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Ranking Manchester United's 10 best signings of all time

Jozef Kostecki

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Ranking Manchester United's 10 best signings of all time

Featured Image Credit: Alamy

As Manchester United’s first transfer window under new manager Erik ten Hag finally begins to pick up speed, Tyrell Malacia, Lisandro Martinez, and Christian Eriksen are the three newest names to don the red shirt of Manchester United.

With United without a trophy in over five years, and without a league title in a decade, the door is open for each new signing to cement their place as a United legend under the new management.

But, with the transfer window open, it gives us the chance to look back on the greatest ever signings to join the club. 

144 years of history, and hundreds of signings, here's our top 10 Manchester United signings of all time.

(Honourable Mention) Sandy Turnbull:

Arriving from inner-city rivals Manchester City following his role in the 1905 English football bribery scandal, Sandy Turnbull would spend close to nine years as part of the Manchester United squad. 

Joining the club on December 31st 1906, he would make his debut for the club the following day, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win against Aston Villa. From that point onwards Turnbull would be an instrumental part of United’s squad, with his accomplishments speaking for themselves. 

A vital part of United’s first two First-Division trophies, Turnbull would also score the sole goal in United’s 1909 FA Cup victory, as the Red Devils lifted the trophy for the first time. Additionally, Turnbull would score the first-ever goal at Old Trafford. 

Sandy Turnbull (Alamy)
Sandy Turnbull (Alamy)

Turnbull would be banned from football for life alongside six other players, after being found guilty of fixing a match against Liverpool. With the decision made in part for financial gain, but also in a bid to keep United safe from relegation (which they succeeded in achieving). 

The ban was ultimately posthumously lifted in 1919, after Turnbull would sadly die in battle during World War 1. 

10) Alex Stepney:

Signed from Chelsea in 1966 for a then world-record fee of £55,000 for a keeper, Alex Stepney immediately delivered upon his heavy price tag from his first moments in Manchester. Keeping a clean sheet against rivals Manchester City in a 1-0 win, it would be a start of a career at United that would see him make 539 appearances for the side. 

Described as “the single most important factor behind our championship in 1967” by Sir Matt Busby, Stepney would play a vital role as United once again tasted domestic glory.

Shortly thereafter, it would be European glory that followed, as United defeated Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final. The game ended in a 4-1 victory to United after extra-time, but it was Stepney that ensured the game got that far. Denying Eusebio twice late on in the second-half, Stepney put the wheels in motion for United’s victory.

Alex Stepney (Alamy)
Alex Stepney (Alamy)

The first time an English club would ever lift the famous trophy, the importance of the moment was only raised when considering the Munich Air Disaster that tragically took the lives of 23 people, eight of which were players, occurred just 10 years before. 

“We did it for them,” Stepney told Students on Sport last year. “When the final whistle went after winning 4-1 in extra time, it’s amazing, every one of us sub-consciously went to Bill Faulkes, Bobby Charlton and Matt Busby. The three survivors.”

Leaving in 1978 after almost 12 years with the club, Stepney still to this day remains the keeper with the most appearances for the club. Sitting in seventh place on the club’s all time appearance rankings, Stepney had a career where he did it all. Domestic and European glory, relegations, and even two goals after being placed on penalty duty for much of the 1973/74 season.

9) Steve Bruce:

Steve Bruce is one of six men on this list who had the honour of being Manchester United captain, and when tasked with that responsibility he never failed to deliver. 

Whilst younger fans may know Bruce as the manager, Steve Bruce the player was leagues above. Signing from Norwich in December of 1987, Bruce would be a vital part of the United squad for each of his eight and a half seasons with the club. 

Despite a strong first season, a lacklustre 1988/89 campaign for United would mean Sir Alex Ferguson felt the need to add to his squad. With that in mind, Ferguson would recruit Gary Pallister in August of 1989, and as a result one of English football’s greatest ever centre-back partnerships was born. 

Steve Bruce celebrates after scoring in a 2-0 win against Everton in September 1992 (Alamy)
Steve Bruce celebrates after scoring in a 2-0 win against Everton in September 1992 (Alamy)

Pallister and Bruce, or ‘Dolly and Daisy’ as they were coined, became a staple of United’s defence. The duo would frequently play alongside one another as United won three league titles with Bruce and Pallister at the heart of their defence. 

Aside from league glory, additional trophies for both Bruce and United would become a frequent thing, with the side winning nine other major trophies in Bruce’s time at the club. Including the 1992 Football League Cup, United’s first in the club’s history, with the side beating Nottingham Forest in a game that Bruce captained. 

8) Peter Schmeichel:

Despite not ever being the full-time captain during his time at the club, Schmeichel would wear the armband on the night of one of United’s greatest triumphs, as United seized their second Champions League trophy with two late goals. It may have been Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that stole the headlines on that night, but Schmeichel’s somersault celebration has also lasted in the memory of fans ever since.

Peter Schmeichel celebrates with the Champions League trophy in 1999 (Alamy)
Peter Schmeichel celebrates with the Champions League trophy in 1999 (Alamy)

It would be Schmeichel’s last game for United, leaving for Sporting Lisbon believing at the age of 36, he needed to remove himself from the relentless schedule of English football. Somewhat undermining his reputation was his return to the English game, first with Aston Villa, before retiring at United’s rivals Manchester City.

Despite this, Schmeichel's five Premier League trophies, three FA Cups, one League Cup, and one Champions League with United will maintain his legacy forever.  

7) Denis Irwin:

Arriving from Oldham Athletic in 1990, Denis Irwin would spend 12 trophy filled years as a Red Devil, playing 529 times for the Reds. Irwin was the modern fullback before the fullback of today really existed.

In a league of his own for much of the 1990s, Irwin would score 33 goals, and contribute 38 assists throughout his time at United. One of the greatest set-piece takers to ever grace the Premier League, be it corners, free-kicks or penalties, Irwin is a player who younger fans need to seek out clips of (starting with his FA Cup goal against Crystal Palace.)

Though his attacking attributes were commendable, defensively Irwin was impenetrable, playing on both sides of the defence as a fullback, picking up 18 major honours for the club. Perfectly two-footed, Irwin is not only arguably the best left-back to ever put on a Manchester United shirt, but also probably the greatest right-back to ever play for the club as well.

Denis Irwin during the 1998/99 campaign (Alamy)
Denis Irwin during the 1998/99 campaign (Alamy)

6) Cristiano Ronaldo:

If this was a list discussing greatest football careers for all clubs combined, then there would be no question that Ronaldo would top the list by some distance. You all know the story, scouted whilst playing for Sporting CP, tore apart John O’Shea in a friendly, joined United ahead of Arsenal, wins all there is to win in the English game, and leaves for a world record fee. Nine trophies in six years, it was a perfect stint in Manchester.

Cristiano Ronaldo lifts the Champions League with Manchester United in 2008 (Alamy)
Cristiano Ronaldo lifts the Champions League with Manchester United in 2008 (Alamy)

Beyond the trophies there was a host of individual honours as well. A two-time Premier League Player of the Season, a one-time Premier League Golden Boot winner, one of just four players to win a Ballon d’Or whilst playing for United, and most importantly scored United’s only goal in their 2008 Champions League victory. He may have become the finished article and the perfect player at Real Madrid, but at United he was still something special. 

Ronaldo’s return to Manchester last season may not have gone the way all involved would have liked, with the Portuguese international now clearly wishing his time amongst the Red Devils was up. Despite this, in a truly miserable season it was seeing Ronaldo walk out the Old Trafford tunnel as a United player that was regularly one of few bright spots. 

5) Bryan Robson:

Signing from West Brom for a British record fee of £1.5 million in October of 1981, Bryan ‘Captain Marvel’ Robson would be the star of the show for much of his 13 years at the Manchester side. Excelling under both Sir Alex Ferguson and his predecessor Ron Atkinson, Robson would be handed the captain’s armband at United from very early on in his time at the club. 

Bryan Robson of Manchester United in 1991 (Alamy)
Bryan Robson of Manchester United in 1991 (Alamy)

Robson’s time as captain would see him lift nine major honours, with his performance as captain in the replay of the 1982 FA Cup Final, perfectly justifying why Robson became captain so early on in his tenure at the club. Scoring two goals in the match, Robson would turn down the chance to take a penalty and pick up his hat-trick, allowing United’s regular penalty taker Arnold Muhren to take the spot-kick, despite United already being three-nil up. 

Sitting in 18th place on United’s all time appearance charts, Robson’s 99 goals would prove vital, leaving him with a legacy on the club that has stood the test of time, with Robson becoming a club ambassador in 2011, a role he has occupied ever since.

4) Wayne Rooney:

The greatest English striker of his generation, Wayne Rooney is not only one of United’s best ever strikers, but also one of the greatest forwards to ever play in the Premier League. 

Arriving at United at the age of 18 years old, for a fee that made him the club’s third most expensive signing, the pressure was on for Rooney, but you know what they say about pressure, it makes diamonds, and Wayne Rooney was absolutely a diamond. Signalling his arrival with a debut hat-trick against Fenerbahce in the Champions League, it was the beginning of something great.

Wayne Rooney in his Manchester United debut against Fenerbahce in the Champions League, where he bagged a hat-trick (Alamy)
Wayne Rooney in his Manchester United debut against Fenerbahce in the Champions League, where he bagged a hat-trick (Alamy)

Making 559 appearances and scoring 253 goals, Wayne Rooney’s 13 years at United were some of the most decorated of any player in the history of the English game. United’s all-time top goalscorer, Rooney also tops the list for most appearances at the club by a player who was not a product of the United youth system. With Cristiano Ronaldo the closest on goals with 142, and De Gea his nearest rival on appearances with 488, it is likely Rooney’s records will stand true for many years to come.

A hard worker at all times, it is perhaps only Rooney’s selfless nature that meant he retired 52 goals off the top spot in the Premier League’s all-time top scoring charts. At the time of writing his 208 Premier League goals places him comfortably in second place, with only Harry Kane in touching distance of Rooney and Shearer.

3) Roy Keane:

“The most influential football player that I’ve ever played with in terms of the impact on the rest of his teammates, [he was] immense on the pitch in every single way.” The words of Gary Neville when describing Roy Keane, and it’s hard to argue with him. Keane was a master of his craft, and his craft was whatever was asked of him by Sir Alex Ferguson.

Taking up the mantle of club captain in 1997 after Eric Cantona’s retirement from football, Keane embodied the perfect captain. A leader, and possibly the man most befitting of the phrase ‘they don’t make them like him anymore,’ Keane’s eight years as Manchester United captain were highly successful. Keane would win 10 major honours as United captain, leading the team out in five out of six finals during his time wearing the armband.

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Only missing out on the 1999 Champions League final through suspension, there is a strong case to be made that without Keane’s performance against Juventus in their semi-final second-leg, United would never have made the final. Scoring the first of United’s three, Keane started United’s comeback ensuring that despite being two goals down in just over 10 minutes, the Red Devils would be playing in the final.

For all the trophies United have won, and for all the ups-and-downs the team have experienced in the near-17 years since Keane’s departure, a lot has changed at the club. The one thing that remains a fact to this day however, is that they simply cannot replace or replicate Roy Keane. 

2) Denis Law:

A former Manchester City player, Denis Law would arrive back in Manchester this time for United in 1962, for a then British record transfer fee of £115,000. After signing with the club, Law would enjoy a successful career as an integral part of United’s post-Munich Air Disaster rebuild.

Over his 11 seasons with the club, Law’s contributions were unparalleled, scoring 237 times in just 404 appearances. 46 of Law’s goals would come in the 1963/64 season alone, a record number of goals that no United player has ever topped before or after. 

Denis Law of Manchester United during the 3-2 win against Arsenal at Highbury in November 1964 (Alamy)
Denis Law of Manchester United during the 3-2 win against Arsenal at Highbury in November 1964 (Alamy)

It was that 63/64 season that helped Law win the 1964 Ballon d’Or, becoming the first-ever Manchester United player to win the award. The prestigious individual honour would sit alongside Law’s contributions to United winning six major trophies, including the 1968 European Cup. A part of United’s Holy Trinity alongside George Best and Sir Bobby Charlton, the three men’s legacy would be immortalised by United’s Trinity Statue, which was unveiled outside Old Trafford in May of 2008. 

1) Eric Cantona:

What is there to say about Eric Cantona that hasn’t already been said? A truly unique football player, who’s attributes and personality we will never see again.

The Premier League’s first-ever great international export, the Frenchman may have signed for United from English rivals in Leeds, but he had all the hallmarks of his French roots in his playing style. A smart touch here, an elegant chip there, from start to finish Cantona was the definition of class.

Eric Cantona of Manchester United with his collar popped against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in January 1996 (Alamy)
Eric Cantona of Manchester United with his collar popped against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in January 1996 (Alamy)

Quite possibly the coolest player to ever play in the Premier League, Cantona got the ball rolling for both the league and United, with both the club and division opening up to the idea of a reliance on international talents.

From captaincy, collars, and Kung-Fu kicks, Cantona did it all in his time at United. One of the few players who surpassed the game, becoming a true cultural icon, Cantona remains a class above the rest. 

Jozef Kostecki
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