did mess up on three occasions, including one in the 2008 Champions League final shootout before John Terry came up trumps for United.
Ronaldo, though, remains ultra-confident under pressure. What he sometimes lacks in precision he makes up for in priggishness.
8. Rooney and the Rest
Wayne Rooney has the best record of United’s other penalty takers since the Premier League started (scoring 11 from 16, a 69 percent return). But after a few foul-ups too many, he appears to have lost his bottle.
Teddy Sheringham was decent from 36 feet, but missed on his United debut against—of all sides—Spurs. Louis Saha also dispatched one or two during his all-too-brief purple patch.
Veterans Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have stepped up to plate reasonably well when required in the past (the former boasting a very respectable record).
Both have occasionally failed the spot test too, though when you've been around as long as they have ...
Michael Carrick gave it a go, but having come up short, quickly shied away from the responsibility.
Javier Hernández has also been found wanting of late, while Robin van Persie—mortified by his duffed dink against Southampton—just about got the better of Pepe Reina on Sunday and has the job until he loses it.