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Nov 2, 2011

25 years of Ferguson: The selection

For a manager granted the not especially complimentary nickname 'Tinkerbell' by fans impatient of his use of squad rotation, there is a happy wealth of options from which to select Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest ever XI. One thing for certain is that he probably wouldn't agree with this selection. 4-4-2 will be the formation, as it has been, with certain nuances, the default for his tenure.

Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel

Unsurpassable as United's greatest goalkeeper, and with a pronounced nod to the less spectacular dependability of Edwin van der Sar, Schmeichel was the Great Dane who was as important to Ferguson's early successes as Eric Cantona. You feared for the attacker in one-on-ones as the famed 'starfish' neared its prey, and his command of his defence was dictatorial. While they argued plenty, the respect was there for the best in the business. An Olympic-standard throwing arm also made him a foundation for United's counter-attacking style.

Right back: Gary Neville

Teacher's pet perhaps, but the elder Neville, the less naturally talented of the pair, is an archetypal Ferguson lieutenant. Endeavour put in on the training pitch, and on fitness, made him a player who could run all day for his manager, with hundreds of hours put into crossing the ball to make him a potent attacking weapon, both in tandem with David Beckham and after his close pal had departed. Twelve years as first-choice right back make him the only choice for this position.

Left back: Denis Irwin

While Ferguson has played the star system well, his success, both at Aberdeen and United, has drawn much from the unsung yeoman type of which Irwin is the embodiment. A quiet demeanour shielded a winning mentality, and a supreme grasp of the art of the attacking full back. Precise in the tackle, though steely, he glided on the overlap until he was deep into his 30s. He was United's penalty-taker in the post-Cantona era and, pre-Beckham, he was his team's free-kick specialist.

Centre back: Gary Pallister

Ferguson retains much sentiment for his first great partnership of Steve Bruce and this lofty Teesider, but the younger man gets in ahead of the Tynesider on account of his greater pace. Those currently admiring Phil Jones' charges forward would have appreciated the early 'Pally' and his loping runs deep into enemy territory. Here was a player who always looked shattered from the first minute of the game, and Ferguson would search his bags for Pallister's beloved bags of confectionary, yet the manager always enjoyed his full-blooded commitment.

Centre back: Nemanja Vidic

Ferguson's second great partnership was this icy-glared Serb and Rio Ferdinand. The Englishman's occasional lapses cost him here, and though Vidic has sometimes shown vulnerability against certain opponents, it is of little doubt that his January 2006 arrival brought a solidity to United's defence that produced four titles in five seasons. When Van der Sar achieved a record run of minutes without a goal conceded, it was Vidic who was marshalling the defence ahead of him. There have been few more commanding headers of a football.

Right midfield: Cristiano Ronaldo

The Portuguese breaks up the band in denying the midfield quartet that was United's first choice during their 'Treble' season of 1998-99. Beckham loses out, but the player bought to be his successor eventually surpassed him, to become acknowledged as the world's best in 2008. The luxury player he was as a teenager became a supreme athletic specimen and goal machine, capable of a variety of different strikes. For a while - three championship-winning seasons - it was worth Ferguson having such a monstrous ego in his team.

Left midfield: Ryan Giggs

It was love at first sight when Ferguson saw a 13-year-old Giggs floating "over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind". We are 25 years on from then, but Giggs is the constant of the Ferguson era, first as a fleet-footed and explosive winger, then as a versatile veteran from his mid-20s onwards. A balletic balance, and a freakish physiology, continue to make him hugely important to Manchester United, and he has been no passenger in his club's recent push for honours.

Centre midfield: Roy Keane

If determination is Ferguson's greatest asset as a manager, one player personifies that quality above all others. When United were chasing a game, it was Keane who led the charge. When United were cruising to victory, it would be Keane chasing a 30-70 ball in the last minute, with no less stridency in delivering invective to more circumspect colleagues. Metronomic in his passing, thunderous in the tackle, Keane's slight physique was usually the dominant figure when United enjoyed their successes of the late 90s and early 2000s.

Centre midfield: Paul Scholes

His admirers stretch to wholly continental types such as Xavi and Iniesta but his appeal to United fans lies in his homespun nature. Seemingly uncomplicated by fame and fortune, Scholes played the game without unnecessary flourish yet with no less skill than more showbiz counterparts. Early on in his career he was known as a supreme finisher but, as he slowed and retreated, he exploited a full spectrum of passing from deep. Scholes' first touch was always in his head before he received the ball. It made him hugely difficult to dispossess of the ball.

Striker: Wayne Rooney

Perhaps a controversial choice, given the quality of strikers like Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Brian McClair and Mark Hughes that have thrived under Ferguson, but Rooney can, on club form at least, claim to be one of the world's best. The wonderboy bought in 2004 was predicted to reach mountainous heights that have not quite been scaled, but an examination of his body of work produces a picture of considerable achievement. Adaptable enough to do much of the running when Ronaldo was in his pomp but able to convert into a 30-goal striker once his Portuguese pal had departed, Rooney is Ferguson's current standard bearer, and his importance is best revealed by the PR masterclass his manager mounted a year ago when a parting of the ways seemed likely.

Striker: Eric Cantona

In recent years, there have been those who suggest that 'Le Roi' Cantona would not have reigned so supreme in the modern era. But why choose to lessen the impact he had on Manchester United and the nascent Premier League? Of any Ferguson player, Cantona was the layer of foundations for two decades of dominance. An iron-hard will to win, an ability to seize the grandest occasion and an influence that encouraged the next generation to yet greater heights make him the most important player of the Ferguson era.

Substitutes:

Following the modern Premier League manager's ability to field seven substitutes, a further seam of options can be mined. Edwin Van Der Sar, of course, takes the reserve gloves. Bryan Robson was United's hero on Ferguson's arrival, and remained so for a while, though the Scot did not see the best of him in midfield. David Beckham never much liked being on the bench when at United, but he will have to settle for it here. Jaap Stam's dominance during the 1998-99 season makes him the other central defensive option. Ruud Van Nistelrooy's bewilderingly rapid accumulation of goals makes him a fine option to bring on, while Mark Hughes' vital strikes fired early-Ferguson United to job-saving glory. And, of course, the ultimate substitute, and in Ferguson's view the player who watched most closely of all from the bench, must be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
• From Monday 31st October - Friday 4th November at 10.00pm, ESPN Classic will air their brand new five-part series, 25 Years United: Sir Alex Ferguson, in the lead-up to Sir Alex Ferguson's 25 year anniversary in charge at Old Trafford on Saturday 6th November. For details visit: www.espnclassic.com

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