By Dan Williamson (@winkveron)
I recently wrote an article about Wayne Rooney, and in the opening paragraph I discussed how he divides opinion among United fans like no other player in recent memory. That sparked a whole new debate, with names being thrown at me left, right and centre. Some of the players mentioned divided opinion based on their ability, their attitude on and/or off the pitch, or their past allegiances to rival clubs.
Look up the word “legend” in the dictionary and you will see a picture of Ryan Giggs staring back at you. That is according to a large number of Manchester United fans. He burst onto the scene with his spindly legs, black curly locks and his ability to turn defenders inside out. Born in Wales but spending his formative years in Salford, he was “one of us” as the phrase goes. Comparisons with George Best were trotted out and he became a superstar. He is the most decorated British footballer of all time with 2 European Cups, 13 Premier Leagues and 4 FA Cups to his name. He is the record appearance holder for the club, the current assistant manager and the heir apparent for the top job in the future. One of the most enduring images of the last few years was Giggs spinning his shirt above his head, chest rug for all to see, after scoring that incredible goal against Arsenal at Villa Park in 1999. Yet to some people, he is still remembered for coasting through the last ten years of his career, only playing well when a contract extension was due. Welsh fans may not remember him too fondly, for constantly pulling out of friendlies and failing to inspire the nation to a major tournament, something which Gareth Bale has just achieved. And of course, to some people his off-the-field “family troubles” tarnish his image somewhat.
Nani was, unfairly for him, constantly labelled as the “next Ronaldo”. He joined Manchester United as a 20-year-old after almost 76 games for Sporting CP. Despite collecting 4 Premier League titles and a Champions League winners medal, he never really got going. People were constantly waiting for him to “come good” although that never happened and he is now back plying his trade in Portugal. He had his moments but they were too few and far between. The Portuguese winger reached his zenith in the 2010-11, being named the clubs’ player of the year and winning a place in the PFA team of the year. Appearance wise it was also his best season as he clocked up 49 appearances, scoring 10 goals. He had the technical ability, the tricks and flicks, but his temperament was questionable. His sending off against Real Madrid in the Champions League was considered a turning point in the game by many, and his tears at Anfield not becoming of a Manchester United player. It took Louis Van Gaal, and his ruthless cull, to call time on his spell at the club.
The Yorkshireman was a key player in Leeds’ spectacular rise and shambolic fall of the Peter Risdale era. He burst onto the scene as a teenager with a winning goal at Anfield and was adored by Leeds fans although rumour has it that he was a Manchester United fan in his youth. When the Elland Road club imploded he was snapped up by Manchester United for a bargain £7m, scoring a beautiful volley against Norwich on his debut. Fans were forever divided because of his allegiance to the Elland Road club and also due to his perceived lack of ability. He was a battering ram of a striker, albeit never a prolific goalscorer. Despite not being technically gifted, and his former allegiances, he never gave anything less than 100%. It can be said that Anfield book-ended his career because as well as making his debut there, a horrific injury against Liverpool all but ended his career at the top level. His appearances for the club after that injury were limited although he starred in the 7-1 Champions League win against Roma at Old Trafford but towards the end of his time at Manchester United he was used in a deeper midfield role before drifting off to Newcastle, MK Dons and Notts County where he currently plays.
Not only was Michael Owen considered past his best by the time he signed for Manchester United, at the age of 30, he also had a long-standing history with the club’s biggest rivals, Liverpool. I personally thought signing him on a free transfer was a no-brainer. After all, you are only paying his wages. Similar to Ryan Giggs he was a teenage star, bursting on the scene for Liverpool with a goal away to Wimbledon at Selhurst Park at the tender age of 17. He scored that goal for England against Argentina but like Rooney, and other explosive forwards, he seemed to reach his peak in his early to mid 20s. He suffered an injury ravaged 3 years at the club, making just 52 appearances in all competitions. He did manage to score a Champions League hat-trick away to Wolfsburg as part of a second string side in a dead rubber group game. But he will surely be remembered most fondly for an incredible last minute winner in the exhilarating Manchester derby of September 2009. With seconds to spare, and Manchester City having just made it 3-3 through Craig Bellamy, Owen latched onto a pass by Ryan Giggs and finished exquisitely past Shay Given, almost causing Mark Hughes to spontaneously combust on the sidelines.
Carrick has been described as a Rolls Royce type of player: A luxury, but not a necessity. It took fans years to warm to him, and the casual viewer doesn’t really understand what he brings to a team, similar to Sergio Busquets at Barcelona. Now it seems he has won most fans over. He is accused of “not tackling like Roy Keane” and “not scoring as many as Paul Scholes” but he never has been, nor purported to be, like-for-like players in their mould. People have accused him of sideways or backwards passing but they are ignoring the crucial contribution he made to one of United’s most successful periods. Before Carrick’s arrival from Tottenham Alex Ferguson was “experimenting” with a myriad of players in central midfield such as Rio Ferdinand, John O’Shea, Rafael, Ji-Sung Park and many more. Carrick brought a stability and fluidity to the midfield that was lacking before his arrival and has been lacking for the last couple of years whenever he’s been missing with injury. Last year’s best run coincided with his presence in the side, and the bad spell followed also happened to occur at a time when he was out injured. He doesn’t need to tackle because his positioning and anticipation is spot on. He knits the defence and attack together by always be willing to accept the ball, before keeping it moving intelligently. You can’t help but think if England had more players like him, as opposed to blood-and-thunder box-to-box types, that they might have been more successful over the last few years on the international stage. Carrick’s no spring chicken now and injuries are catching up with him, but he has played almost 400 times for the club, winning 5 Premier League titles and a Champions League in the process. He should be remembered fondly.
Dimitar Berbatov arrived at Manchester Airport and was greeted personally by Sir Alex Ferguson, who was worried that newly oil-rich Manchester City would try and gazump the deal. In some quarters the capture of Berbatov was compared with that of Cantona. In one sense you can see why his languid style and sublime touch should have suited the club and complemented Rooney and Tevez’s more forceful nature. It was thought he had the talent and the temperament to be a Manchester United player. His finest moment came in September 2010, as he scored a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Liverpool, one of the goals being a spectacular overhead kick and contender for goal of the season. Like Nani, despite having obvious technical ability, he could never really produce on a consistent basis and left after only amassing 21 appearances in his final season.
What are your thoughts on these players? And which other players, from any club, divide opinion?