Manchester United's greatest ever: Irish XI

After VAVEL assembled their greatest ever Manchester United XI from the British Isles, it is now the turn of Ireland. The Republic have produced some fine United players, but it is only right that some of the best talent from the North be represented in a combined Irish team.

If nothing else, it allows us to select Georgie Best once more!

The formation is 4-3-3.

Goalkeeper - Harry Gregg

An easy choice to start. Harry was a United legend, mainly down to his heroics in Munich. However, he was a brilliant goalkeeper, and his career was cruelly blighted by injury.

Having cost a world record fee (for a goalkeeper) of £23,000 from Doncaster Rovers, he had been signed in 1957-58 and replaced Ray Wood. But for Munich, he would have undoubtedly picked up a League Championship medal in hs first season.

He missed the 1963 FA Cup final victory over Leicester City due to a shoulder injury, and the Championship winning season of 1964-65, he was unable to make an appearance. Ironically another Irishman, Pat Dunne, played the majority of that season.

He regained the jersey once more, but when Alex Stepney was signed in 1966, Gregg was sold to Stoke City. It is a shame the way his career panned out, because he was a fantastic 'keeper and hard as nails to boot. You didn't mess with him!

He won 25 caps for Northern Ireland, and was named the goalkeeper of the tournament in the 1958 World Cup finals. That in itself shows how good he was.

He is, of course, best remembered for his bravery in the aftermath of the crash, but he played 210 games for United and is a clear first choice in this team. Roy Carroll was a good 'keeper and Dunne has a Championship medal, but Harry Gregg is No.1.

Left Back - Tony Dunne

Dublin-born, Dunne was signed from Shelbourne for £5,000 by Sir Matt Busby in 1960. Although he was primarily back up to fellow Irishmen Noel Cantwell and Shay Brennan, he got into the team for the FA Cup victory in 1963 over Leicester.

He played with Gregg, of course, and was a stalwart throughout United's swashbuckling side of the sixties. He is still in the top 10 United appearance makers having played a total of 535 times in total.

He won Championship medals in 1965 and 1967 and was part of the team that defeated Benfica in the European Cup final in 1968. He actually played in every round, and it speaks volumes that he was able to cement his place for such a sustained period of time.

He played 33 times for the Republic, and was also voted Irish player of the year in 1969.

He spent 13 years at United, and was sold at the age of 32. Yet even that may have been premature, as he continued to play for Bolton Wanderers until the age of 38 and then had a short spell in the USA.

He has fought off stiff competition, but he makes it in at left back.

Right Back - Denis Irwin

Dunne's profile is put into perspective when you consider that Denis played six times fewer in his United career, yet he seemed to be around forever! For that reason, Denis reverts to his original position at right back.

He was signed in 1990 for an absolute steal at £625,000 from Oldham Athletic. It was one of Sir Alex Ferguson's best pieces of business. Denis was an absolute dream. He was an 8/10 every week and his performances never dipped.

He was right footed and played right back until Paul Parker was signed and he was switched to left back. He took to it like a duck to water.

The modern full-back is one that is required to bomb on and show attacking prowess, but Denis was ahead of his time. His timing of runs to support United's flying wingers were perfect and he had an eye for a goal.

In addition, his set pieces were deadly. He took corners, free kicks - one at Anfield lives long in the memory - and even penalties. Yet full backs primary job is to defend, and you could count on one hand the number of times Denis got 'skinned'. It just didn't happen.

He won countless trophies and was part of two great United teams. David Elleray cruelly denied him an FA Cup final appearance in 1999 after sending him off at Anfield, yet Denis' cupboard will be full enough. One of United's best fullbacks ever.

Centre Half - Paul McGrath

Ooh ahh, Paul McGrath. What a player. Dodgy knees, a member of United's A-Team drinking squad. No matter. When he donned the boots on a Saturday, he was sublime. Pace, strength and perfect timing. For a defender, he glided around the pitch.

It was amazing to think that he didn't turn professional until after the age of 21 with St Patricks Athletic. He only played a season with them before United snapped him up. One season, but he did pick up the PFAI player of the year award.

He didn't break into United's team initially, but when he did he and Kevin Moran, yet another great Irish defender, formed an excellent partnership. Moran was the bruiser, while McGrath was the Rolls Royce. Or "Black Pearl" as he had become known whilst at St Pats.

He spent seven years at United, but Sir Alex Ferguson was intent on cleaning up United's 'drinking culture' and decided that McGrath would have to go. It could hardly be called a mistake, as his replacement Gary Pallister was also outstanding in one of the most successful periods in United's history.

Yet McGrath went on for another seven years at Aston Villa, defying the pain. United had wanted him to retire due to his injuries, but thankfully he refused.

He served the Republic fantastically well, appearing in both the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and winning 88 caps. One of the best players ever to come out of Ireland.

Centre Half - John O'Shea

It is fair to say that John O'Shea never really cemented a place in Manchester United's first team. Yet his versatility meant that he still amassed 393 appearances in his 11 years at the club.

His preferred position was centre-half, but he played both fullback positions, mainly left back, and also a number of occasions in centre midfield.

During his United career, he picked up five league titles, three league cups, playing in two finals, and FA Cup final win in 2004. He was an unused substitute in the 2008 Champions League final victory over Chelsea, and played in the final a year later when United were defeated by Barcelona.

His United career was littered with success, and he may not have had the stature of a Jaap Stam, or a Nemanja Vidic but he was an excellent player. He was not quick, but not slow. Not strong, but far from weak. He was good in the air, and read the game well, and he didn't mind a tackle.

He currently has 116 caps for the Republic and was a member of the U-17 team that lost in the European Championship final in 1998. He won the FAI's International Player of the Year in 2014.

He is still going strong providing great service for Sunderland, whom he joined in 2011, and he has provided club and country with magnificent service throughout his career.

Central Midfield - Roy Keane

Possibly the best player ever to come from the Republic of Ireland. He probably wasn't the most talented, but without question whatever he may have lacked in talent he made up for in commitment.

Yet to say he didn't have talent would be unkind and untrue. Keane could play football, but his strength came from his insatiable desire, passion and will to win. He was a proper leader, and his drive knew no bounds.

United had some wonderful talent in the years that Keane graced Old Trafford, but none were as important to the team as Keane was. He was Sir Alex's on field manager. With his partner in crime, Paul Scholes, he dictated the tempo of a game and controlled the engine room.

He was able to get up and down, and in his early days was a box to box midfielder and scored goals making late runs. As time went on, he did less surging, and became more of a holding player, giving the stars around him licence to play.

It was his will to win that set him apart. Nobody was safe from a tongue lashing, nobody could rest on their laurels. He arrived in 1993 and immediately became Bryan Robson's successor. United won the double in his first season.

He won seven titles, four FA Cups (three doubles), and the Intercontinental Cup in 1999. He won a Champions League medal in 1999 as part of the treble, but of course did not take part in the final.

The semi-final was his greatest moment in a United shirt. Trailing 2-0 after only 11 minutes in Turin, it looked bleak for United. Keane took matters into his own hands and despite a booking ruling him out of the final, he dragged United through, defeating Juventus 3-2. He was incredible.

For the Republic, the 2002 World Cup overshadowed his international career. Dismayed by what he felt was an amateurish organisation, he launched a tirade into the manager, Mick McCarthy and was sent home.

He won 69 caps and was a huge factor in anything the Republic achieved. He played in the 1994 World Cup Finals in the USA, and he did play again when McCarthy resigned.

His ignominious exit in 2002 would be repeated in 2005 when he criticised his United teammates after a heavy defeat. Sir Alex decided his authority was challenged and that was the sad end for Keane.

He was one of the best players ever to wear a United shirt. He is in, and dons the captain's armband.

Centre Midfield - Norman Whiteside

Keane and Scholes was a wonderful partnership as they could hurt you with football, or they could just hurt you. Norman Whiteside may not have been quite as gifted a player as Scholes, but boy was he hard.

He was a man at 16 years of age, and before he had turned 20 he had a career that most could only dream of.

The youngest player to play for United since Duncan Edwards, just shy of his 17th birthday. The youngest to score for United. The youngest to appear in a World Cup finals, breaking Pele's record in 1982. The youngest to score in a League Cup final, the youngest to score in an FA Cup final.

When he scored against Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup final replay victory, he was just over two weeks past his 18th birthday and had all those records in the bag. He was simply a phenomenon.

He broke all those records as a striker, but the emergence of Mark Hughes and his lack of pace meant that Ron Atkinson made a master stroke and converted him to a midfielder. He flourished.

In the days of 'hard men' they didn't come any harder than 'Big Norm'. Yet he could play. He wasn't just a kicker, though you only have to ask Steve McMahon if he could kick. He could.

He scored the winner in the 1985 FA Cup final, curling a beautiful goal beyond the great Neville Southall, but his career wouldn't see too many high's after that point.

He was still an integral part of United, but he picked up injuries, and injury would cut short his career. By this time he was at Everton because, in addition to his injuries, he was a member of the A-Team drinking club just like McGrath.

So at the age of only 26, Whiteside had to finish his career, which was a great shame. But the short career he had was an amazing one. He is still a United hero.

Centre Midfield - Johnny Carey

The trouble with picking the 'Best Ever' XI's is that you have to be of a certain age to be able to speak from experience, and with Johnny Carey making his debut for United in 1937, this selection is definitely based on his achievements.

His pre-war career saw him win the old second division with United in his first season, and he did so as an inside left. Although the war interrupted many a career, as with Carey's, he did play wartime games for United and a number of other teams as a guest. He resumed his career afterwards as a professional, and became Sir Matt Busby's first captain.

In 1947 he was selected for a Europe XI to play the Home Nations in a friendly. Although several players from Europe were unable to play, it was still a prestigious honour. The game was watched by 137,000 at Hampden Park.

In 1948 he became the first Irishman to win a trophy with United, lifting the 1948 FA Cup against the crack Blackpool side consisting of Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen. He was in a good United side, that were the pre-curser to the 'Babes'.

He would finish runner up in the League on four occasions, before finally winning the title in 1952., playing alongside Munich survivor Johnny Berry in the process.

He played for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In those days, the FAI (Republic), and IFA (Nothern Ireland) both claimed players, so Carey turned out for both nations. He won 37 caps for the Republic and nine for Northern Ireland.

Forward - Liam 'Billy' Whelan

Liam Whelan was a talented inside forward that scored goals for fun. He joined United from Home Farm, Dublin in 1953 and immediately won the FA Youth Cup in it's and his first season.

It wouldn't be long before he got his opportunities in the first team, and as part of the amazing crop of youngsters, he proved his worth, helping United to win the league title in 1956 and 1957.

Of course, it could have been a hat-trick in 1958, but for the tragic events in Munich where he lost his life.

In 79 league games for United, he scored 43 goals. He played 95 times altogether and scored 52 goals, In 1956-57 he was top scorer with 26 goals. He was deadly.

Incredibly, leading up to the Munich disaster, he had lost his place to a certain Bobby Charlton. Charlton was equally prolific, so by the time United went to Belgrade for the European Cup quarter-final, Whelan was in the reserves.

He was still required to travel, as cover. He was scoring goals for the reserves. It would not have been long before he would have been recalled to the first team, but Munich put paid to that. He was 22.

Munich shaped Manchester United as a club, and Liam Whelan's contribution to one of the greatest United teams in history is not to be underestimated.

He only played four times four the Republic, but that was down to circumstances. He would score goals in this team too if he were able to.

Forward - George Best

The first pop star footballer. Good looking, fashionable, charismatic, and a genius with a football at his feet. Everybody wanted a piece of Georgie when he exploded onto the world stage.

Pele or Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? The questions, like a fantasy XI, burn on. There is no answer. The only thing that should be considered is that George Best should be in any equation on the best footballer ever discussion.

In his and Pele's era, not just hard men, but hatchet men existed. Pele found out in England, 1966. Maybe that's why he stayed at Santos and in the US during his club career. Maradona also was targeted, being 'butchered' during his time at Barcelona. He also had the intrusion on his private life.

Messi and Ronaldo have had it easy in comparison. They are, of course, public property. But they never played on mud bath pitches. They never have to fear for their legs being broken intentionally.

Bestie did, And maybe with the exception of games against Leeds United, he thrived on the challenge of good versus evil. He loved to make a mug of a thug.

One particular goal against Chelsea at Old Trafford in a League Cup tie was special. He ran through a raft of players, and as he arrived in the penalty area he was met by Ron 'Chopper' Harris. He cut Bestie in half, but Goerge's beautiful balance meant he stayed upright, went past the goalkeeper and rolled the ball into the net.

That goal epitomised George Best. Brave, fast, skilful. Genius. Because of his drinking problems, it may be forgotten that in his United career that ended at the age of 27, he played for United 479 times and scored 179 goals. An incredible amount for a winger.

Two league titles and a European Cup. European footballer of the year in 1968. He only played 37 times for Northern Ireland, and never made a World Cup. It didn't matter, George was simply the best.

Striker - Frank Stapleton

Not to do a disservice to Frank Stapleton, there were not many options for an out and out striker. Ireland has produced so many great defenders and midfielders, yet strikers - for United anyway - have been a rarity.

Yet Stapleton was not an ordinary striker, and deserves his place in this lineup. He was a good footballer, could hold the ball up, and was outstanding in the air.

When United and Arsenal met in the 1979 FA Cup final, Stapleton was on the winning side, scoring against United in a thrilling 3-2 victory. He spent seven years with the Gunners, and possibly was more famous in an Arsenal shirt.

He did spend six years at United though and was the spearhead of their attack for the early to mid-eighties. He scored in the 1983 FA Cup final against Brighton, and he also picked up a winners medal in 1985, when Norman shot down Everton.

He was signed by Ron Atkinson, but when Sir Alex arrived his time was limited. He was 31 when he left United, but he played 223 times and scored 60 times.

He played 71 times for the Republic, scoring 20 goals, and he captained the team in the 1988 European Championships. He was a great, classy, tall and tough centre forward and completes the team perfectly.

Irish are tough as teak

The Irish have been well represented at Manchester United. And this team is a great reflection. Great players like Moran, Jimmy Nicholl, Sammy McIlroy and Shay Brennan missed out. Yet, every Irish player that wore the red shirt of United deserves credit.

One final mention on the ones that missed out, is Johnny Giles. One of the best players to come out of Ireland, he would be in exactly the same mould as Keane and Whiteside. Hard, but a proper player.

Yet he fell out with Sir Matt Busby, and any player that made his name with 'Dirty' Leeds can't get near a United XI whether they deserve a place or not!

This team may not necessarily be out and out attacking, but what they have are players that are tough as old boots, with a sprinkling of genius here and there!

The defence is as solid as you can get, the midifeld combination of Keane and Whiteside would wet the pants of the opposition before a game would commence. Johnny Carey could do what he wanted.

Liam Whelan would score goals in abundance, Stapleton would provide a focal point and chip in with his goals.....or just give the ball to George and sit back and enjoy the show.

Next up is a Europe XI.....