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 picked our defence and goalkeeper. In our second part, we pick our midfield.
Central Midfielder: Bryan Robson
Bryan Robson has become an unappreciated, mythical figure for the Manchester United fan born too late to see him in his pomp.
It's easy to forget, when watching the highlights videos, of his box-to-box, all-action performances, that Robson was a supremely classy player. He oozed authority on the pitch, his status as Captain obvious without the armband. His performances stood out at a higher level from the rest of the team - not merely a big fish in the relative backwater of European football that England was at the time. His European performances were enough to confirm to Europe's leading clubs that Robson, was indeed, world-class. Fortunately for United, Milan and Juventus were unwilling to meet their £3 million valuation, and Robson was ‘saved' from earning far more money to play alongside Michel Platini and seven of Italy's world-cup winning side in Juventus' great team of the 80s.
His inclusion is a no-brainer, but the biggest problem is deciding between Robson and Keane for the captaincy. While both led by supreme example, the leadership style could scarcely be more contrasted otherwise. Robson was a white knight - the man who was looked to when the chips were down, a style of captaincy that Eric Cantona would later restore to the team. No problem was too heavy for his shoulders, and nothing was too large to be withstood. For all the problems that the 1980's drinking culture at United - which Ferguson spent his difficult early years eradicating - caused to the likes of Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath, Robson led in the drinking as well as the football. Gary Bailey recalls, during one miserable run, the rest of the team, led y their ‘Captain Marvel', drinking 20 pints on one day out. Robson, a freak of nature, was able to remain entirely unaffected. The greatest tragedy of his career is not his injuries, but the simple fact that nobody else was able to keep up.
Central Midfielder: Roy Keane
Which brings us to our illustrious captain. Whilst his personality is well-documented, it should be remembered what a superb footballer Keane was, independent of his black-hearted spirit. A robotically consistant passer, a strong tackler, an authoritative, calming presence in the centre of the pitch for the rest of the team, at odds with his personal aggression, and a scorer of important goals, with timing bettered only by his ginger partner. Of course, this all tells just half the story.
When pundits are wheeled out to discuss Wayne Rooney's latest attempt to perform open-knee surgery on some unsuspecting Belgian left-back, we will frequently hear that his aggression is ‘part of his game... you can't take that out, Clive, or he won't be the same player.' Rooney would do well to look at Keane, who managed to turn violence, bloodshed, and psychopathic drive into the most potent weapons in Manchester United's arsenal, rather than the total liability they usually represent.
It was Keane's darkness that overshadowed that entire ‘99 treble-winning side, seeping into the dressing room and the training pitch. No one player has influenced a club's mentality more - even now, his name is still spoken of in hushed tones, a boogeyman to frighten the latest United youth players into doing things properly. Because whether it was a driving, 30-yard pass, a perfectly-timed run, a last-ditch block, or, yes, an act of horrible, violent revenge, Keane would only ever accept doing things properly. Just as it should be.
Central Midfielder: Paul Scholes
Paul Scholes stands at the opposite end of the great spectrum of footballing personalities from the likes of Paul Gascoigne. Shy, quiet, unassuming and reliable are not qualities, however, that endear a man to the hearts of the English nation, and so the extent of Scholes' greatness is still open to question, much as it is for the entirely opposite reasons for the likes of the aforementioned Rio Ferdinand.
Yet of all the players that Ferguson has managed over the course of his career, Paul Scholes was perhaps the most technically gifted. His consistency was simply jaw-dropping - United fans have been spoiled by a decade of raking passes being played out to the wing, short through-balls being jabbed into the opposition penalty area, without having to consider the possibility that they might not make it. Training-ground stories of Scholes being able to hit any target from any distance back up the fact that in terms of short-term consistency - from one swing of the boot to the next - there was nobody better. The ball only ever went where he wanted it to go.
This sheer reliance on technical ability - as any short, ginger, one-paced asthmatic generally has to in the world of football - allowed Scholes to retain his influence long after the dynamism of his pomp had deserted him, though he still saved his goals for the very biggest occasions - his header to deal Manchester City's third consecutive injury-time derby defeat, and his savage dagger into Barcelona's heart which allowed the 2008 Moscow triumph. It's curious that somebody so ordinary and whose strengths were so clear and direct should be the topic of such debate - was he really England's best player, was he a bad tackler or just a dirty player, et al. But that's because, despite his shyness, Paul Scholes was not boring. He was, in advanced hipster fashion, so boring it made him cool.