Sometimes in football, things may get a little carried away. Sometimes there are players who are qualified as just good or bad. There are players that have long and successful careers at their clubs, win many titles and become a symbol of their respective institutions; these are the legends and the most famous players that you can possibly think of. On the other hand, there are the flops, the misfits and those wasted talents that never live up to the expected standard of their teams; these are, of course, those considered "failures" or just plain bad, as some fans may deem them.
But there is a third category that we can define as cult heroes. These are the players that perhaps didn’t have the most successful of periods at their clubs, but still left a certain mark with a contribution that transcends beyond their stay in the team. Obviously, a team of Manchester United’s stature has a certain group of players that gave us those specific moments of brilliance – a very particular kind of brilliance -- for all to behold. You can also add to this list those who had long and successful careers, but were never held in that legendary status when it could well deserved.
Here at The Busby Babe we would like to go back in time – not that far back, since yours truly can be one lazy guy -- and pay tribute to the top 10 cult heroes. Let’s have a look at it.
10. Jesse Lingard (2011-present)
It may be a shock to some, but Jesse Lingard makes the list. And, when you think about it, it’s not hard to see why: while Jesse is not the most technical player and his end product may sometimes border on apocalyptic fails – to this writer’s mind comes a certain chance against Newcastle at St. James Park last season-- his work rate, movement off the ball and honest love for the institution makes him an interesting asset for the club when they are playing without possession -- just like against Manchester City in the Etihad in the last Derby.
One of former United manager Louis Van Gaal’s favorite personnel and trusted soldiers, Lingard’s place at the club’s history is secured after that goal against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final. An outstanding thunderbolt of a shot, it gave the team their first tropgy after a three-year drought, and showed once again Lingard’s peculiar ability of scoring remarkable goals that don’t look, on paper, capable for someone of his quality and talents – just think of the ones scored against West Bromich Albion at home, Chelsea away and this historic goal.
Lingard may never be Cristiano Ronaldo, George Best or Ryan Giggs, running wild on the wing and tearing defences apart on weekly basis, but his ability to sacrifice for the team -- his work rate and commitment -- gives him a well-earned place on this list.
9. Diego Forlán (2002-2004)
The Uruguayan’s fortune at the club was not so great – he couldn’t break into a pretty talented United starting eleven -- and while his sale proved to be an important error from Sir Alex Ferguson, the player has always talked highly of his time in Manchester and shown a pretty classy attitude regarding the lack of playing time.
Master of a powerful shot, a predator of the area and adept with both feet, Diego’s biggest highlight at United will always be 1st December of 2002 when he scored twice to beat Liverpool at Anfield. The first one was a poacher's kind of goal, seizing Jerzy Dudek’s mistake, and the second was a powerful finish after a good pass by Ryan Giggs.
With that memory still burning bright, the United faithful keeps singing his song at times against Liverpool, and Forlán himself admits that it makes him smile still to this day. "He came from Uruguay, he made the Scousers cry".
8. Rafael (2008-2015)
Ohhh, Rafa, Rafa, Rafa. A liability in defence, a right-back made of glass and a walking red card; a dangerous proposal for any manager that is afraid of taking risks (*cough* Van Gaal *cough*). But he was also a pretty good attacker from the right side, a committed player and one that was the representation of the fan on the pitch. Love him or hate him, you cannot deny that Rafael always gave his all for the shirt.
How many of us didn’t feel good when Rafa stood up to Carlos Tévez after leaving the club for Citeh? How many of us didn’t feel represented while he fought against multiple Liverpool players in front of the Kop? How many of us didn’t scream our heads off after that goal against the Scousers? Capable of being one of the most infuriating United players of recent times, he was also one that was (and is) dearly loved by a large number of fans. And you cannot blame them: he even took the number 20 at Lyon after the number of the club’s league titles. That was Rafa.
7. Norman Whiteside (1982-1989)
The Belfast-born winger was often compared to George Best because of his birthplace, club and being discovered by the same scout, Bob Bishop. Blessed by the football gods and conquered by the demons of misfortune, Whiteside never lived up to his early prmise as a young footballer and multiple injuries took their toll on one of the club’s biggest talents ever.
The Northern-Irish attacker never amounted to what was expected from him after his early superstardom and recognition because of his 1982 World Cup exploits, but he did leave some good memories at Old Trafford and the most important being, just like Lingard, in a FA Cup final. Against Howard Kendall’s mighty Everton side, Whiteside handled the grandest of stages that is Wembley and scored an stunning volley in extra-time to deliver another title to the club and earned his place in United lore.
While much more was expected from him at his home club and his premature retirement was something of a sad dawn to such a promising career, Whiteside, for such a limited time, managed to prove to the world that he was star material. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.
6. Andrei Kanchelskis (1991-1995)
For those who grew up in the '90s, Andrei Kanchelskis might be one of their favorite players, and one that was, in a way, never utilised to his fullest. A very talented right-sided winger and with pace to burn, the Russian was part of the first great United side built by Ferguson in the early '90s, and his contribution to the club’s success during that particular era has been a bit overshadowed by the likes of Peter Schmeichel, Eric Cantona, Giggs, Roy Keane and many others.
Leaving the club in unceremonious fashion in 1995, Kanchelskis was a thorn on the opposition’s defences for many years, but the only reason he features in this category might because history didn’t do its part and left him in something of a dark place in the club’s books – that was just before the rise of the internet when everybody knew about everybody and everything. Back then, foreign players were a rare breed and it was hard to know about a Russian winger who was plying his trade in Ukraine. Kanchelskis had a lot to prove and he certainly did.
5. Dimitar Berbatov (2008-2012)
The Bulgarian joined the club on the deadline day of the transfer window of 2008 after a long saga and to boost a phenomenal attack, which already included the likes of a young Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tévez. The stuff of dreams.
In a way, Dimitar Berbatov didn’t live up to the expectations of his massive £30.75 million fee – back then, that was a lot of money -- and many fans criticized his lack of work-rate and was branded by some as "lazy". Granted, Berba was a pretty lazy footballer, but what he missed as a workhorse he could compensate for by being one of the most talented players to ever grace Old Trafford. And when Ronaldo and Tévez left, the Bulgarian seized his chance in the 2010/11 season to bag 21 goals in 42 matches, becoming that season’s top goalscorer in the Premier League.
To top that off, Berbatov gave the United fans some great memories like that hat-trick against Liverpool at Old Trafford in 2010 or those five goals against Blackburn in the same year -- becoming the first non-English Premier League player to net five times in one game. He could have been a lot better at times for United, but for his unmatchable skills, his ability to produce unexpected magic, and that fantastic 2010/11 season, Berbatov has a place on this list.
4. Ji-Sung Park (2005-2012)
An outstanding professional, a workhorse in the entire sense of the word and, surprisingly for some, a pretty good footballer. Ji-Sung Park, nowadays an ambassador for Manchester United, was a player who was vital in one of the club’s most successful periods because of his tactical awareness, his polyvalence and commitment to track back and press the opposition when needed. It’s no wonder why Andrea Pirlo said he did the best marking job he had to endure during his career – those are no small words coming from a midfield maestro like the former Milan player.
Park was not flashy on the ball like Cantona or Ronaldo, nor a massive goalscorer a la Ruud Van Nistelrooy or Andy Cole; he was the kind the player that excelled in the "boring" stuff like retrieving the ball, help the defence and giving the team balance. He was the ultimate workhorse for the club and the kind of player that may not be on the cover of magazines, doing videogames promotions or in the running in for individual awards, but he was the kind of player that any manager would like to have in his team. We could certainly do with a Park nowadays.
3. Robin Van Persie (2012-2015)
Robin Van Persie was a flame that faded away in a fairly quick fashion. But what a firestorm he was in his first season! The Flying Dutchman’s first year in Manchester will probably live for decades to come in the hearts of the fans; Van Persie was just flawless in that 2012/13 and, under the tutelage of a soon to be retired Fergie, led a pretty average United side to win the league with a whopping 26 goals in 38 Premier League matches.
After that, it went downhill for Van Persie in an endless succession of injuries, poor performances and the sporadic good match that made you think that, perhaps with proper management and the right style of play, the Dutchman could regain some form. But it never happened and not even Louis Van Gaal’s arrival, one of Van Persie’s favorite managers, could solve the situation. Actually, it just made his exit of the club a lot quicker.
They say that life is built on those memories that burn deeper into our hearts; well, when any United follower thinks of Robin Van Persie’s first year, I’m pretty sure that they start smiling and say to themselves. The lad was brilliant that season!
2. Denis Irwin (1990-2002)
Denis Irwin is the living definition of a cult hero. It is a bit sad that younger fans are not more aware of the legacy of this man but, for a very long time, the Irishman was one of the most consistent and reliable players Ferguson had at his disposal. Such was Sir Alex’s admiration for the man that, after a Irwin mistake that led to a goal, he said that one error in ten years was pretty good – that was Denis Irwin in a nutshell.
The Cork-born defender wasn’t a Roberto Carlos kind of full-back, but rather a much more balanced one; very good defending and could attack with aplomb. The kind of player that could do his job in such a humble manner that you could take for granted and assume that he wasn’t all that great; the reality was very different and Irwin was always one of the first names on Fergie's team-sheet. Besides his aforementioned skills and virtues, he was also an astute free-kick taker, and goals like the one scored against Liverpool are a great way to remind folks about this hard working Irishman.
1. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (1996-2007)
You cannot do a list of cult heroes without mentioning the star of Manchester United’s greatest night; the hero of Barcelona ’99 and the offensive threat that came from an unknown place (Norway) to shock Manchester, England and the world. And that he did.
Extremely loved by supporters, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was synonymous with the role of super sub and was often the catalyst for some of United’s best comebacks. Quick, agile and with a knack of being in the right place at the right time –a trait that can be tough yet is intrinsicive to the best forwards -- Solskjaer was a hit among the fans, and that goal against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League final assured his immortality at Old Trafford.
John O’Shea (1999-2011)
How can you leave John Francis O’Shea out of this list? Because the guy is not a cult hero; he’s a freaking legend, but we’ll stick to the cult part because, well, they are cooler.
A product of United’s youth system, O’Shea quickly became an idol among the fans because of his previously unseen ability to play everywhere. And I literally mean everywhere. You name it: full back, centre back, midfield, on the wings, as a goalkeeper! John O’Shea did it all at United and did it in such a matter of fact kind of way that this guy, who could be a good player but certainly not a great one, was willing to go through all that just for the sake of playing for his team.
John O’Shea is a beloved figure in the United halls of fame, no doubt about it; I mean, if he kept playing as a keeper, maybe we wouldn't know about that David De Gea dude. It was just too much.
These are The Busby Babe’s Top ten cult heroes. Who are your cult heroes? Drop a line or two about it!