x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Only the Best get in

It is probably one of the most futile exercises known to man, but you try to stop any group of football fans from scouring the record books and the memory bank, and trying to name their team's greatest XI.

It is probably one of the most futile exercises known to man, but you try to stop any group of football fans from scouring the record books and the memory bank, and trying to name their team's greatest XI. It is irresistible - sometimes even if it isn't your team. I need only the slightest excuse, which is why I am delighted the release of The Damned United, the film about Brian Clough, prompted a UK newspaper to compile a best-ever team from all the players who played under him.

Clough had many fine players as a manager at Derby County, Nottingham Forest, and in his 44 days at Leeds United, the period on which the film focuses, and despite not supporting any of those teams, I had a go myself. But how do you compare players from different eras? Garry Birtles or Teddy Sheringham, for instance? Birtles was a vigorous, raw-boned centre forward who won European Cups for Clough, but Teddy, who achieved far less at Forest, had the craft and speed of thought more appropriate to the modern game.

He also coped rather better when he ended up on the biggest stage of all, at Old Trafford, where, as it happens, the all-time-greatest-ever-XI game is being played more enthusiastically than anywhere. Manchester United's dominance this season has led some experts to say Sir Alex Ferguson's current squad is the finest to represent the Reds. It is a moot point, as their apparent omnipotence on the domestic scene has been aided in no small measure by managerial uncertainty at Chelsea, Arsenal's injury problems, and Liverpool's inconsistency.

See the problem. When judging the greatness of players, you have to take into account the comparative strength of the rivals that were around at the time. Also, you have to look beyond individual ability to the impact the player might have on those around him. Dimitar Berbatov and Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, are undoubtedly highly skilled individuals, but Eric Cantona transformed a team. Would that secure him a place in the all-time select?

And what about the keeper? Statistically, Edwin Van der Sar is your man, no question. He has the clean sheet records to back his claim, but re-run some of Peter Schmeichel's performances on the DVD machine in your head - the encouragement, the shouting, the cajoling, the organising of his defenders - and the Dutchman's claims do not seem so copper-bottomed. My view is that the only United player absolutely guaranteed a place in an all-time XI would be George Best.

His phenomenal natural talent was allied to a surprising amount of fight. In an era when workrate and tackling back were not pre-requisites for forwards, I remember Georgie working his socks off, and contributing way more to the team than the goals that made him famous. In today's era with more protection from officials he would be an even bigger force. So, it's Bestie and 10 others for me. Over to you, Manchester United fans.

Remember Maria Sharapova? It is seven months since she last picked up a tennis racket in anger, and my have we missed her. The Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, command our respect, but the women's game is immeasurably poorer if no one is challenging them. The Australian Open final, when Maria's compatriot Dinara Safina was swept contemptuously aside by Serena, was hugely disappointing. So when Sharapova made a losing return at Indian Wells in California on Thursday in a doubles match, we have to hope that it is the start of her road back to the top of the game after the injury problems with her right shoulder. A summer of Sharapova's haughty elegance pitched against the Williams is the tonic women's tennis needs.

Here is even more of a memory test. Remember Jenson Button? There was a time when he was the future of British motor racing, until eclipsed by Lewis Hamilton. The good news is that he is on the way back, if the news from Barcelona is anything to go by. He has been recording some impressive times in testing on the Circuit de Catalunya, fully justifying his decision to take a 50 per cent pay cut to stay at Brawn GP. Button's enthusiasm for his sport as he contemplates a new season beginning in Melbourne on March 29, gladdens the heart, proving, as it does that sometimes - even in a sport as unabashedly commercial as Formula One - it is not all about the money.