x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

United: pick of the best

Manchester United have had many superb teams over the years, but who would make it into the all-time starting XI?

George Best, part of the 1968 European Cup winning team, was one of Robert Philip's picks.
George Best, part of the 1968 European Cup winning team, was one of Robert Philip's picks.

"Manchester United are the champions of England, the champions of Europe and that makes them the best team in the world. United have had some fabulous teams in the past but this one could be the best ever." Was Gordon Strachan making his excuses in advance or was he offering a considered judgement when he elevated Fergie's Furies above the Busby Babes in the hours before Celtic's crushing Champions' League defeat at Old Trafford on Tuesday night?

There can be no denying that United 2008 comprise the team of all talents; even without the injured England quartet of Paul Scholes, Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand, Sir Alex Ferguson could afford to leave Carlos Tevez and Ryan Giggs on the bench. Easy to do when you have Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Cristiano Ronaldo to wreak their special brand of havoc on the hapless Celtic rearguard.

But does this line-up genuinely constitute the greatest United team of all time? How about the 1999 squad assembled around Giggs, Scholes, David Beckham and Roy Keane who won the Champions League, Premiership and FA Cup? The 1968 European Cup winning assembly who contained three European Footballers of the Year in Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton? Or Sir Matt Busby's legendary Red Devils who were on their way to becoming the best side on the planet when they were tragically wiped out in the Munich air disaster?

Let us compare a few of the current players against the talents of those who perished on the runway that snowy night in 1958. On current form Rio Ferdinand can justifiably lay claim to being the best defender in the world, but what of the great Duncan Edwards of whom Sir Matt's assistant Jimmy Murphy said: "When I used to hear Muhammad Ali proclaim to the world that he was the greatest, I would always smile. The greatest of them all was a footballer named Duncan Edwards."

Is it possible that Edwards was really that good? Greater, perhaps, than Pele or Alfredo di Stefano? Frustratingly, there being little film footage available of him in action, we must depend upon the evidence of eye-witnesses at the time. "He was the best player I've ever seen and the best footballer I ever played with played with," says Sir Bobby Charlton. "I always felt I could compare well with any player - except Duncan. He was such a talent, I always felt inferior to him."

And who [Scholes apart] in the present United midfield could challenge Eddie Colman? Known as "Snakehips" for his uncanny ability to slither round opponents, Colman - just 5ft 7in and 9st 2lbs - was as elusive as a ghost and possessed of a body-swerve the likes of which had never been seen before or since. A mesmerising dribbler (his Puskas-style "drag-back" was a popular show-stopper), Colman could also puncture the most impenetrable of defences with an inspired pass, leading Nobby Stiles to observe: "Colly was my hero of heroes."

Patrice Evra has established himself in the French national team but has there ever been a more accomplished left-back than United and England captain, Roger Byrne? Described by Sir Matt as "an aristocrat, a majestic footballer. Roger was so fast but at the same time controlled in his movement, like Nureyev", Byrne was a deceptive player; he came equipped with a weak left foot (a curious deficiency in a left-back you might think) was relatively poor in the air, and was loathe to tackle, preferring to nick the ball off a winger's toe like a stealthy pickpocket. With his pace and brains, however, Byrne was named by Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney as the opponent they least enjoyed playing against.

Like Ronaldo, outside-left David Pegg attracted the attention of Real Madrid (according to reliable sources, Busby's reaction was of the two-word variety) at a time when the England selectors regarded him as the logical successor to Finney. Graceful yet a devastating finisher, as a crosser of the ball Pegg was an early-day David Beckham as he proved during United's first foray into Europe in 1956 when he created eight goals in the 10-0 rout of Anderlecht in a mesmerising individual performance at Old Trafford.

Rooney, Ronaldo and Berbatov are rightly idolised by the Old Trafford faithful for their goal-scoring exploits; but when he died at the age of 26, Tommy Taylor had netted 131 goals in 191 games for United and 16 in 19 international appearances for England. It is often said that Taylor was the most underrated England centre-forward of all-time; not by Matt Busby, however, who appreciated his full value to such an extent that in 1957 the United manager had no hesitation in turning down a world record bid of £65,000 (Dh387,000) offered by Inter Milan. As Munich survivor and 1968 European Cup winner Bill Foulkes put it: "I would rate Tommy as one of the all-time best centre-forwards in the game. And he had yet to realise his full potential."