During Sir Alex Ferguson’s illustrious 25-year reign at Old Trafford, he managed some great players. Players that would understand what it meant to wear the red of United, players that would win matches on their own, players that would get fans off their seats, are just some of the examples, of the greats he managed.
In an interview with Sky Sports, Sir Alex insisted that he only managed four truly world class players, those four being Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ferguson says that he considered these players truly world class because, “they made the difference, the evidence is there”.
Fergie then clarified his comments, as reported in the Daily Mirror, stating he only singled out those four players because of the impact they had, after it ignited frantic debate among United fans. Nevertheless, what is it that made these players the best of the best according to Sir Alex?
‘King Eric’ signed for United in 1992, and was seen as the catalyst in United’s side during the 1990’s, trademarked with his puffed out chest, and his collar turned up. Ferguson said that “when we brought Eric Cantona in, we won the league that season. It was his mere presence and his ability to make and score goals”.
Cantona was certainly a gamble for Sir Alex, as Cantona was seen as a controversial figure, with a poor disciplinary record during his time in France and at Leeds United. However, it was a gamble that paid off as the Frenchman galvanised Old Trafford and his charisma on the pitch helped turn United into the dominant force in English football. For all the captivation, entertainment, and flair Cantona brought to the club, he wasn’t free from controversy. On January 25th, 1995, United was playing away to Crystal Palace, and Cantona had been sent off. As he walked to the tunnel, Eric was subject to verbal abuse from a Crystal Palace fan, to which Cantona retaliated with a majestic kick.
The incident caused many to think the Frenchmen’s time at Old Trafford was over. Even though there was a heavy ban from the FA and the club itself, Ferguson stood by Cantona and made it known to him that he had a future at the club, which shows how highly Fergie thought of him.
In Ferguson’s recent book, ‘Leading’, he revealed that when Cantona retired, he sent him a letter to uncover the amount of respect and appreciation he had for the Frenchman, a great gesture on Sir Alex’s part and speaks volumes about what the Scotsman thought of Cantona.
Sir Alex believes that Giggs was truly world class because he poses the question “Are there players who have played right through the whole of the Premier League and performed at the level they have? There are none, absolutely none”. It is difficult to disagree with him on that point, as it is true. Even when Giggs got older, and as he lost that yard of pace and flair, he adapted his game to sit deeper and control the tempo of matches. He never lost his footballing brain which allowed him to stay at the top for so long.
After making his debut in 1991 and retiring in 2014, Giggs enjoyed a glittering career at the top-level of football. A one-club man and the epitome of longevity, Giggs is the most decorated player in English football history winning 13 Premier League winner’s medals, four FA Cup winner’s medals, three League Cup winner’s medals, two UEFA Champions League winner’s medals, a FIFA Club World Cup winners medal, an Intercontinental Cup winner’s medal, a UEFA Super Cup winner’s medal and nine FA Community Shield winner’s medals, during his time at United. He was even hailed as the new George Best when he broke into the first team, with Best famously remarking “One day they might even say that I was another Ryan Giggs”. A statement that means a lot coming from a player as legendary as George Best.
In a similar mould to Giggs, Sir Alex believes that Scholes was world class because of longevity. Ferguson maintains in his 2013 autobiography that Scholes was the standout player of his generation, and could not understand the dilemma England faced when trying to accommodate Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Paul Scholes into one midfield; just play one next to Scholes he insisted.
The way he could strike the ball with pinpoint accuracy across 40 yards, or hit a pile-driver of a shot into the top corner, Scholes possessed the ability to see things on the pitch before they even happened. He was always one step ahead of everyone else. He was held in high esteem by his peers with superstars such as current Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane stating that Scholes is the “greatest midfielder of his generation”. Fellow teammates were also full of praise for Scholes and Ryan Giggs even said she considers Scholes to be the greatest Manchester United player ever, a big claim to make up against candidates such as Sir Bobby Charlton and George Best.
“Ronaldo was just a complete genius of a player”, is Fergie’s opinion on the Portuguese superstar. Sir Alex doesn’t tend to get drawn into football’s biggest debate of ‘Ronaldo or Messi’, instead, he acknowledges that these two are the best of the best and the two world-class players of today’s game, and everybody else is playing catch up. When forced to pick sides, however, he sides with Ronnie and here’s why. Ferguson feels that “Ronaldo could play for Millwall, QPR or Doncaster Rovers and still score a hat-trick in a game, whereas Messi is a Barcelona player, and suits the style”.
Arguably United’s greatest player of the modern era, Ronaldo possessed all the abilities to propel himself to the top: he was quick, worked hard, had the desire to improve, skilful, good in the air, two-footed, and had that special spark where he could win games on his own.
Without a doubt, these four players that Sir Alex singled out were world class, however, in my opinion, these are not the only world class players to have played under the management of Ferguson. Below are two other players that I think should be placed into this ‘world class’ bracket.
‘Captain Marvel’, the type of player that would probably be sent off every match in today’s game. The longest-serving captain in United’s history, Robson had all the qualities of a dynamic box-to-box midfielder that ironically enough United are crying out for today. Sir Alex has always been full of praise for the player, citing that he had “good control, was a decisive tackler, and passed the ball well”. Fergie also singles out the influence he had on the pitch and the dressing room, which is a key characteristic of being a good captain. Known for his bravery, and courage on the pitch, Robson possessed all the fundamental traits to be a success; goals, passing, tackling, work rate, you name it, he had the lot.
‘The Great Dane’, arguably Manchester United’s greatest ever goalkeeper. Even Gary Neville disagreed with his old boss when Sir Alex left Schmeichel’s name off the list of world class players he worked with. Ferguson admits he doesn’t believe “a better goalkeeper has played the game” when discussing Schmeichel, which is a huge statement to make when comparing Schmeichel to legendary goalkeepers such as Gordon Banks or Oliver Kahn. The biggest compliment someone could give Schmeichel is that United had trouble finding a replacement for him, going through goalkeeper after goalkeeper from Fabien Barthez to Tim Howard. Schmeichel acted much more than just a goalkeeper for United when he was on the pitch, however. He was the commander-in-chief in his penalty area, dishing out orders to his troops (or defenders), making sure everybody was doing their job. A real inspiration and leader, Schmeichel fits the bill of world class for me.
Ultimately, Sir Alex Ferguson managed many great players during his time at Old Trafford, I’m sure he would have difficulty selecting his all-time greatest XI. Of course, this discussion can depend on factors such as what you would define as a world class player, and whether you think world class is a term that is overused in today’s game. One thing is for certain, though, Sir Alex did manage some world-class players and teams. Is four the magic number though? I’m not so sure. It’s probably six or seven for me.
Written by Jonny Webb