For a Manchester United player, getting a statue of yourself outside of Old Trafford is tough. There are currently five men who have been enshrined in bronze outside United’s home ground and three of them are knights of the realm. Two of those knights, of course, are Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, just rewards for the club’s two most successful and storied managers.
That means only three players have received the sculpture treatment. In 2010 the Holy Trinity statue was unveiled, celebrating George Best, Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton, the three players who most represent United’s 1960s success. Now Law had two statues to his name at Old Trafford, not bad going given they are in such short supply. In 2002, the King of the Stretford End was given a statue on the tier 2 concourse of the Stretty.
All this begs a question; given the number of truly legendary players to have passed through the ranks since Best, Law and Charlton, who should be next to have statues put up outside United’s ground?
Let’s take a look at some of the contenders.
The nature of royal succession is such that a new king comes along when one has faded. After Law, the next man to be offered royal status by the United faithful was Eric Cantona. Law was the King, Eric was Le Roi.
Cantona is, essentially, already a kind of walking statue—not in the late period Wayne Rooney’s off-the-ball movement sense, but in the sense of his presence, his demeanour, his aura and iconography. There could easily be a statue of him with his collar upturned surveying the Old Trafford landscape after his chip against Sunderland, or one of him swinging on the post after his goal against Liverpool on his return from a lengthy ban for fly-kicking Matthew Simmons. There could easily be a statue of him fly-kicking Matthew Simmons.
He was the catalyst for United’s greatness in the Ferguson era, probably the single most important player in the last 30 years of the club’s history in terms of how much was changed by his arrival. But, of course, he never won the European Cup with United—should that be a knock against his enshrinement on the forecourt?
Duncan Edwards lives on in legend, but his life was cut appallingly short by the Munich air crash. A lot of the people who saw Edwards in his prime have gone now, of course, and none of us that didn’t can claim much by way of first hand knowledge on the subject. However, Sir Bobby is always at his most eloquent, though, when talking about Edwards. He said “He was incomparable, I feel terrible trying to explain to people just how good he was. His death was the biggest single tragedy ever to happen to Manchester United and English football. I always felt I could compare well with any player—except Duncan. He was such a talent, I always felt inferior to him. He didn’t have a fault with his game.”
There is no shortage of memorial to those who died at Munich at Old Trafford of course, but Edwards might merit a statue on the strength of his ability alone.
Bryan Robson was a lot of my generation’s first United hero. He arrived with great pomp and circumstance, signing his contract on the pitch at Old Trafford alongside a particularly glitzy looking Ron Atkinson, with a fee of more than a million pounds. That was a lot of money then. He dragged United through a difficult decade and it was wonderful to see Captain Marvel finally receive the league title when United finally broke their 26-year long hoodoo. Though he had long passed his prime, Robson was still on hand to lift the trophy. The club’s relative lack of success during his era probably counts against his claim for a statue, but he has to be part of the conversation.
The Class of ’92 in general, and Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in particular
The problem with giving the Class of ’92 a statue is, essentially, that Phil Neville probably does not deserve one, and yet leaving him out would seem very unfair. Nicky Butt is probably next-least deserving, though he is in the top 40 for overall appearances at United and on his day was a heck of a player.
Gary Neville does not fit the criteria in terms of his level of ability, though he does for longevity. And David Beckham’s credentials suffer from the fact that he left—though Best and Law did too. Even Sir Bobby did in the end.
Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were two of the best players United have ever seen, and they did it for longer than anyone else. They would certainly meet any relevant status requirements but the thing is, it would feel kind of odd to separate them from their fellow academy alumni—the story of the Class of ’92 is most amazing as a collective story rather than an individual one. This is not an easy circle to square.
Given the man he surpassed as record goal scorer has a statue, it would seem entirely logical for Rooney to have one too. But football, and football statues in particular, are not about logic. They are about emotion and connection and a whole bunch of intangibles. A lot of those intangibles apply to Rooney for much of United’s support, but there are a couple of moments which leave a really sour taste, and which soured his relationship with others in the United community. There is the distasteful personal life stuff—though Best is proof that that is not necessarily a deal breaker, and Giggs suffers from similar associations. There are the links to a potential move away to Manchester City—though Law had played for City before he arrived at Old Trafford, and the Citizens were his destination when he left. Somehow, though, that was different. Returning to City when United no longer need you to prolong your playing career has a different tone to Rooney’s threat to abandon ship when City were on the come-up and United apparently in some decline.
The biggest obstacle to Rooney’s claim, though, is simple recency. It was more than 40 years after Best, Law and Charton’s heyday that they got a statue. By that maths then even the players who made their names at United in the ’90s will have to wait until 2030 for theirs.
Until then, this will remain a fun debate. Eventually there will be a milestone that will lead to an update on the current situation but we might have a while to go.