What constitutes a 'United player'?

Friday 30 September 2022 10:00

I must admit it sounds more than a little conceited but, somehow, in my mind, I feel I can identify footballers as 'Manchester United players'.

They may never end up at Old Trafford but, to me, they have the qualities and very essence of what it takes to shine in the famous red shirt.

Christian Eriksen fits into this category. Ever since being really impressed with his creative talents in a Europa League tie with Ajax back in 2012, I've just thought to myself that he has the style of play which would suit this club.

It goes beyond mere ability too, there is something additional, an X-factor that marks somebody out as special and, in my humble view, befitting of representing this great club.

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Having interviewed Eriksen for the first time this week, as he collected his Player-of-the-Month award, it struck me how perfectly his character is suited to Old Trafford. It instantly feels like he has been here much longer and that he is tailor-made for the Reds.

Yet, even before meeting him in person, he had long been a 'United player' in my own personal view, purely for what he stood for on the pitch and the way he carried himself off it.

I am delighted that everything he has done since joining on a free transfer has only reinforced this belief.

On the commute from Carrington, it got me thinking over whether other supporters have similar views and ideals that they hold, regarding players who appear for other clubs.

Respecting a rival can be frowned upon and perhaps, sometimes, when a footballer you admire joins a competitor, it is probably fair to say your admiration can diminish, even subconsciously. However, I sincerely feel there is a point where fans identify a potential attainable target and hope he ends up at United, that the manager shares your view on his talents, and, one day, he ends up wearing the badge with pride.

So I tried to think back to the past about people who would fit into this category. Surprisingly, quite a few came to mind. Some ended up joining, others were linked but did not come and, of course, a number just went elsewhere.

Most fans acknowledge Paul Gascoigne would have been a great buy for United.

It's only fair to admit that I got it wrong on some occasions, I'm really no expert on spotting talent and you'll see that a large proportion of the names I reel off had top-class ability that a toddler could identify.

For instance, I know Sir Alex Ferguson suggested Tony Adams was a 'United player in the wrong shirt' and tried to sign him at least a couple of times but I always simply viewed the current Strictly performer as Arsenal through and through.

I do recall when the England defender, though, failed to contain the gifted Marco van Basten at Euro '88 and feeling that the Netherlands striker would make an ideal signing for the Reds. I'd also admired Ronald Koeman and hopes of him ending up in Manchester were raised when newspaper reports suggested he was a top target. In the same year, Paul Gascoigne joined Tottenham in preference to United.

This was a big blow; the Geordie genius had dazzled at Newcastle United and looked perfect for the big stage. It is telling that Sir Alex shared the frustration and, even now, always points to losing out on the midfielder as the 'one who got away'.

Brazilian star Juninho looked like a good fit for United.

Even in his early performances against us for Southampton, Alan Shearer was swiftly recognised as a centre-forward who would light up the Theatre of Dreams. Of course, instead, he signed for Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United and we'll never know how prolific he would have been in our successful teams. Roy Keane, absolutely magnificent for Nottingham Forest, did choose United over Kenny Dalglish's Rovers but I admit another of Blackburn's signings, Chris Sutton, had piqued my interest as well, even when operating at centre-half for Norwich City. I felt his aerial ability suggested he would be a threat in the opposing box and so it would prove. 

Juninho was somebody I'd love United to have signed and he would be strongly linked with the club on a few occasions, only to end up with Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough and later joining Atletico Madrid. I recall watching a late-night game of his with Brazil and deciding we had to put in a bid. His fellow countryman Ronaldinho also fits into this category and we were close to signing him from Paris Saint-Germain, before Barcelona won the race for his signature. Another upsetting development at the time.

After first setting eyes on Wayne Rooney in the FA Youth Cup final, he was another forward I quickly made my mind up on. I remember writing a feature for Sky Sports about how he should be the striker United target in our weekly newsletter, which landed me understandable abuse from Everton fans, but he did soon make the move to Manchester and exceeded even the sky-high expectations.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar shares a hug with current United boss Erik ten Hag.

I also recall seeing Klaas-Jan Huntelaar excel for the Netherlands in a game against Republic of Ireland and thinking how he seemed an ideal Reds striker and option for Ferguson. The same could be said about Sergio Aguero at Atletico Madrid, except he ended up becoming an idol at our neighbours, and Sunday's opponents, City. On the subject of Blues stars, I know Sir Alex scouted Vincent Kompany and he was another who could have graced the red shirt instead.

More recently, Alexis Sanchez looked the part, particularly at Udinese, although he would end up only staying at United a short time. Eden Hazard would have suited the team down to the ground, in my view, and I'd kept an eye on Jack Grealish ever since seeing him play for Aston Villa's Reserves at Old Trafford, believing he contained that special ingredient. Unfortunately, he'll be lining up against us this weekend.

Yet this is the life of being a football fan. I am sure most others look at other players and view them as potential recruits for their team. There probably is no such thing as somebody being, or at least seeming like a 'United player'. Yet, quite quickly, I am able to recall loads of instances where I've held this to be true.

The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.