The Reds who shone at the World Cup
Old Trafford has long been home to some of the greatest players in football history – from George Best to Cristiano Ronaldo – but which Reds have excelled at World Cups?
The 2018 edition of the tournament is approaching the knockout stages in Russia, so we’ve drummed up a combined XI of United players who have turned it on at the game’s greatest event.
With shock results and premature eliminations an inevitability, it’s not always the obvious names who have shown their best form…
GOALKEEPER: HARRY GREGG (1958)
Harry Gregg might not be the most famous goalkeeper to don the red shirt, but he might well be the most beloved. Just three months after joining the club in 1957, the Northern Irishman was branded a hero for his bravery in the Munich Air Disaster. That summer, he took part in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden and drew widespread acclaim when he repelled wave after wave of Czechoslovakian attacks to ensure his country – who were at the finals for the first time – preserved a 1-0 lead and won their opening game. The Green and White Army reached the quarter-finals, where they were defeated by France, but Gregg was voted the best goalkeeper of the tournament.
RIGHT-BACK: DENIS IRWIN (1994)
World Cup glory is not always about progression to the latter stages. Sometimes, iconic moments and against-all-odds success stories are equally memorable. The Republic of Ireland team of 1994 would exit the competition at the round-of-16 stage to the Netherlands, but not before recording one of the great shock victories. In New Jersey, they overcame the mighty Italy 1-0 thanks to Ray Houghton’s looping shot and some inspirational defending. At the time, the Italians could boast the world’s leading domestic league, Serie A, and some of the globe’s finest players – Roberto Baggio, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini – but Ireland held firm. Denis Irwin was their right-back on that hot, memorable day in the States, though honourable mentions must also go to former Reds Paul McGrath and Roy Keane, who performed superbly.
CENTRE-BACK: NOBBY STILES (1966)
One of only two Englishmen – along with Bobby Charlton – to have won both the European Cup and the World Cup, local hero Nobby is a shoo-in for a spot in the team. We’ve placed him at centre-back, to make space for others in midfield, even though he adopted more of a midfield role in the 1966 World Cup as England edged towards their greatest triumph. But Stiles regularly operated as a defender, and was widely praised for his man-marking job on the tournament's top scorer, Portugal's Eusebio, in the semi-final. Nobby’s tough tackling and bubbly personality made him a folk hero in England, as did his jubilant jig during the victory celebrations, which was referenced in Three Lions, the famous 1996 song by Baddiel & Skinner & the Lightning Seeds.
CENTRE-BACK: JIM HOLTON (1974)
A hero of the Stretford End, Jim Holton was United’s Player of the Year in 1974, and an ever-present in the Scotland team that went unbeaten in that year’s World Cup in West Germany. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to send the Scots through. They finished joint-top of their group but had to go home due to an inferior goal difference. But they were the only side to avoid defeat in that World Cup, and managed to keep a clean sheet against free-flowing world champions Brazil. ‘Big’ Jim Holton was their towering rock at the back.
LEFT-BACK: ROGER BYRNE (1954)
A poignant selection. Byrne gained 33 caps for England, and played three times for his country in the 1954 tournament in Switzerland. But what might have been? He was a certainty for the 1958 World Cup, as were his United colleagues Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor, but all three perished in the Munich Air Disaster. Byrne was a top-class full-back, way ahead of his time, and might well have been made England captain following Billy Wright’s retirement in 1959.
RIGHT WING: STEVE COPPELL (1982)
A star of Tommy Docherty’s blazing United side of the mid-70s, Coppell’s career ended prematurely in 1983. An injury picked up during a qualifier prior to the 1982 World Cup would eventually lead to that early demise, but not before the wing whippet from Merseyside shone at the tournament for Ron Greenwood’s England. His long-throw led to Bryan Robson’s lightning-quick opener against France in the Three Lions’ opening game in Spain, and Coppell’s weaving wing-play was one of the bright spots of a 0-0 draw with West Germany. Injury kept him out England’s fifth game (the first two rounds were group-based) against the host nation, where a goalless stalemate meant they were eliminated.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD: NICKY BUTT (2002)
The 2001/02 season was a challenging one for Nicky Butt. The signing of Juan Sebastian Veron left him fighting with Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and the new Argentinean arrival for a midfield spot at club level, but at that summer’s World Cup, the Gorton-born Academy graduate was a rock for England. Tenacious in the tackle, and effective with the ball, he was namechecked by Pele, no less, as one of the outstanding players of the tournament.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD: BOBBY CHARLTON (1966)
No explanation needed here. Geoff Hurst might have grabbed the headlines after England's 1996 World Cup final win against West Germany, but Bobby Charlton was their outstanding player throughout the competition, scoring their first goal of the tournament and, crucially, netting twice in the tight semi-final against Portugal. His efforts earned him the Ballon d’Or award for 1966 and mean he is widely regarded as one of the greatest English footballers of all. His influence was still almost as strong four years later, in Mexico. England were 2-1 up in their quarter-final against West Germany when Charlton was substituted by manager Alf Ramsay, only to collapse and lose 3-2.
LEFT WING: NORMAN WHITESIDE (1982)
Stormin’ Norman had made just two senior appearances for United when he jetted to the 1982 World Cup with Northern Ireland. He was just 16 years of age, yet played all five games for his country out in Spain, beating Pele’s record to become the youngest player (at 17 years and 41 days) to ever feature in the finals. It’s a record he holds to this day. Northern Ireland exited in the second round, but not before recording a stunning 1-0 victory over hosts Spain and topping their first-round group.
CENTRE FORWARD: JAVIER HERNANDEZ (2010)
‘Chicharito’ had agreed to sign for United only weeks before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and Reds were curious to see what the relatively unknown striker could do. They didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Hernandez scored Mexico’s opener in a 2-0 win against France, having com on as a substitute, and then rifled a vicious shot into the roof of the net against Argentina in his first start of the competition at the round-of-16 stage. It wasn’t enough to prevent the 3-1 defeat that eliminated Mexico, but Hernandez had arrived on the big stage.
CENTRE FORWARD: ROBIN VAN PERSIE (2014)
United’s then-no.20 opened his account at the 2014 tournament in Brazil with one of the most memorable goals in recent history. Latching on to a diagonal aerial ball from future United colleague Daley Blind, Van Persie flung himself forward and looped a diving header over Iker Casillas to bring the Netherlands level against world champions Spain. It was the start of both a monumental comeback – Spain were downed 5-1 – and a remarkable surge to the semi-finals for Van Persie, his country and newly-appointed United manager Louis van Gaal. They would eventually lose on penalties to Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the semi-final, but not before Van Persie had notched four goals and made himself one of the stars of the summer.