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Picking Manchester United’s Mount Rushmore

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The one where our mentions are inevitably blown up with profanity and insults over our personal opinions.

Illustration by Nathan Heintschel

Ahh, a practice as old as modern professional sports in America. Taking a team, a position, or a sport’s history and condensing it down to four individuals worthy of having their busts carved into the side of a mountain with dynamite in a state that should probably be merged with its northern neighbor because do we really need two Dakotas? But, I digress.

Listening to my fellow Busby Babe contributor Colin Damms host the Rooney Rewind podcast series, and my subsequent appearance on that series made me ponder who is worthy of being on Manchester United’s Mount Rushmore. A club blessed with fielding some of the most iconic and winningest players in the sport, United has an insane crop of players to choose from, and we knew when we kicked this idea around the Slack channel that it might spur on some controversy and debate — except for Aidan Boland who only acknowledges one name for the United Mount Rushmore. - NH

Kevin Carpenter

Roy Keane: The longtime United captain policed some of Sir Alex Ferguson’s finest sides in a way that seems almost impossible today. Not for one second would Keane allow anyone’s effort to drop, so utterly consumed was he with excellence in victory. And it didn’t hurt that his on-pitch talent stood second to none. Keane patrolled from box to box, both breaking up opposing attacks (often ferociously) and pushing forward with the ball. By the time that controversial MUTV interview ended his Old Trafford career, he had already racked up seven Premier League titles, one miraculous European Cup, and a raft of other honors. Sure, his personality and punditry divides opinion, but Roy Keane remains the best of the best in my book.

Eric Cantona: King Eric’s arrival from Leeds in November 1992 kickstarted an era of domestic dominance that will never be forgotten. An artist with the ball at his feet — and no stranger to physical play, either — Cantona imbued a young Reds side with a heady mix of audacity and swagger that lifted spirits, belief, and plenty of trophies. United stood with the player during his lengthy 1995 suspension for kung-fu kicking a Crystal Palace fan and were well repaid for that loyalty with two further seasons of brilliance. What Cantona’s United career lacked in length was more than made up for by the total transformation in culture that he inspired.

Sir Bobby Charlton: While my top two definitely fall under the “bad boy” category, Sir Bobby has been nothing but class — on and off the field — from day one. A survivor of the Munich Air Disaster, Charlton persevered through injury and tragedy to lift the club back onto its feet. Until recently, he led United in both games played and goals scored (records broken by Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney respectively). Charlton did it all — leading England to World Cup glory in 1966, winning the Ballon d’Or that same year, captaining the Reds to the 1968 European Cup, and claiming three First Division titles. Plus, bonus points for rocking a combover like very few can.

Wayne Rooney: There are sooo many players deserving of this list. Apologies to George Best, Denis Law, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo, and many others for the omission. But, really, how can the club’s all-time leading scorer get left out? Rooney’s 253 goals is a record that should stand for quite a while. He hit the ground running at Old Trafford after his big-money move from Everton in 2004, scoring a debut hat-trick against Fenerbahce. Rooney’s stocky frame might not suggest a tireless worker, but he always ran his socks off for the club.

Aidan Boland:

Roy Keane: The notion of Roy Keane sculpted in granite seems wasteful. A twenty-five-foot, rock carved Roy Keane could scarcely be more intimidating than the man himself. The on-field general for Alex Ferguson’s most feted side has captivated football fans for twenty-five years. Some grow old and fade beyond the sidelines, but Roy Keane remains alive in fans’ minds; forever the embodiment of the Manchester United captain.

Since his departure; Roy has become the man the club could never replace, not his skill nor his personality and even now he remains the type of player that supporters believe could even make everything right.

A ferocious competitor, a phenomenal footballer and an absolute bastard, Roy Keane had everything. The man from Mayfield in the northside of Cork combined the old school traits of heart, character and determination with ability and skill set very much belonging to the modern footballer.

Keane did not just demand high standards from his teammates, he demonstrated exactly what was needed. His emergence as one of the world’s great footballers – which he truly was from 1998 to 2002 - was a testament to his brilliance. Were Keane another nationality; English, French, Spanish or Brazilian, a player from a footballing powerhouse with a history of producing great talents then he would have unquestionably been a serious Ballon D’Or candidate during that period.

Dispute this at will; but David Beckham came second in 1999 in the team that Roy Keane dominated.

Keane was a talented footballer with brilliant technical ability, something Darren Fletcher recently highlighted on Sky Sports, but it was the sheer single mindedness and force of personality he possessed which drove Manchester United throughout the 1990s and early 2000s as successful as they were.

While not possessing the audacious skill of an Eric Cantona, what Roy had was Cantona’s fire in abundance. He knew how to give all to the cause. Cantona told an audience in Dublin last October that Keane was “a wonderful player and a wonderful man.” Wonderful man might be slight hyperbole. Alf-Inge Haaland and Gareth Southgate would disagree. Keane was a hardened, tough and unsympathetic bastard at the best of times.

When Ben Thornley spoke to The Busby Babe in February, he said that Roy would tell it like it is, whereas others might just choose to talk about you behind your back. There were no hidden depths to Roy Keane. Thornley believed Keane “was as straight as a die as well as being an incredible footballer.”

It was this directness which has often gotten Keane into difficulty. In a world of sporting politicians like Gary Neville and Frank Lampard carefully crafting their message, Keane has never been afraid to cut corners when political correctness or feelings were being considered. Keane can be harsh, cruel and belittling to those he doesn’t respect, a category to whom most belong.

He is in his late-40s now and at a crossroads in his managerial career, with the personality traits and frankness which carried him through his playing career failing to translate successfully into management. It’s hard to manage people when you don’t respect them, they say.

The ghostwriter of Roy Keane’s first autobiography Eamon Dunphy recently told The Busby Babe that Roy Keane was the type of player “you could certainly build a club around. A club like Manchester United. [He was] a great, great player.” Manchester United are in the doldrums presently and it has become a cliché to suggest that there is no single signing that could rescue the club.

Yet somehow, I think that a Roy Keane just might.

Colin Damms:

Sir Bobby Charlton: To me, Sir Bobby has to be the first name down. He played out his career decades before I was even born, but it was so significant that it caught my attention at a young age. One year for Christmas my Grandad gave me a DVD called “Manchester United 1001 Greatest Goals.” It was released in 2002, so naturally all of the goals featured were scored before I began watching football, and featured a sizable chunk of Charlton’s 249. What was more significant than his goals though was the context in which they came.

One of the youngest members of the Busby Babes, Charlton came into a side that seemed destined for greatness at home and abroad. They conquered England, but in the process of conquering Europe, the Munich Air Disaster took the lives of 8 players as well as several others. Charlton and manager Matt Busby survived, and together took on the job of rebuilding the team. Over the next decade Charlton led United back to the top of English football and back to the European Cup. In 1968 Charlton captained United to victory in an emotional European Cup Final win over Benfica, making United the first English team to win the historic competition.

It was rare that either Charlton or Busby showed emotion publicly, but they did that night as they embraced after the final whistle. Some even said Charlton couldn’t show at the after party because he was overcome with emotion. It simply meant that much to them after everything they’d endured, survived. And to do it exactly 10 years on from Munich had to have felt like fate. Charlton took on the challenge of changing the club’s fortunes and succeeded.

Wayne Rooney: Rooney is the next name down, my favorite football player ever. He became a United hero right as I began paying attention to football, and became the player whose kit I asked for every Christmas or birthday. My first ever jersey was an England no. 9 Rooney shirt from the 2006 World Cup. My personal fandom aside, he also had an illustrious career at the club, winning every possible trophy, and breaking Sir Bobby’s record of 249 goals in the process.

Rooney’s time at United wasn’t without his struggles, and he wouldn’t have achieved the record goal mark that he did if he had left the club earlier, which many fans seemed to want. However, it seems fitting to me that he did achieve that honor, permanently etching his name in the history books as an all-time United great. He produced a lot of memorable moments as a centerpiece of Ferguson’s last great teams, and even a few as the club struggled post-Sir Alex.

(And if you want to hear more about Rooney, check out the Rooney Rewind podcast from The Busby Babe)

Paul Scholes: Not the most outspoken player ever, but Paul Scholes still left his mark after an incredible career as one of the best midfielders in the game. A member of the historic Class of 92, Scholes came up into the first team at a time of transition. Ferguson had begun introducing more academy players, replacing multiple first team veterans, including Paul Ince. Scholes excelled replacing Ince, and quickly developed a legendary midfield partnership with Roy Keane.

Like Keane in 1999, Scholes was suspended for the historic Champions League final against Bayern Munich after picking up a yellow in an equally memorable semi-final comeback win over Juventus. However, Scholes’ United career was long enough that he got the chance to produce his own semi-final heroics. In 2008 against Barcelona at Old Trafford, Scholes launched an absolute rocket from outside the area into the top right corner of Victor Valdes’ net to break the deadlock in the tie, and send United to Moscow to win their third Champions League title. It was the kind of goal Scholes had scored many times before, and will forever be synonymous with.

Scholes’ United career wasn’t as glamorous as some other stars that came through the club, but there is no questioning his passion for the club, and certainly no question of his giving it all. He was the team’s reliable engine in midfield for 2 decades, and helped establish them as the dominant force they were meant to be under Sir Alex.

Ryan Giggs: Giggs, like Scholes, came up through the Class of 92. He featured in the first team a bit earlier than some of his classmates, and was a regular member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s title winning 92/93 side. Giggs’ career, from 1991-2014, was spent entirely at Manchester United. In that time he became one of the most decorated footballers ever, and the club’s all time appearance leader.

Giggs’ United playing career was almost as long as Sir Alex’s managerial career at the club, certainly when it came to trophies won he was there for nearly every one of them. His goal against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final might be the most legendary goal in the history of the club, which is saying a lot considering some of the other goals that season, let alone every other season. He was able to keep up his level of production well into his 30s, and, again like Scholes, was a regular in both of Ferguson’s Champions League winning sides. He even won PFA Player of the year in 2009, 17 years after winning Young Player of the year. His consistency as a provider and leader kept him on the pitch a lot longer than most footballers, and it helped make him a United legend, and the most decorated player in the club’s history.

Nathan Heintschel:

Ryan Giggs: A 24 year senior career for the Red Devils — not including the years spent in the youth academy — is a surefire way to get your face on the side of a cliff. To an outsider, Ryan Giggs can be described as a Brett Favre-like figure in the Manchester United lore thanks to the Welshman’s longevity and consistency on the pitch, sans sending lewd text messages whilst wearing crocs… that we know of. The man scored 168 goals and assisted 162 more while appearing for the club a jaw-dropping 963 times; 205 more times than runner-up, Sir Bobby Charlton.

Sir Bobby Charlton: The aforementioned Charlton is a timeless icon in Manchester United lore, and, therefore, he is an absolute must on the Mount Rushmore. An English and European champion, a club captain, and a survivor of the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, his presence in the club still looms large in the forefront of supporters’ minds as well as in the annals of history. He once nicknamed Old Trafford “The Theatre of Dreams” and he can be seen in the stands every home match watching the new generations try and reach the same success that he enjoyed as a player. Of course, The Theatre of Dreams’ south end is affectionately named the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand.

Charlton ended his career as the all-time leading goal scorer and appearance leader in Manchester United — records that stood for decades. He is also one of only four Manchester United players to win the Ballon d’Or along with the other members of the Holy Trinity Denis Law and George Best, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo. While every Manchester United player has their personal favorite player, Sir Bobby Charlton is perhaps the most important player to wear the crest.

Roy Keane: I almost resigned myself to flipping a coin between Roy Keane and Paul Scholes for inclusion on this list because of both midfielders’ undeniable talents and contributions to Manchester United. Then I realized that if Keane didn’t travel across the ocean to two-foot tackle me for the slight, Aidan Boland surely would.

Wayne Rooney: For those who haven’t had a chance to listen to my most recent appearance on The Busby Babe’s Rooney Rewind podcast, allow me to give you the TL;DR.

“[Rooney] was the guy that, you know, tipped the scales for me. He’s the guy that made me stop caring about the NFL. He’s the guy that made me stop caring about the NBA. He’s the guy that made me stop caring about the NHL. I was all in, you know? I wouldn’t be writing for The Busby Babe if it wasn’t for Wayne Rooney.”

The goals, the trophies, the moments this man provided as I was growing into my fandom as a Manchester United supporter is hugely important to me, and it would be borderline negligent to not include him on my Mount Rushmore — Wazza is the all-time leading goal scorer for England’s most-storied football club after all.