This weekend, Sir Alex Ferguson will commemorate a remarkable 25 years in charge of Manchester United since his move from Aberdeen all those years ago. We surely don't need to mention how great the Scot has been in his time at the club, but in that time he's been blessed with having some of the finest talents ever to grace English football at his disposal. Here, we present the definitive XI from his whole reign. In our first part, we choose our goalkeeper and back four.
Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel
Despite Edwin Van Der Sar's excellence, this is the only irrefutable position. Schmeichel was so good in every derpartment that he almost defies description - were it not for his manic, Kahn-esque antics, he would be boring. A simply flawless goalkeeper, wonderfully complete and a master of distribution, commanding his area, shot-stopping, positioning, and, yes, goalscoring.
Right-back: Gary Neville
Gary Neville is another man whose position on this list should not be under question. A loyal servant for both club and country, epitomising solidity in full-backery whilst providing a dangerous attacking threat (he was no Cafu, granted, but witness how dangerous his partnership with David Beckham was.) Yet he has suffered from his role as voluntary Manchester United Mascot in the eyes of other fans - for being an opinionated, mouthy cretin. His excellent and insightful punditry may be going some way to change opinions, but let us not forget how many of his critics must fantasise about having such a man at their club - who would be in the stands if not on the pitch, whose commitment could never come into question in even the darkest of thoughts. The ultimate zealot for the cause, and a beacon of consistency for more than a decade, Neville's position is secure - as Andy Cole might say, his record stands in black and white for all to see.
Centre-back: Rio Ferdinand
If Gary Neville has suffered from his personality affecting opinions of his game, he may find a sympathetic lug attached to - and it is no exaggeration to say it - one of the all-time greats, and probably the best defender of the modern era. After getting over his issues with concentration, and before experiencing back problems and struggling to adjust to the loss of his pace, it has been curiously forgotten just how astonishingly good Ferdinand was in his 06-09 prime. In that period, he stood out as the greatest defender on the planet, probably the greatest Manchester United have ever had.
Ferdinand simply had it all. A level of pace that meant he barely had to sprint, enjoying a level of athleticism far enough advanced from most players as to cruise alongside them whilst stealing the ball from their feet. One of the cleanest defenders England have ever seen, regularly going months without a card. A fine distributer of the ball with a wonderfully crisp touch. Supremely dominant in the air, and with a sense of positioning, angle-narrowing, weaker-foot-showing, and all the unsung tricks of defending that go to make clean sheets happen. That, and all the crunching tackles, despairing blocks, and nasty streak to boot - only resorted to when absolutely required. His greatest testament is how rare those occasions were.
Centre-back: Jaap Stam
There is, in selecting Stam, an admission that this XI is not on the strictest scientific terms. If we were picking the best XI players, it might be tempting to simply attempt to crowbar Ferguson's greatest strikers into the team, and were we indulging in some sort of genuine historical re-enactment here, having presumably fired up our Delorean to fetch each player in his prime,("It's your kids, Fergie!") then having established Ferdinand as the finest defender of the Ferguson era, Nemanja Vidic would be the obvious choice to accompany him. It was, after all, one of the meanest, tightest defences England has ever known, and one of the great partnerships.
But there are question marks over Vidic. Not as Torres-shaped as the popular crowing would have you believe, but certainly over pace, and how that partnership with Ferdinand tended to suffer more when it was the Englishman who was the absentee. Such niggling doubts did not exist with Ferdinand, and nor do they exist with Jaap Stam. Clearly he and Vidic are similar players - immovably strong, dominant in the air, a magnet towards which every ball into the penalty area seemed to be drawn, only to be cruelly hoofed or headed into oblivion. The Dutchman, however, possessed something else - namely, an otherworldly degree of composure which made him stand out, forever appearing as the man holding it all together. This complete unshakability was key to completing Ferguson's puzzle and permitting his greatest triumph.
Another great defensive partnership, Blanc and Desailly, went by the respective nicknames of ‘Le Presidente' and ‘Le Rock.' However you imagine those concepts, it's difficult to imagine a more perfect-sounding defensive pair. The latter epithet doesn't quite suit Vidic's all-action, all-aggression, manic style - much better suited to good old Jaap. And finally - it's almost been forgotten now, with United's current midfield woes, and defensive impermeability of recent years, but in the years following his departure, his sale - at an eye-watering price - was widely credited to be a mistake and an irreplacable component of the team. Even moreso than the aforementioned Schmeichel, and a certain Irish midfielder who will feature shortly. That alone should speak volumes.
Left-back: Denis Irwin
The left-back position was always going to be a two-man contest between Irwin and Patrice Evra (though cult hero Clayton Blackmore should never be forgotten), and the Irishman should be the clear winner. He was, quite simply, the perfect fullback. First and foremost, a composed and mature defender, blessed with an additional two-footedness which allowed him to operate equally well on either flank. Secondly, a highly intelligent player at creating play from the wing, who was adept at acting as an impromptu playmaker rather than simply bombing one-dimensionally up and down the touchline. And thirdly, a goalscorer. A rare, but invaluable feat for a fullback, it was made all the better by the fact that he tended to save them for the big occasions. Such as finishing off one United striker's favourite career moment.