Despite holding a tiny population of just 1.7 million, Northern Ireland has a strong and proud tradition of providing the world with some excellent footballers. George Best is perhaps the most iconic footballer of all time and others like Sammy McIlroy, Norman Whiteside, Jackie Blanchflower and Harry Gregg are the finest to grace Manchester United.
The country has churned out 31 players to play for United, which is only two less than their larger Southern counterparts. Had Derry-born midfielder Darron Gibson not chosen to defect to the Republic of Ireland, the numbers to have played for United from both nations would have been equal.
Many players have come through the United ranks to become important players for their country too, such as Craig Cathcart and Jonny’s brother Corry Evans.
There is without doubt a strong bond between the six Ulster counties and Manchester United, reflected when Sir Alex Ferguson sent over a full-strength squad to Belfast for a testimonial for former goalkeeper Harry Gregg last May.
John ‘Jack’ Peden, 1893–94
United appearances/goals: 32/8
Other clubs: Linfield, Sheffield United, Distillery
An outside left, Peden was the first Irishman to represent Manchester United, or Newton Heath as they were known in those days. He had been a founding member of Linfield FC in Belfast and he won three league titles in his seven years there before his move to Manchester. He had already established himself as an Irish international (the island had not been partitioned, at this point) and fitted with ease into the English game. Unfortunately, his spell at the club only lasted a year as Newton Heath were relegated on the final day. However, he notched 8 goals in his sole season and was received well by the press. It would be a further eight years before another Irishman moved to United, but the connection had been made.
Tommy Morrison, 1902–04
United appearances/goals: 36/8
Other clubs: Glentoran, Burnley, Glasgow Celtic, Colne
The first player from the island to represent Manchester United, as we know it today. Morrison had already established himself with Glentoran in Ireland, Celtic in Scotland and Burnley in the North-West before his move to Manchester. The striker made his debut in a 1-1 draw with Man City, but his best moment came when he netted in a famous 2-1 FA Cup victory over heavy favourites Notts County.
Bernard Donaghy, 1905–06
United appearances/goals: 3/0
Other clubs: Derry Celtic, Glentoran, Hibs, Burnley
Manager Ernest Magnall snapped up Donaghy after impressive spells in both Ireland and Scotland. The tricky inside-left never fully settled at United and returned to play for Derry Celtic. Tragically, Donaghy’s life ended at the tender age of 33 during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Mickey Hamill, 1911–14
United appearances/goals: 60/2
Other clubs: Belfast Celtic, Celtic, Manchester City, Boston Soccer Club, New York Giants
The first Ulsterman to establish himself somewhat at United, Hamill made 60 appearances over three years with the club. An attacking wing-half, it is surprising he only mustered two goals for the club – against Blackburn Rovers and Everton. He returned to Belfast to play for Belfast Celtic before ending his career in the United States.
James Robinson, 1920-22
United appearances/goals: 21/3
Other clubs: Tranmere Rovers
Manager Jack Robson signed Belfast-born Robinson after the War, but the winger only managed sporadic appearances for the club before moving to Tranmere Rovers. He retired from football at the age of 25.
David Lyner, 1922-23
United appearances/goals: 3/0
Other clubs: Distillery, Glentoran, Kilmarnock
Lyner – a versatile winger who could play on both flanks – had already earned success in his native Belfast with Glentoran, and had been capped four times internationally before his move to United. He was the first Northern Irishman to play for the Reds post-partition, but was only selected on three occasions.
Walter McMillen, 1933-35
United appearances/goals: 29/2
Other clubs: Distillery, Cliftonville, Chesterfield, Milwall, Glentoran, Linfield
United fought off interest from Arsenal to land McMillen from Cliftonville in 1933. He was a regular in the defence that helped stave off relegation to the third tier for United. In late 1936 he was sold to Chesterfield for a fee of £2,00.
Harry Baird, 1937-38
United appearances/goals: 53/18
Other clubs: Bangor, Linfield, Huddersfield, Ipswich
Baird was a forward who featured prominently in his two seasons at United. Manager Scott Duncan was persuaded to part with £2,500 to sign the Linfield frontman who was regarded as one of the best in the UK. He scored many important goals at United secured promotion in 1938 with a runners-up spot behind Aston Villa, but was sold to Huddersfield the following year.
Jackie Blanchflower, 1951-58
United appearances/goals: 117/27
Other clubs: None
The younger brother of Tottenham Hotspur captain Danny, the Belfast boy graduated through the United youth ranks before being given a shot in the first team by Matt Busby. He was incredibly versatile and throughout his career could switch between defence, midfield and attack, and even had to take a turn in nets during the 1957 FA Cup final due to an injury to Ray Wood. Blanchflower scored 27 goals in a career with the Reds which looked set to be a legendary one. However, he had to retire at the age of 24 due to the horrendous injuries he sustained in the Munich air crash. The damage included a broken pelvis, crushed kidneys, a severed arm, and many other fractures. He retired just over a year later, the member of the ‘Busby Babes’ was one of Northern Ireland’s finest ever footballing exports.
John ‘Jackie’ Scott, 1952-56
United appearances/goals: 3/0
Other clubs: Grimsby Town, York City, Margate
Scott was spotted by famous Manchester United scout Bob Bishop and joined Matt Busby’s Old Trafford outfit as an apprentice at the tender age of just seventeen in 1950. The forward only played in three matches and all three ended in defeat. His spell at United coincided with the emergence of the ‘Busby Babes’ and Scott was soon moved on to Grimsby. He died in a tragic building site accident aged just 44.
Harry Gregg, 1957-66
United appearances/goals: 247/0
Other clubs: Linfield, Coleraine, Doncaster, Stoke
Harry Gregg is simply a name that not just every Manchester United fan but every football fan should be familiar with. The Londonderry-born goalkeeper is commonly referred to as the ‘Hero of Munich’, yet such is Gregg’s humbleness and modesty, this is not something that sits comfortably with him. His switch from Doncaster to Manchester United in 1957 commanded a transfer fee of £23,000 – a then world record shattering fee for a goalkeeper. He kept a total of 48 clean sheets during his 247 appearances for the club, but will famously be remembered for his heroic actions on that fateful night in Munich. He dragged three players (Charlton, Blanchflower and Viollet), manager Matt Busb, a pregnant Yugoslav woman and her daughter from the burning wreckage. Unfortunately, Gregg missed out on any honours at United through a bizarre run of bad luck. He missed the 1963 FA Cup final through injury and he didn’t make quite enough league appearances in the title-winning seasons of 1965 and 1967. Despite this, many still regard Gregg as the greatest ever goalkeeper at the club. In May 2012 a testimonial match in his honour was held at Windsor Park between United and an Irish League select side. He once said, ‘remember me as a footballer, not a hero’ – but the Man United faithful will always remember him as both.
James ‘Jimmy’ Nicholson, 1960-64
United appearances/goals: 68/6
Other clubs: Huddersfield, Bury, Mossley, Stalybridge Celtic
This central midfielder came through the United ranks and made his debut at 19. He was a regular in the 1960/61 season and scored 5 of his 6 goals for the club in the period. However as Matt Busby delved into the transfer market Nicholson became a more peripheral figure at the club. He was eventually transferred to Huddersfield Town at the start of the 1964/65 season for a transfer fee of £7,500
Ronnie Briggs, 1958-64
United appearances/goals: 11/0
Other clubs: Swansea City, Bristol Rovers
The Belfast shot-stopper began his career at the club where he was a back-up goalkeeper before being moved on. His debut was a chastening experience as the side shipped six against Leicester. In his eleven appearances for United he kept only one clean sheet.
Samuel McMillan, 1961-63
United appearances/goals: 15/6
Other clubs: Wrexham, Southend United, Chester City, Stockport County, Oswestry Town
Despite being a fast and versatile forward with a reasonable strike rate, this Belfast boy didn’t last long with Manchester United. He was competing for places with the likes of Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet and unfortunately for him he was never given much of a chance. Another youth graduate, he was sold to Wrexham for a fee of £8,000.
George Best, 1963-74
United appearances/goals: 470/179
Other clubs: Stockport County, Cork Celtic, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham, Fort Laurendale Strikers, Hibs, San Jose Earthquakes, Sea Bee, Hong Kong Rangers, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions, Nuneaton Borough, Tobermore United
A phenomenon. Words cannot and will not do justice to the genius of this footballer. You will have heard all the adjectives and superlatives before, but he really was that good. A mesmerising, spellbinding talent that encapsulated the ‘rock and roll’ era in which he played. The club has had many fine footballers with a right to the club’s ‘best’ ever – Edwards, Charlton, Law, Ronaldo – but none could argue that Best just had the little bit extra in his locker. Indeed, many will testify that at his peak he surpassed even the greatness of Pele, Maradonna, Di Stefano and Puskas. His battle with alcoholic ensured that his top-flight career was halted at 27, who knows just how good he could have become. Manchester United’s Irish scout Bob Bishop sent a famous telegram to Matt Busby stating: “I think I’ve found you a genius”. He became an off-pitch celebrity, with his love of the bottle and his love of girls. He couldn’t be kept out of the headlines. His alcohol problems took his life prematurely at the age of 59 in 2005, but he will always be adored at the club where he became a superstar.
Sammy McIlroy, 1971-82
United appearances/goals: 419(28)/71
Other clubs: Stoke City, Manchester City, Orgryte, Bury, Preston, Northwich Victoria
Creative midfielder McIlroy was thrown into the deep-end at Man United, making his debut as a 17-year-old in the thrilling 3-3 draw against Manchester City. He shone – scoring one and creating another, which was to set a precedent for a glittering career at Old Trafford. McIlroy really began to shine in the promotion season of 1974/75, making 51 appearances and getting into double figures with his goals tally. The next year his superb form brought another 51 starts and 13 goals as the side finished 3rd and reached the FA Cup final. McIlroy’s only silverware with the Reds was winning the 1976 FA Cup, defeating Liverpool in the final. His fine form continued right up until the end of his United career, but Ron Atkinson ended up selling him to Stoke City for £350,000.
Trevor Anderson, 1972-74
United appearances/goals: 19(13)/2
Other clubs: Portadown, Swindon Town, Peterborough United, Linfield
Reds boss Frank O’Farrell dished out £20,000 for the promising young forward from Portadown. His highlight in a United jersey came at Elland Road in 1973 where he scored the crucial goal in a 1-0 win for Manchester United which proved vital in helping the club avoid relegation. However, Anderson fell out of favour in the ill-fated 1974 season and was a peripheral figure as United were eventually relegated. He moved to Swindon the following November.
David McCreery, 1974-79
United appearances/goals: 110(53)/8
Other clubs: QPR, Tulsa Roughnecks, Newcastle United, GIF Sundsvall, Hearts, Hartlepool United, Coleraine, Carlisle United
Moved to Manchester aged 15 and made his debut away to Portsmouth in the Second Division two years later. He became a mainstay in the side after promotion that season, and scored his first United goal in a 2-0 victory over Manchester City at Maine Road. 53 of his 110 United appearances came from the bench, including in both the 1976 and 1977 FA Cup Finals, the second of which was won against Liverpool. McCreery was sold to QPR for a transfer fee of £200,000 in August 1979.
Jimmy Nicholl, 1971-1981
United appearances/goals: 248(13)/6
Other clubs: Toronto, Sunderland, Rangers, West Brom, Dunfermline Athletic, Raith Rovers, Bath City
Canadian-born Nicholl was signed by Tommy Docherty in 1971, and would go on to make just short of 250 appearances in the United backline at right-back. Like McIlroy and McCreery, he featured in the 1977 FA Cup winning side, which proved to be his only medal in his six and a half playing seasons at the club. New manager Ron Atkinson was not a big fan of his and sold him to Toronto Blizzards for £250,000.
Tommy Jackson, 1975-78
United appearances/goals: 23(1)/0
Other clubs: Glentoran, Everton, Nottingham Forest, Waterford United
Signed in the summer of 1975 after his release from Nigel Clough’s Nottingham Forest. He never fully settled at the club and couldn’t muster a goal in any of his 23 appearances. He left three years later to become player-manager of Irish side Waterford United.
Chris McGrath, 1976-81
United appearances/goals: 34(19)/1
Other clubs: Tottenham Hotspurs, Milwall, Tulsa Roughnecks, South China
A tricky winger who Docherty spent £30,000 on in a surprise move from Tottenham. He was also a regular under new boss Dave Sexton, and his only goal for the club came in a 2-1 defeat at West Ham United in December 1977. In February 1981 McGrath went to the USA to play for Tulsa Roughnecks in the North American Soccer League.
Thomas Sloan, 1978-82
United appearances/goals: 12(8)/0
Other clubs: Ballymena United, Chester City, Linfield, Coleraine
Ballymena-born Sloan was somewhat of a star in Irish League circles as he featured for his local club Ballymena United in an Irish Cup final as a teenager. Sexton hijacked his potential moved to Spurs with a £25,000 deal with the Northern Irish side. He struggled – making only four starts in his four year spell in Manchester, and Atkinson let him move to Chester City on a free-transger.
Thomas Connell, 1978-82
United appearances/goals: 2/0
Other clubs: Newry City, Coleraine, Portadown, Glentoran
Could play in any position across the backline and, like Sloan and Whiteside, was one of a batch of young player that Dave Sexton signed in 1978. His only two appearances under Sexton saw the side lose by an aggregate of 6-0. Again, Atkinson let him depart the club for £37,000 to Irish League side Glentoran.
Norman Whiteside, 1978-89
United appearances/goals: 274(18)/67
Other clubs: Everton
An attacking midfielder who’s quickness in mind more than made up for his perceived lack of pace on the pitch. His sheer strength and athleticism combined with excellent football skills made him one of the best players to ever wear the United jersey. He was becoming a regular in the side when he was just 16 and scored on his first full start for the club, in a match at home to Stoke City. He became the youngest ever player to score in a League Cup final aged just 17, but unfortunately it was in a 2-1 defeat to Liverpool. His FA Cup final was a happier story however, as he became the youngest ever scorer in that too in a 4-0 replay win over Brighton. He also hit the winning strike in the 1985 FA Cup final over Everton, with a sublime goal which won goal of the season. Injuries curtailed his career and his recurring knee problem forced him to miss a calendar year from April 1988 to April 1989. New manager Ferguson sold him to Everton for £600,000 as part of his overhaul of the club’s playing staff. But Whiteside will always be remembered as a fine player who didn’t have luck on his side.
Mal Donaghy, 1988-92
United appearances/goals: 119(21)/0
Other clubs: Larne, Luton Town, Chelsea
Ferguson signed Donaghy for £650,000 after the Belfast man had spent over a decade at Luton Town, he replaced his southern Irish counterpart Kevin Moran in defence. He was known for his consistency without ever pulling up any branches. His only United medal came in 1991 as he was an unused substitute in the Cup Winners Cup final. He never managed to score for United and Chelsea signed him for a £150,000 fee in 1992.
Keith Gillespie, 1993-95
United appearances/goals: 14(7)/2
Other clubs: Wigan Athletic, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, Leicester City, Sheffield United, Charlton, Bradford, Glentoran, Darlington, Longford Town
A swashbuckling winger who inevitably drew early comparisons with George Best. He was in the same United youth side as Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Nicky Butt and many had high hopes for him within the game. He scored on his debut – a 2-0 home victory over Bury in the FA Cup Third Round. However, Gillespie never fulfilled his early potential. His one and only league goal came in a 2-0 win over Newcastle, who he was to join in 1995 as makeweight in the Andy Cole deal. It is now thought that Ferguson wanted rid of the player who had a growing gambling addiction. Gillespie was declared a bankrupt in October 2010. An order was made against the player following a petition by HM Revenue and Customs lodged at Belfast High Court. He has announced his retirement from football following a short stint with Longford Town in the League of Ireland.
Pat McGibbon, 1995-97
United appearances/goals: 1/0
Other clubs: Portadown, Swansea City (loan), Wigan Athletic, Scunthorpe United, Tranmere Rovers, Portadown, Glentoran
Ferguson signed centre-back McGibbon for a hefty fee of £100,000 from Portadown. His only appearance for United was in an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to York City in the League Cup in 1995. He had loan spells at Swansea and Wigan before eventually joining the Latics for £250,000 in 1997. He retired from football in 2006 and managed the now extinct Newry City up until 2012.
Phil Mulryne, 1997-99
United appearances/goals: 5(1)/0
Other clubs: Norwich City, Cardiff City, Leyton Orient, Kings Lynn
A member of the 1995 FA Youth Cup winning team. The central midfielder’s United career never really took over but he enjoyed decent spells with both Norwich and Cardiff City in Division 1. He oddly retired from football in 2008 to start training for entering the Roman Catholic Priesthood.
David Healy, 1999-01
United appearances/goals: 3(3)/0
Other clubs: Port Vale, Preston, Norwich City, Leeds United, Fulham, Sunderland, Ipswich Town, Doncaster Rovers, Glasgow Rangers, Bury
Northern Ireland’s record goal scorer at international level never quite made the grade at United. The fact that Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sherringham, and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer were at the club restricted Healy to three substitute appearances for the club. He joined Preston for £1.5 million in 2001 but has failed to settle at any one club throughout his career.
Roy Carroll, 2001-05
United appearances/goals: 72(4)/0
Other clubs: Hull City, Wigan Athletic, West Ham United, Glasgow Rangers, Derby County, Odense, OFI Crete, Olympiakos
The Fermanagh-stopper was signed for £2.5 million in 2001 as back-up for Fabien Barthez. He never fully established himself as the number 1 at the club as he often played second fiddle to Barthez and then Tim Howard. He is perhaps best remembered for dropping Pedro Mendes shot over the goal-line in the last minute only for the officials to have deemed for the ball not have crossed the line when it clearly had. His last match for United was the 2005 FA Cup final, which despite keeping a clean sheet, saw United lose to Arsenal on penalties. After failing to settle at other clubs he has now established himself as goalkeeper for Greek champions Olympiakos.
Jonny Evans, 2006-present
United appearances/goals: 151(15)/5
Other clubs: Royal Antwerp (loan), Sunderland (loan)
Evans is a classy and intelligent centre-half who is one of United’s most improved players in recent years. The 25-year-old has amassed over 150 appearances for the club despite having stiff competition in Ferdinand, Vidic, Jones and Smalling. He gained crucial experience on loan at both Antwerp and Sunderland and is widely tipped to be a future captain for both club and country. If he continues improving at the rate he is, he could spend his whole career at United.