Manchester United: Top 10 Red Devils Heroes Pre-EPL

Terry CarrollContributor IIISeptember 13, 2011

Manchester United: Top 10 Red Devils Heroes Pre-EPL

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    How do you begin to select the Top Ten Heroes from Manchester United's past?

    The task was made easier by choosing 10 from the Premier League era last week. There are also at least four players who would make any all-time list.

    The hardest thing of all, is selecting those you've never seen play. While there is a massive amount of historical information on the likes of Billy Meredith, Johnny Carey, Jack Rowley, Joe Cassidy and Joe Spence, it helps having seen a player in action and heard the supporters' reaction.

    Even then, there are players who would make many fans' lists, but how can you either Bruce or Pallister but not the other? How do you choose between Harry Gregg, Alex Stepney and Ray Wood in goal, when neither Peter Schmeichel nor Edwin van der Saar made the EPL Cult Heroes list?

    In the end, two overriding factors influenced the choice: having seen the player, and how much of their career they spent at United.

    As with the previous list, please feel free to disagree and put forward alternatives.

    There is one other man who nearly made it to the list, even though he never played for Manchester United and that is Sir Matt Busby. For his great personal courage, his managerial ability in building a dynasty and then rebuilding it after the Munich disaster, for the style of football that became United's hallmark and a hundred other reasons, he was and will remain forever a cult hero at Old Trafford.

    We start with his captain who, had he lived, would surely have become the greatest player of all time: Duncan Edwards.

Duncan Edwards

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    Football is a passion, Manchester United a way of life. It's hard to write the following without a sense of loss. For many who saw him, the greatest young English footballer ever was Duncan Edwards.

    At 11, he was a prodigy. He achieved his dream to be an England schoolboy international at just 14. At 18, he was the youngest post-war England debutant and went on to play 18 times, scoring five goals.

    His greatest was against West Germany, weaving past five players from his own penalty area before unleashing a terrific shot with his "wrong" foot.

    He made his League debut in 1953 at 16. By the time of Munich he had already played 175 times for United, with 21 goals. Primarily a midfielder, he played anywhere from centre back to centre forward. A big man, he had "strength and grace." He took all the throw-ins and corners.

    Imagine combining Gary Neville, Nemanja Vidic, Bryan Robson, Diego Maradona and Wayne Rooney into one player.

    Eight of the lads on that fateful plane were 22 or younger. Duncan was just 21. Many recall the three-week fight for life that epitomised the spirit he brought to his football. He lit the torch for midfielders that Robson, Ince, Cantona and Keane have carried with glory.

    He was the complete footballer.

    Few doubt that, had he lived, he would have been one of the world greats. As Sir Bobby Charlton has said, "If I had to play for my life and could take one man with me, it would be him."

Sir Bobby Charlton

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    Sir Bobby Charlton is arguably Manchester United's greatest servant ever.

    Although Ryan Giggs has long since passed Charlton's appearance record, it is important to see the latter's 758-match tally in the context of fewer games per season.

    He was so shocked to survive the Munich air crash, that he almost gave up the game. Although only 20 years old, he was already established in the first team squad. 

    In some ways, the 1958 disaster was the making of him. Sir Matt started to rebuild the team around him. He finished that fateful season with 16 goals from 30 games and the following term was his best ever, with 29 from 39 matches.

    By now he was also a fixture in the England team, going on to win the World Cup in 1966 and becoming the leading England goal scorer.

    Some have classified him as an attacking midfielder, and others as a forward. He was certainly at his best coming from the middle of the park and scored an extraordinary number of goals from outside the penalty box.

    He had a bullet shot in both feet and was an able header of the ball. His play was in many ways similar to Paul Scholes, being a provider as well as a goal scorer. Sir Bobby also took corners with both feet.

    As well as scoring 249 times for United, he made 106 appearances for England, scoring 49 goals.

    Sir Bobby is indeed a great ambassador for the club and the manner with which he carries out his role entirely matches his humility as a player. Although he would not see himself as a cult hero, he was one of that great triumvirate with Best and Law.

George Best

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    Until he left for Real Madrid, the debate raged as to whether Cristiano Ronaldo was better than George Best. For those who have only ever seen "Besty" on video, it is hard to understand how good he was.

    In many ways the two are incomparable. Ronaldo is more of a striker, with a prodigious scoring record. Best scored precious few goals from outside the penalty area.

    It should also be kept in mind that the ball was much heavier—especially in the wet—it didn't fly and swerve as it does now; and players weren't protected as they are now.

    Best could make the ball talk, easily beating defenders who lashed out at him; on more than one occasion, he went back and did it again—because he could.

    The Sunday Times ran a pictorial, showing the back and front views of Best's body. From shoulder to foot, he was a mass of bruises and healed cuts from his playing days.

    He infuriated his manager as well. After he was first signed by Sir Matt Busby, he returned to Ireland, homesick. He went AWOL on many other occasion in his career, and it took a strong manager to control him and tolerate his shortcomings.

    Best could not be said to be a model professional. He was idolised like a rock star by young people, even with no interest in football. He was a legendary womaniser and drinker—the latter led indirectly to his early demise.

    In all, he played 470 games for United, scoring 179 goals, eventually retiring after an eclectic journey round the world through another ten clubs and culminating in the U.S. and Australia.

    He has been described as the best player never to play at a World Cup, despite nine goals in 37 appearances for Northern Ireland.

    In 1968 he was not only a member of the legendary United team that won the European Cup, but was also named European Player of the year. We may never see his like again.

    As well as scoring goals, he produced many assists for the third member of the historic trio Denis Law.

Denis Law

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    Denis Law was the stuff of legends. The Stretford End even forgave him for playing for Citytwiceeven though he confined United to the old Second Division by scoring against them in his final match in 1974.

    Things were different then and Denis confided that he often played while injured, with a pain killing injection, such was his value to the team. It seems likely that this accumulation of injuries was a factor in him not playing more than 55 games for his country, Scotland, scoring 30 times.

    Somewhat surprisingly, he was not a part of the European Cup winning side of 1968, nor did he even play in the semifinal, because of his knee problems.

    He had joined United in 1962 for the third-largest transfer fee of his career. The legendary Bill Shankly had managed him at Huddersfield Town and had wanted to take him to Liverpool, but he became one of the few early players to go to Italy when he went to Torino.

    Sir Matt, who had offered Huddersfield £10,000, this time paid £115,000. He was worth every penny, scoring 237 goals in 409 appearances.

    Known as "The Lawman" and "The King", he is the only Scot to win European Player of the Year. One of his greatest honours was to be selected alongside Di Stefano, Eusebio and Gento for a Rest of the World team to play England in the 1963 FA Centenary match. Ferenc Puskas was on the bench!

    Denis had very much a flamboyant style of play, scoring goals and celebrating with panache, to the delight of the Stretford End.

    Despite his physical difficulties, he played until he was 34, including a total of 11 years with United. No player has been more of a cult hero during his time at Old Trafford.

Tommy Taylor

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    A plaque erected under a memorial clock at Old Trafford in 1960 commemorates those who lost their lives in the Munich air crash. One of those was Tommy Taylor. It is a pity that there are so few photos of him that survive.

    He was regarded by many who saw him as the greatest centre forward ever to play for Manchester United and for England. When he died, he was 26, but he had scored 131 goals in 191 matches at the extraordinary rate of .69 per match.

    He was the greatest header of the ball of his era, as well as having excellent close control, shooting and passing ability. 

    He had an unusual passage to United. At 14, he was working as a miner before being picked up by Barnsley. At 18, he had to do two years' national service, before Sir Matt Busby signed him for £29,999 as part of his rebuilding process.

    Although Taylor was not an actual Busby Babe, he was regarded as such because he came into the team at the same time and died in the air crash.

    His goal-scoring record for England was even more impressive, with 16 in 19 games. Along with Duncan Edwards, the two probably represented the greatest loss to their club and country, because they were great players at a relatively young age.

    As the famous cricketer, Dickie Bird (a boyhood friend from Barnsley) says:

    "I'll tell you what. Tommy Taylor would be priceless today as a player and as a person. He would have broken all records for goal scoring. He was better than Geoff Hurst who scored three goals in the 1966 World Cup Final."

Bill Foulkes

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    As with Tommy Taylor, there are very few pictures of Bill Foulkes. He is one of the original Busby Babes.

    He is the third of four survivors who we have included in this collection of heroes. As with Harry Gregg, he has been something of an unsung hero recently, despite being one of only four of the surviving players who remain alive, with Bobby Charlton, Kenny Morgans and Gregg.

    Like Taylor, Foulkes was also a minor at 14. He joined Manchester United in 1950 as an 18-year-old amateur, but was so unsure of himself that he continued to work part time in the colliery. He turned professional in 1951, but did not make his debut, at right back, until the 1952-53 season.

    To some, Foulkes is also something of a forgotten hero. He was a hard man in a hard man's game. He has the third-highest number of appearances of any United player, behind Ryan Giggs and Sir Bobby Charlton.

    In 18 years, he played 688 times for his club, but in the era of Moore and Charlton, only played once for his country. Early in his career he was also called up for National Service, which disrupted his opportunities. It took him a while to re-establish himself in the burgeoning young team Busby was building.

    Immediately after the crash, Foulkes took over the captaincy of the club, but he was burdened with anger from the loss of his talented colleagues. He continued to suffer mental and physical problems as a result for several years.

    In 1960, Busby moved him to centre back and he embarked on a renaissance in his career. Eventually in 1963 he rediscovered his zest for the game and became pivotal to United's success. He scored the winning goal in a tight semifinal against Real Madrid that got the team to the memorable Cup Final.

    Foulkes has won almost every medal available to an English club player and the European Cup triumph helped him get over "the crash." Although not well recently, he is now 79 years old and still lives near Manchester.

Harry Gregg

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    The last of our Munich survivors is Harry Gregg. He is chosen for his heroics in Munich as well as his goalkeeping ability.

    A quiet, undemonstrative man, he became known as the "Hero of Munich" after he dragged several of his United colleagues from a plane that was about to explode.

    He might have remained an undiscovered hero had it not been for Bobby Charlton's persuasion that he be interviewed about his experience, in 1998. This also helped Gregg get closure on the guilt that he had felt for 40 years.

    He was one of the four players, with Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes and Denis Viollet, around whom Sir Matt Busby rebuilt his team.

    Gregg wasn't a Busby Babe and indeed had only joined Manchester United in 1957 from Doncaster, the team he left Northern Ireland for as an 18-year-old in 1952.

    Sir Matt paid a world record fee for a goalkeeper and Gregg went on to make 210 appearances, keeping a total of 48 clean sheets. He is rated by many as the best keeper ever for United, but never one a medal because of various injuries.

    He also played 25 times for Northern Ireland. At the 1958 World Cup Finals, he was voted the best goalkeeper in the tournament, comfortably beating the great Lev Yashin.

    Gregg had a fairly brief managerial career after retirement from the game and is now still very much involved with Manchester United.

Nobby Stiles

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    Norbert "Nobby" Stiles was not a handsome or elegant player, but he was very effective. He was one of the post-Munich Busby Babes.

    Born in Manchester, he was spotted playing for England Schoolboys at 15 and was signed when he was 16. He went on to spend most of his career with United and is one of only three Englishmen to have won both the World Cup and the European Cup.

    When the England manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, introduced his new 4-4-2 system, he needed a defensive midfielder in front of the back four. Stiles went on to play every minute of the World Cup Finals in 1966. He is particularly remembered for the job he did marking the great Eusebio out of the semifinal. He repeated the task in United's European Cup Final win two years later.

    Although remembered as a tough tackling ball-winner, he also had good close control, could run with the ball and score goals. The video above shows him running from his own half to set up a goal for Roger Hunt in a friendly against West Germany.

    Among other things, he is also remembered for the wild jig he did with the Jules Rimet Cup in one hand and his false teeth in the other, which became known as "Nobby's Dance."

    Stiles played a total of 311 games for United in his holding role, scoring 17 goals and an additional 28 times for his country. He was a forerunner for the likes of Robson, Ince and Keane.

    He is epitomised by a gap-tooth grin and boundless energy. He was also short-sighted and played in contact lenses, wearing strong prescription glasses off the pitch.

Brian "Choccy" McClair

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    United had an indifferent period in the 1970s and 1980s. While there have been two strong themes in our choices so far, the last two heroes have been chosen for their special relationship with the "Stretford Enders."

    The first is Brian McClair, nicknamed "Choccy" because his name sounded like Chocolate Eclair. He became a cult hero largely because of his articles in the match day magazine "Choccy's Diary."

    There are many other reasons why he was a favourite. Having played successfully for Celtic, Sir Alex made him one of his first big signings at the start of the rebuilding process. Although not consistently prolific, he went on to score 126 goals in 468 appearances, including 31 in all competitions in 1987-88.

    Choccy was very much a team player, being prepared to do what the boss wanted. Having been one of the main strikers for five years, he was switched to midfield when Eric Cantona arrived. He had less opportunities after the arrival of Roy Keane but managed 40 appearances in 1994-95 and a total of 60 in his final two seasons.

    Born in the coal mining district of Lanarkshire, he not only scored 99 times in 145 matches for Celtic, but he also made 30 appearances for his country, twice winning Scottish Player of the Year awards.

    He was given a free transfer by Sir Alex and a testimonial for his 11 years service. After a brief spell with Motherwell, he embarked on a managerial career.

    He returned to Old Trafford as a youth team coach in 2000 and, following a stint as Reserve Team Manager, is now Director of the famed Manchester United Youth Academy.

    Apart from the above, many supporters will remember him endearingly for his habit of tucking the ball under his arm as he returned to the centre circle, clearing his nostrils on the way.

Norman Whiteside

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    It's not easy putting together a list of Top 10 Manchester United heroes for the 114 years before the Premier League era. Among those who didn't make the final selection are:

    Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister; Johnny Carey; Joe Spence; Jack Rowley; Billy Meredith; Denis Viollet; Alex Stepney; Paddy Crerand; and of course, Sir Matt Busby—even though he never played for United.

    Our final choice, Norman Whiteside became a hero of the Stretford End for a number of reasons.

    Like George Best, he was born in Belfast. He grew up at United, having signed schoolboy terms at 13. Although his career was shortened by injury when he was 26, he was notable for a number of "firsts."

    He was the youngest debutant for United since George Best and the club's youngest goal scorer at 16. In the same year he was the youngest player to appear at the World Cup Finals, besting Pele's record. The following year, he became the youngest player to score in both the League and FA Cup Finals, winning the latter against Brighton.

    He was also popular for his determined style of play. A tough and uncompromising midfielder, he had originally started as a centre forward but lacked pace.

    Some people thought he was too hard and he was nicknamed the "Shankill Skinhead." He was particularly remembered for a series of match-winning displays against United's Merseyside rivals, especially in the 1985 Cup Final, scoring the winning goal against Everton with seconds to go.

    Whiteside collected the ball out on the right, ran to the corner of the penalty area and curled a left foot shot into the far corner of the goal. The red end of Wembley went mad.

    In total, Norman played 206 times for United, scoring 47 goals and a further 38 times for Northern Ireland with nine goals.

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