Chicarito basically wrapped up the league for Man Utd after 37 seconds on Sunday as the Chelsea defence parted like a glamour model’s legs in the presence of a Premier League footballer. It’s been a stunning debut season for the Mexican and the Little Pea’s performances have prompted some chin-stroking around the Paddy Power offices as to who’s the best signing of the Alex Ferguson era at Old Trafford. Most of that chin-stroking was done by people much more knowledgeable than me, but they don’t have a blog, so here’s my Top 5.
1. Peter Schmeichel
Back in the early nineties when we were all a little less enlightened and Jim Davidson still counted as a wholesome family entertainer, £530,000 for a goalkeeper was considered an eyebrow-raising wedge of money. As time went on and football adopted monopoly money as its official currency , the purchase of Schmeichel from Brondby began to look like a master-stroke of Warren Buffet proportions. Brian Clough’s costly pursuit of Peter Shilton went against the common wisdom of the time yet reaped a huge dividend and Fergie also knew the value of having a good keeper upon which to build your foundations – despite the later evidence of Taibi, Carroll, Barthez and Howard. The Great Dane came up with some breath-taking saves at crucial times for United and more importantly, posed the constant threat of giving his defenders a right bollocking whenever they ballsed up. With his aggression, Schmeichel showed that a goalkeeper needn’t just be that guy in the gloves that the striker walks around before sticking the ball into the net. With his saves and all round contribution, he turned defeats into draws and draws into wins. With the risk of badly paraphrasing Al Pacino’s speech in Any Given Sunday, all his small things he did eventually added up to something big and the points he earned for his team were the difference between league titles and being the next Leeds. Without Schmeichel, the foundations simply wouldn’t have been there to build a dynasty of successful teams at Old Trafford and that’s why he’s Fergie’s best buy.
2. Eric Cantona
Was it because he was giving team-mate’s partners what’s since become known as the ‘John Terry Treatment’ or was it because Howard Wilkinson is to creativity what Rio Ferdinand is to intellectual thought? Just why Sir Alex only had to part with £1.2 million to secure the Frenchman’s services from Leeds remains the stuff of mystery mixed with spurious myth, but Cantona went on to repay that investment with honours and astonishing entertainment. When not conjuring up moments of genius, he was throwing himself at xenophobic Crystal Palace fans or confusing journalists with really rather good metaphors and he almost single-handedly reminded a nation that ‘flair’ wasn’t just something jeans from the seventies had. For the time, he wasn’t the cheapest of purchases, but his style and determination went a long way to establishing United’s fearsome reputation that seemed to defeat opponents before they set foot on the pitch for much of the nineties. Plus Looking For Eric was way better than I was expecting so he gets retrospective bonus points for that.
Anyone who saw his performances for Mexico during last year’s World Cup would have noticed that Chicarito looked like a decent player. Anyone who saw Sailf Diao and El Hadji Diouf do something similar for Senegal in 2002 prior to joining Liverpool would have known not to get too excited. But that form has been maintained, improved upon and unless he develops a fondness for spitting on players and young children, any further comparisons to Diouf will be non-existent. He has swept into the city like baggy pants and trippy psychedelic rock did in the late 80s. It’s not just the decent haul of goals he’s got in his first season in the Premier League that has impressed, it has also been the importance of them. Sometimes a striker makes his stats look better than his actual contribution by whacking in a load of goals against demoralised and beaten lesser opposition [it’s called the Berbatov Effect], but Hernandez has already got the happy knack of scoring goals that make a difference. Of the 19 he’s managed this season 14 of them have nudged United from drawing positions to a winning position (although they may not have necessarily held on to that lead subsequently) and once one of his goals got United from a losing position to a drawing position. That header with the back of his head against Stoke earlier in the season was truly outstanding. I’m sure even Emile Heskey has scored a goal with the back of his head, but on this occasion it was nice to see that the player actually meant it.
The frightening part is he’s still only getting used to English football and the Mexican may yet reach the summit of this list by the time his Old Trafford career is over.
4. Dennis Irwin
Alex Ferguson has called him his best value for money signing in his time at Old Trafford, but a lack of launching himself two-footed at Crystal Palace fans and a general mental stability makes him less entertaining from a spectator’s point of view. Dennis does seem like the kind of person who’d correct you for adding an extra ‘n’ to the spelling of his name, but equally he’d let it slide after maybe two or three further occurrences. One person’s boring is another’s steadfastly reliable and as every accountant with a trophy wife will attest, sometimes you don’t need to be the most eye-catching or flamboyant to get the spoils. Denis patrolled his flank with authority and provided the blueprint for the overlapping full-back now so prevalent in Premier League teams that aren’t managed by Roy Hodgson. His crossing was excellent, his dead-ball striking superb and he could defend, which is where a lot of modern day full backs really struggle. His twelve years at Old Trafford yielded 33 goals and more importantly, countless wingers in his pocket.
5. Ole Gunnar Solskjær
An excellent reader of the game or a jammy fecker who grasped the few crumbs that came his way like an iron-willed ant? When the unheralded Norwegian signed for United, it looked like the only silverware he was likely to bring to the Old Trafford trophy cabinet was for a Bonnie Baby competition, but he repaid his transfer fee with some of the most important (and suspiciously timed) goals in the history of the club. Give him a chance and a few minutes more added time than was previously advertised and Ole would more than likely get you a goal. One of his best talents was being able to tolerate long spells of bench-warming without so much as an angry grumble in the direction of the manager and beyond his footballing talents, his exemplary team spirit was crucial in minimising the dissent from players who weren’t too fond of running the risk of splinters. If ever a 4 second passage of play summed up a player’s career, it was the Champions League Final when he threw a leg at the ball to win United a game they barely deserved to draw. And even in retirement he kept on giving. After managing the reserves for a couple of years, he moved back to Norway to manage Molde, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return to Old Trafford in some capacity in the future. Selfless, a deadly accurate finisher and still able to pay a schoolboy fare on the bus, Solksjaer was undoubtedly one of Fergie’s shrewdest buys.
Edwin van der Sar was very close to making the list, but I didn’t want to write about another goalkeeper and such was Schmeichel’s impact that I think his aggressive performances changed the way English football viewed the role of the goalkeeper. Van der Sar has performed to a very similar level, but isn’t the game-changer the Dane was. Roy Keane misses out because £3.75 million in 1993 is roughly worth £650 million in modern terms – or the total GDP of Ireland. Somewhat unfairly, Ronaldo misses out because he’s a cheating shitebag. Although United turned a colossal profit on him when the man in charge of the Real Madrid cheque-book momentarily lost his mind, he still cost £12.2 million and plucked from relative obscurity in the same way as some of the others. Nemanja Vidic also narrowly misses out. He has been a superb and relatively cheap buy for Fergie, but he losses out because (a) he doesn’t yet have the same history of sustained success as some of the others and (b) as good as he’s been in general, he’s had a couple of brief periods during his United career of being a total liability.
Criticism or your own suggestions are more than welcome in the comments section, but any cases made for the inclusion of Michael Carrick will result in an immediate banning from the blog.