3 – Eric Cantona
Eric Cantona is seen by many as the catalyst that propelled Manchester United to unprecedented success. United already had a number of great players including Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce but they continued to just fall short when it came to winning the league title.
They had been favourites to win the league in 1991-92 and had led for much of the campaign. However, when Cantona’s Leeds pipped them at the post it was looking as though they would never make it past that final hurdle.
The following season, Cantona’s relationship with Leeds turned sour and he was sold to United for £1.2m. There were even rumours that Leeds had sold him to United in the hope that he would harm the morale in their dressing room and therefore halt their gathering momentum. However, Leeds deny this was the case and say they just wanted to sell a player who no longer wanted to play for them.
Whatever the reason for the transfer, Cantona suffered no such problems at United. He was a hit with his new team mates and fans alike. He had great vision, class and composure, as well as a good goalscoring record. He was the final piece of the jigsaw for the emerging United team. His unshakeable confidence inspired everybody at the club and in his first season he helped them win their first title for 26 years.
He was only at United for five years. It may seem like longer because of the impact he had. During his time at the club, he won four Premier League titles, two FA Cups, three Charity Shields and two Player of the Year awards.
2 – Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo was just 18 when he joined United. He had impressed United in a pre season friendly in which Sporting Clube de Portugal beat United 3-1. It was good enough to convince Ferguson to spend £12m on him.
Ronaldo had a difficult start to his United career. He was often accused of being too flashy. He had a fondness for producing fast stepovers but too often there was no end product. However, he was still young and gaining experience all the time. In his first three years at the club they failed to win the title thanks to the ‘invincibles’ of Arsenal and the moneybags of Chelsea. However, Ronaldo played 95 Premier League games in this period and was getting better all the time.
It was disastrous for United to go three years without winning the title. Since Ferguson’s first title win in 1993, they had never lost the title for more than one season until now. Things were different now, Chelseas’s money had made them a formidable opponent and a section of United’s fans were even questioning whether Ferguson should remain manager of the club.
However, in the 2006-07 season, Ronaldo came of age. He led the fight back against Chelsea’s billionaires and was unplayable. He scored 17 goals in 34 league games and United won the title. He had become United’s star man as they once again started to dominate the Premier League.
Even with all of Roman Abramovic’s billions at their disposal, Chelsea couldn’t keep up with United when Ronaldo was in such great form. United won the title for the next two years with Ronaldo as their devastating talisman. He also scored in the final of the Champions League in 2008 as United became European Champions.
He won nine trophies with United before joining Real Madrid for a world record £80m, giving United an incredible £68m profit.
1 – Roy Keane
Roy Keane joined United in 1993 for a fee of £3.75m. His club, Nottingham Forest, had finished bottom of the table but Keane had had an impressive season and was one of the hottest properties in the country.
In his first season with United, they won the league and FA Cup double and over the next couple of years, Keane grew into the role of ferocious midfield warrior. He was the driving force behind the most successful period in the club’s history.
If Cantona was the catalyst for United’s dominance, it was Keane more than any other player who made sure they stayed at the top. He wouldn’t accept second best and his never say die attitude inspired his teammates. It also struck fear into his opponents. Many teams were beaten before a ball was even kicked. This was largely down to the intensity of Keane.
His legendary will to win saw him promoted to captain after Cantona left the club. He made sure his team mates never dropped below the high standards they had set. He saw those standards as the minimum requirement for a United player. If he felt somebody had stopped pulling their weight, he would launch into a vicious verbal assault to make sure they booked their ideas up.
He led the team to their biggest game in 30 years, the Champions League final, although he had to sit it out through suspension. In total he won 17 trophies in 11 years at United including seven Premier League titles and four FA Cups.