The best Reds never to play at a World Cup

Saturday 19 November 2022 09:38

There are many players who have contributed much to Manchester United's illustrious history but never had the opportunity to appear at a World Cup finals.

The choice, particularly in forward areas, would pose a headache for any manager but we have had a stab at picking an XI based on the criteria of these Reds stars never playing a single minute of a game at the planet's biggest and most prestigious tournament.

As always, it's a pretty subjective choice but how far do you think this team would go at Qatar 2022 if they were pitched together?


One of our greatest keepers did make England's 1970 squad but did not feature in Mexico. When Gordon Banks was ruled out of the quarter-final with West Germany, Chelsea's Peter Bonetti got the nod to go between the sticks as the holders suffered a 3-2 defeat. Despite his consistency with the Reds, and amassing 539 appearances (plus scoring twice!), Stepney only ever gained one cap for his country - in the 1968 friendly win over Sweden at Wembley.


The defender made an instant impact after arriving in 2008 with twin brother Fabio and has remained hugely popular with the club's fanbase. The enterprising right-back did score for Brazil at the 2012 Olympics but made a mistake in the final defeat to Mexico, which he was harshly criticised for. It contributed to him being rather overlooked by his country, who did have a wealth of talent, as he only won two caps, but there is no denying the three-time Premier League winner's quality.


Our left-back slot has to go to the dependable Irishman, who played 33 times for the Republic at a time when they were not involved in any major tournaments. A stalwart of the United side in the sixties and early seventies, he was part of the line-up that won the European Cup in 1968. The shrewd signing from Shelbourne in 1960 accumulated 535 appearances for the Reds, placing him one below Stepney in eighth in the all-time chart.


The former miner was a tough, uncompromising centre-back who would tighten up any defence. For all his dedication and service at United, Foulkes only played once for England - as a right-back against Northern Ireland in 1954 - after recovering from a knock sustained in a practice game for the Three Lions against Manchester City at Maine Road. He survived Munich and scored the goal that clinched a place in the European Cup final a decade later, calmly equalising against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. With four titles also to his name, to go with fourth spot on the appearances chart, he is impossible to leave out.


Both defensive lynchpins of Sir Alex Ferguson's first successful side deserve recognition but we've given the starting spot to Pally ahead of his partner Steve Bruce. Elegant yet tough, the centre-back proved to be worth every penny of the record £2.3 million required to prise him from Middlesbrough in 1989. Having made his international bow a year earlier, against Hungary, he had hopes of making Italia '90 but did not make the squad and England failed to qualify for the finals four years later. Although he did contribute in qualifying, ending on 22 caps, he was not in Glenn Hoddle's 1998 plans. At United, he won four Premier League titles and three FA Cups, in addition to the European Cup Winners' Cup. 


Although captaining a Europe XI in 1947, one of our greatest skippers did not to play on the biggest stage, with his career also spanning wartime and the disruption that naturally caused. As he was extremely versatile, and at home in defence or midfield, we've elected to hand him a place in the engine room of our side. Respected throughout the footballing world, he led Sir Matt Busby's team to the 1948 FA Cup and the Division One title four years later. 'Gentleman John' would be capable of easily slotting into another role and was another automatic pick.

Gentleman John goes straight into our XI.


Some argue Georgie was the greatest ever player not to feature at a World Cup, as he was unable to propel Northern Ireland to these heights. The wing wizard enchanted football fans with his skills and was a key man in the 1968 European Cup triumph. As part of the fabled Trinity, alongside Sir Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, his place in the pantheon of legends is forever secure. There was some talk he could make a shock entry into the 1982 squad when Billy Bingham's men qualified for Spain but this never materialised. “I wouldn’t have expected to play every game," he later said. "But I wished he had just taken me as a member of the squad and thrown me on for 15 minutes, only so I could have played in the World Cup."


Another one of those players who could perform anywhere on the pitch, Edwards would slot in alongside Carey in our engine room. The outrageously gifted Busby Babe was England's youngest-ever international and a permanent fixture in the team during the 1958 qualifying campaign, scoring twice in a win over Denmark. One can only wonder at how much he would have achieved in the game had it not been for the terrible Munich Air Disaster that ultimately cost him and seven of his team-mates their lives. Many speculate that he could have been England captain in 1966 and he was idolised by club and country colleague Sir Bobby.  

Eric Cantona never represented France at a World Cup.


The Frenchman was literally seconds away from qualifying for the 1994 tournament with Les Bleus before a last-minute thunderbolt by Emil Kostadinov completed a major collapse by Gerard Houllier's fancied side, who had needed only a point from two home games with Israel and Bulgaria to progress. At the time, King Eric was in his pomp and his strike earlier in the 2-1 defeat was his sixth of the group stage. Although he did appear at Euro '92, the striker had retired by the time the 1998 World Cup finals came along on home soil. It would have been fascinating to see what our catalyst could have contributed on the biggest stage. 


It was the toughest of all the selection calls to make for the role alongside Cantona but we have chosen the much underrated Cole, one of the Premier League's finest marksmen. The pair played together at Old Trafford following the hitman's switch from Newcastle United in 1995 but his goal haul never convinced England managers to trust in his talents, with Hoddle particularly critical. He managed only 15 caps in total and was overlooked for the 1998 and 2002 finals, despite his credentials. In red, he was a major influence in the club winning the Treble in 1998/99.


Wales came agonisingly close to reaching the finals when a missed Paul Bodin penalty cost them dearly, against Romania in 1993. The left-winger played for Cymru between 1991 and 2007 but could not help the team qualify for a major tournament. He did captain Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics, late in his glittering career. With Best on one flank and Giggs on the other, it would be a nightmare for opposing defences. The Class of '92 star racked up an incredible record of 963 games for his boyhood club.


There could definitely be a case for any of these to be in the line-up but we had to make some tough calls. The aforementioned Bruce was a lionhearted captain who, incredibly, never won an England cap, despite skippering the B team. Former team-mate Brian McClair transformed into an effective midfielder after being a prolific centre-forward, and narrowly missed out on Scotland's 1990 squad.

Mark Hughes is probably most unlucky to have to start on our bench after the Welshman had two productive spells with the Reds. Always the big-game player, he would be a great option to come on and recreate his partnership with Cantona. A great goalscorer of yesteryear, Jack Rowley, definitely deserves a mention, as does Andrei Kanchelskis, who turned down the chance to represent Russia in 1994 during his United pomp.

On a rather attack-heavy bench, Dimitar Berbatov would also be worthy of a slot.