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All Time Best XI Series

All Time Best XI Series: Central Midfield

The Midfield – The Engine Room of MUFC Success – Written by Rob B.

It’s without doubt the most common game MUFC fans get to play over their lifetime.

It’s your typical ‘Who Is Your Favourite Player’ debate. Who would you play where? At a team like United it’s an utter minefield. We all have our own recommendations for such debates.

I’ve been asked by to choose my own two favourite central midfielders for their run of articles about each position. The midfield was always the one area I naturally gravitated to as a kid. Technically and tactically it was what I was about as a schoolboy footballer. I wasn’t tall, so 1980s British defending was out of the question. I also wasn’t that fast. So even though I scored goals I never really played at centre forward. But the thing I could do was pass a ball accurately. And that made me a midfielder. I played behind the attack, so the midfielders of the day that did a similar thing…scurrying around, slipping in passes…drifting wide to slide a ball across the area…these were the players I gravitated toward.

The two players that initially grabbed my interest were Gordon Strachan and Jesper Olsen. I loved their industry, whilst still displaying their skill. Strachan could dictate from the centre “covering every blade of grass” as I remember commentators often saying about him. Olsen was more of a wide player. A prodigious Danish talent rated highly on the international stage. These were the sort of players that made me fall in love with Manchester United. I also witnessed players like Muhren, Moses, and Wilkins. But it’s fair to say there was only one MUFC midfielder that rose above it all with a God like stature during this period…

…and without doubt my first choice in a two man midfield.

Bryan Robson was, and still is, the greatest Man Utd player I ever witnessed. Only Cantona can stand closely to his equal.

He played for us at a time when frankly we were very average, and he was a colossus. For a decade he dragged United onwards on his own, while his body fell apart by the sheer crazy physical demand he would put on it. If he wasn’t breaking a bone, he was dislocating another part of him. And through this he scored the important goals…defended like the best centreback in the world. Ran games like he owned them. He feared nothing…showed contempt for every opponent, without ever losing any class or discipline. He was simply the perfect footballer. A lion.

Robbo’s goal against Liverpool (5m.20s) in the 1985 FA Cup Semi Final replay will always typify him to me. They were one the best teams in the world at the time. We were the paupers from across the North West who were more famous for not winning much. Robson killed them that day. And we went on to beat an Everton team in the final, who no doubt would have won a European Cup had it not been for the English club ban in Europe. They had beaten us 5-0 in the league 6 months before…yes I remember it well! It was a rare trophy win for United.

Robson strode above all of them…and consistently.

My second central spot could go to a multitude of midfielders Fergie has cultivated over the years. Of course, I could go back and include all those great lads that Busby had, but it’s difficult for me to talk about players that I only ever saw on a video. Legend dictates that Duncan Edwards was the greatest of them all…and any MUFC fans I speak to who actually saw him always back this up. But I’m not choosing players that I simply can’t constructively critique…I’ve seen way too many excellent players with my own eyes, so I have a great selection of choice.

The last twenty years have been the greatest in United history. Yes the 50s and 60s will always hold resonance in the history of our great club but the sheer volume of success from the Ferguson years dictates its it is only right to pick a player from this era. The trailblazer was Paul Ince. His signing was controversial at the time, but was only a tremor on the Richter Scale in the grand scheme of things in world football. Yet he went on to be the modern engine in the Man Utd middle. He worked hard and he played hard. The endearing image will always remain of him standing in front of a seething Selhurst Park…stand in front of Palace fans seconds after the Cantona Kung Fu kick. They were baying for blood, and Incey ran over to them as Cantona was dragged away, and loudly asked them “Who wants some then? Come on!” It was the epitome of the ‘everyone hates us’ attitude that Fergie bred into his teams…the elixir that made us winners.

But as we know Ince tainted his United legend with future transfer moves and comments. There can only be two players truly considered to partner Robson in midfield:

And that is the dual axis of Keane and Scholes.

When Bobby Charlton says you’re the best there’s ever been, you listen. Paul Scholes – The Ginger Prince. The best midfielder of his generation…according to the best midfielders of this generation,  plying their trade for Barcelona’s modern classic team. Scholes is the epitome of the hometown lad ‘done good’…With his mates from the youth team, they entered a Man Utd side who suddenly were successful again. It would’ve been a nightmare for any other homegrown players, having to follow the act of MUFC finally winning the title after a million years or whatnot.

“You cant win anything with kids”…well you can if one of them is Paul Scholes…

… and the most talented bunch of young players in one side this country has seen since the 1950s.

One day they will build a statue of Scholes outside of Old Trafford, along with Giggs and Red Nev. And he will be rightfully immortalised in granite and stone. ‘He scores goals’ will be sung forever more at Old Trafford, and we will tell our children about a quiet lad born in Salford who simply was a footballing wizard.

Keane was a defensive lynch pin in later years, but he was the original explosive box to boxer when we signed him for a club record fee. The heir to Robson and Ince apparent, Keane was fearless. He would tackle any man or beast on a football pitch. He was mean and nasty. He had total apathy to the opposition, and it was his one track mind that spawned title success after title success. He was a man’s man. Whereas Robson led by example and the regular drinking jollies with his team mates, Keane led in a more business like manner…direct and succinct. He took no bull, and if you weren’t pulling your weight, you were dead meat. His performance against Juve in the 1999 Champions League semi is the stuff of legends. Without him there would have been no Treble that year.

When they made Roy Keane they broke the mould.

So which one do I choose to partner Robbo?

Well….the winner is!!!………….Both of them! Paul Scholes and Roy Keane.

How can you choose? It’s impossible. My initial inkling was Keane. But then you could say that Scholes would compliment Robson more..? Here we have the best three central midfielders of the last quarter of a century for our club. Each has their own value. Each has their own USPs. But the fact is it’s almost an insult to try and separate them. If I was the manager of this team it would totally have to be a rotation system! I wouldn’t pick two and leave the other one begging.

So there you have it: Robson with either Keane or Scholes. I feel privileged to have seen all three hundreds of times in the flesh with my own eyes, through my childhood years to the present day. The thing that links all three is that they never courted fanfare. They knew they were great…so just got on with it. They worked hard, and through that effort became legends…and they made Manchester United a winning club once again. We will forever be indebted to them.

A time will come when Sir Alex has gone, and United are no longer the top club. It’s the natural cycle in football…and life. But we will always have the joy of looking back at these players with pride and passion. History is cemented.

The men who wore the Red like their lives depended on it. The engine room of MUFC success.

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