Bryan Robson – Captain Marvel
When Ron Atkinson was manager of West Bromwich Albion, he would quiz Robson after international games. He wanted to know who had tried to tap up his midfielder. After one international, Robson returned and said that United were the latest. Atkinson dismissed the idea immediately. He told him that the only way Robson would ever join United, was if Atkinson signed him.
Atkinson joined United and made Robson his main transfer target. The new manager convinced the United board that signing Robson wasn’t even a risk. Robson, the man that Atkinson described as “solid gold”, signed on the Old Trafford pitch, before a league game against Wolves. The man he was set to replace, Sammy McIlroy, promptly hit a hattrick, as United thumped Wolves five nil. Robson sat in the stand, no doubt wondering where he might fit in at his new club.
But Robson would soon become the heart beat of the club, captaining United to three FA Cup wins. In amongst this, Robson and United took on the might of Barcelona at Old Trafford. Barcelona boasted Diego Maradona, but it was Robson’s night, scoring twice in a famous 3-0 win.
For any younger red out there, I could only sum him up as a Keane/Scholes hybrid. My own biased opinion, in this article, is that he was a better footballer than Keane. There wasn’t a facet of the game Robson didn’t excel at. Also like Scholes, Robson had that priceless knack of arriving in the box at exactly the right time.
Roy Keane – Fergie’s General
In 1992, Bryan Robson was already in the autumn of his career. Captain Marvel, the man who had given everything to his beloved United, was almost ready to hang up his boots. We didn’t know it at the time, but the baton, was about to be passed on.
Around the same time, an Irishman was making a lot of noise in the East Midlands. Roy Keane had been given his first team chance by Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. Ferguson liked what he saw, but Keane had other suitors. Kenny Dalglish was in charge of Blackburn Rovers, the nouveau riche of the newly formed Premier League. Dalglish thought he had landed his man. But another Scot, was about to steal his thunder.
Keane had pretty much agreed to joined Blackburn, when Ferguson called to ask Keane to meet him. It has gone down in footballing folklore, and there’ll be no spoiler alert here. I’ll leave Roy to tell the tale.
Keane soon settled into life at United, with two goals on his home debut against Crystal Palace. Over the next 12 years, Keane became the soul of the Club. Keane took over from Robson in midfield, and Cantona as captain of the club. He became the epitome of Ferguson’s new United. A warrior, a natural born leader, a footballer who demanded that his team mates gave their all. All traits of Bryan Robson, I should add.
There were bumps in the road, and the odd skirmish off the pitch that landed him in trouble. On the field, Keane had few equals though. Over the course of his career, the £3.75 million British transfer record, seemed more and more like peanuts, with every passing season.
There was one infamous incident at Elland Road, which resulted in a long term injury for Keane. Involved in a running battle with Alf Inge Haaland, the midfielder chased his opponent, into the Leeds area, before collapsing in agony. Haaland stood over him, remonstrating with Keane. The Norwegian accused Keane of feigning injury. Keane’s season was over, but it was a moment he wouldn’t forget.
Keane came back and and set about making up for lost time. He became the formidable force in a midfield alongside Scholes, Giggs and Beckham. In 1999, Keane’s influence and will to win was never more evident, than in Turin. A tackle on Zidane had resulted in a booking. Keane would miss the Champions League final, should United reach Barcelona. Undeterred by his own personal fate, Keane leapt to meet a Beckham corner, and it quite literally was ‘Game on!’. Keane covered every blade of grass, as United overturned an early two goal deficit to reach the final. Keane missed the showpiece, but he’d done everything in his power to get United there.
Andy Cole – Goal King Cole
‘He gets the ball, he scores a goal, Andy, Andy Cole’. Sorry Andrew, but as far as I’m concerned it will always be “Andy” for me. I was at work when news broke that Cole was Old Trafford bound. A boss, with more than a penchant for being a “wind up” merchant, telephoned me to say “United have signed Andy Cole for £7 million.” It was almost lunch time, and my immediate reaction was “yeah, right!” I dashed out on an ‘emergency’ lunch break. There was no social media back then. I spent my entire lunch time, in the car, switching radio stations. I was desperate to get some form of confirmation. It was a total waste of time and I was convinced it was, indeed, the mother of all wind ups.
What wasn’t a waste of time, was the signing of Andy Cole. The Newcastle boss, Kevin Keegan, was left to “front up” angry Newcastle fans on the steps of St. James’ Park. The Toon Army were angered at losing a striker who had hit a record 41 goals in Geordie colours.
After a unspectacular start, Cole hit five in a famous 9-0 rout of Ipswich Town. Some said that he needed far too many chances to score. The trouble was, he was largely getting on the end of goalscoring chances, Upton Park ’95, aside.
In 1999, Cole would blaze a trail through Europe, aided and abetted by his right hand man, Dwight Yorke. They served up the quintessential ‘one two’ in Camp Nou. It came in a breathtaking Champions League six goal thriller against Barcelona. Cole then settled the fate of the Premier League on the final day. Expertly lifting the ball over over Ian Walker. It was more Cantona, than Cole. But three quarters of Old Trafford didn’t care. United fans, deliriously falling over themselves. Absolutely lost in the moment, of the second step on what seemed like destiny. Full speed ahead Barcelona.
Cole scored 229 goals 509 career games and currently stands as the Premier League’s third highest goalscorer of all time. So much for a striker that seemed to need “too many chances to score.”