The history of United's Player of the Year award

Tuesday 16 May 2023 10:54

As the conclusion of the 2022/23 season comes into view, fans' will soon be asked to vote for our Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year.

The esteemed award, which has been handed out each season for more than 50 years - being named after iconic manager Matt Busby after his death in 1994 - has seen many talented winners.

But the evolution of the accolade and it's holders has been quite something.

This extract from Saturday's matchday programme, United Review, outlines exactly how the award has moved with the times and continues to be iconic...


It would be nice to think that when a player contributes his best work on the football field, recognition and acclaim will inevitably follow.

But reality is a little bit more complicated than that, and there’s simply no denying that attacking players hoover up the overwhelming majority of prizes and awards in our game. Famously, Fabio Cannavaro is the only defender to win the Ballon d’Or in the 21st century.

The Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award is little different: attackers generally sweep up. A goalkeeper has won the award on four occasions (with De Gea responsible each time) and defenders have scooped it just eight times. 

Midfielders have been a little more successful, with 13 successes, and wingers have fared similarly, with 10 triumphs. Strikers, unsurprisingly, are most frequently the toast of the town, with 16 victories.


Remarkably, Cristiano Ronaldo is both the youngest Red to have claimed the prize and the oldest.

He first lifted the award at the end of his maiden United campaign, 2003/04, which included one of the most memorable debuts in club history, against Bolton Wanderers, and a Man of the Match display in the FA Cup final victory over Millwall. Ronaldo had only turned 19 in the February of 2004.

Then, 18 years later, at the grand old age of 37, he was a shining light in a difficult campaign, passing 20 goals in a single season for the fourth time as a Red.


David De Gea became the first Red to be named Player of the Year on four separate occasions when our current no.1 lifted the Sir Matt Busby award again in 2018.

But three-time winner Ronaldo joined him as the most successful player in the prize’s history after a headline-grabbing return to United in 2021. The Portuguese had already lifted the trophy in 2004, 2007 and 2008, but equalled De Gea’s haul of four awards in 2021/22.

Ronaldo’s compatriot Bruno Fernandes has been named Player of the Year twice, and looks the best bet to challenge De Gea and Ronaldo during the remainder of his Reds career.


United did not start regularly buying players from outside of the UK and the Republic of Ireland until the 1990s, though there were the odd forays into the European market in the 1980s, when Nikola Jovanovic and Jesper Olsen were acquired.

Paul McGrath was the first player from outside of the UK to be named Player of the Year, in 1986, while the first from mainland Europe was the inimitable Eric Cantona (France).

We had to wait until 2005 for our first South American winner (Gabriel Heinze), while Javier Hernandez (Mexico) is the only North American, to date, to appear on our honours’ board.

The wait goes on for an Asian or African winner, or indeed someone from Oceania, the region that houses Australia, which has provided one United player to date (Mark Bosnich).


The club has continually added new awards, particularly in recent decades. 

The first of these, the Denzil Haroun Reserve Team Player of the Year award, was first presented in 1985/86. Initially designed to recognise the development of a ‘young player’, its purpose later changed to honouring the leading Reserve, Under-23 or Under-21 player.

The Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year was conceived in 1989, and has been gifted to outstanding youth players from our famous Academy. 

In 2005/06, the Players’ Player of the Year (determined by votes from the first team) was introduced, along with a Goal of the Season prize, while the reformation of Manchester United Women in 2018 has also instigated a Women’s Player of the Year honour, with Katie Zelem, Hayley Ladd, Ona Batlle and Ella Toone the four winners thus far.