Sir Alex Ferguson does not believe Roy Keane was a world-class footballer.
It sounds silly when you actually say it out loud, doesn’t it?
According to Ferguson, his former captain, who led Manchester United to an unprecedented treble in 1999 and won seven Premier League titles, did not do enough to be considered world class.
Ferguson once said, as reported by the Irish Times, “If I was putting Roy Keane out there to represent United on a one against one, we’d win the Derby, the National, the Boat Race and anything else. It’s an incredible thing he’s got.”
But now apparently that thing doesn’t include being world class.
Recently, as detailed on the MailOnline, Ferguson declared he had only ever managed four world-class players at Old Trafford: Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Eric Cantona.
Keane was the most notable omission on a surprisingly long list of former United players that also includes Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam, Rio Ferdinand, Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham.
The problem here is Ferguson has skewed the debate with his own pettiness and score-settling after falling out at some stage with most of the players he omitted, most bitterly and famously with Keane.
But even so, Ferguson sparked a debate about what actually constitutes a world-class player. How many exist in today’s Premier League?
"World class" has long been a phrase casually bandied about in football and remains the highest praise you can bestow on a player.
No one wants to be merely good, impressive or accomplished; they want to be world class.
At its heart, this remains a subjective matter—opinions will always vary—but instinctively, you know who is world class and who is not.
You could devise a test, arrange boxes to be ticked to discover if a player deserves to be called world class, but even that would be far from foolproof and strewn with contradictions.
Essentially, being world class means a player has the ability to excel in both international football and the Champions League.
So take Gary Cahill. He’s played at a World Cup, won the Champions League and the Premier League, so surely he’s world class?
He is a fine player but falls short and doesn’t deserve to be bracketed alongside other world-class central defenders such as Vincent Kompany, Sergio Ramos and Thiago Silva.
To become known as world class, you have to have shown sustained brilliance on these highest stages throughout your career.
But then you make a grand statement such as that and it immediately falls apart when you cast your mind back to George Best, who did nothing in international football but who was so obviously a world-class talent and would not look out of place in a top-10 list of the greatest players of all time.
In the modern era, Giggs did little in international football too, hamstrung by being Welsh, but that should not stop him being hailed world class for all he achieved in club football.
Then there’s John Barnes, who was underwhelming in an England shirt. Because English clubs were banned from European club competitions during the late 1980s, he also only played in the Champions League during the twilight of his career. But for his balance, that grace and vision, he deserves to be known as world class.
Everyone will use their own formula. Some suggest to be world class you have to be in the top five in your position in the world.
What is certain is it is a select band, and there can’t be too many better players than them throughout the world.
There is no formula you could devise to determine world-class status, for you would only get tangled up in these contradictions.
Overall, it is just a gut feeling, and if you waver, if you are in the slightest bit of doubt, then they’re not world class. You just know.
It is my contention that there are only 20 world-class players in the Premier League, others might have the potential to be and may graduate soon, but at the moment, only this select few deserve the title.
It will come as little surprise the vast majority of the Premier League’s world-class players are found playing with last season’s top four.
At Arsenal, the trio of Petr Cech, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are world class, with Aaron Ramsay and Santi Cazorla hovering just behind them but not quite there.
A host of players, including Ramires, Oscar and Willian, might elevate themselves to that level some time soon, while John Terry was once world class but is no longer.
It should offer United hope for the future they boast a large collection of players, including Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay, Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Matteo Darmian and Morgan Schneiderlin who could soon grasp the title for themselves.
But Manchester City remain the side most likely to win this year’s Premier League title, which is no surprise when they boast the joint-largest stable of world-class players with five in Joe Hart, Kompany, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero.
City, too, have several players primed for promotion, including Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Nicolas Otamendi, who could join their world-class ranks as early as the end of this season.
Outside of last season’s top four, world-class talent can be found at Liverpool in Philippe Coutinho and a fit Daniel Sturridge and between the posts at White Hart Lane with Tottenham Hotspur's Hugo Lloris.
Of course, I won’t have picked your favourite and you will strenuously disagree with me, as I have done with Ferguson’s downgrading of Keane, but whether a player is world class will simply always come down to how they make you feel.