Ultimate XI of Manchester United players who went on to shine elsewhere

Lockdown and the distinct lack of football has led to few of the Stretty News gang having a metaphorical sit down (social distancing restrictions observed through computer screens) to discuss the careers of Manchester United players who, for varying reasons, didn’t make it long-term at the club.

It throws up a mix of everything — from trying to force a move to our bitter rivals Liverpool, a broken leg a few weeks after joining, being used as a pawn in a transfer saga for a big name striker and some, simply didn’t get past youth level.

The following is the best XI who shone after their time at United, with a few honourable mentions on the bench!

Goalkeeper: Ben Foster

Ben Foster had a troubled spell at Old Trafford. Sent out on loan to Watford, almost immediately, he did well for the Londoners. This prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to recall him and many saw a long-term replacement for the future. Surgery ruled him out for much of the 07/08 season, but he did get called up for an away trip to Derby, helping United get the win.

Performances in League Cup in 2009, particularly at Wembley, convinced many he was the man to step up. Being first choice at the start of 09/10 was his chance to make it his own. Key mistakes in major games saw pressure come on to drop him. The return of Van Der Sar from injury saw him replaced and he struggled to make many starts after. He signed for Birmingham after weighing up his options that summer.

With the mid-landers, he earned plaudits for helping them win the League Cup against Arsenal. In a struggling team, his saves received admiration from many. He was not able to keep them up but was named their player of the year. He signed, initially on loan, to West Brom and was a key component in their resurgence under Roy Hodgson. He helped them to an 8th place finish in 2012/13. During his time there, he also became a regular in the England set-up and was selected for the 2014 World Cup squad. Possibly less said what happened there. Following their relegation, he signed back with Watford again. He remains hugely important in their fight against the drop under Nigel Pearson. Despite the various knock-backs he received, he remains a solid professional and a thoroughly decent human being. He had to make the decision for his future regarding playing time and has made the right one.

Right-back: Danny Simpson

Simpson made only three appearances in the Premier League for United all in the Double season of 2007/08 and so failed to qualify for a medal. Despite a new deal that season the emergence of Rafael meant that Simpson was never able to establish himself in the first team and left for Newcastle in 2009. But the best was yet to come.

Simpson finally got the Premier League medal he missed out at United when he was a crucial part of the most unlikely story in Premier League history, Leicester’s title win in 2015. Simpson is now with Huddersfield but makes our team by virtue of that winner’s medal which puts him ahead of some very good contenders. Without the emergence of Rafael who knows how things would have turned out for Simpson.

Centre-back: Michael Keane

One half of twins (brother Will actually scored the first goal of the Jose Mourinho era) Keane made his debut under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2012 but his Premier League debut came under Louis van Gaal against Sunderland in 2014, when he came on in the 43rd minute. Keane started the next game, the infamous 4-0 defeat to MK Dons and bore the brunt of the manager’s fury for the result and less than a week later he was loaned out to Burnley with the move becoming permanent the following January. But leaving United doesn’t always mean the end.

Jose Mourinho actually considered bringing Keane back in 2017 before settling on Victor Lindelof instead with Keane joining Everton. After a solid first season Keane found himself in and out of the side but had re-established himself before the shutdown and was heading towards 100 games. He has also made his way into the England squad, winning ten caps to date and has arguably sown himself to be better than Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.

READ MORE: Superhero who loves Man Utd and dislikes Liverpool causes outrage despite fighting COVID-19

Centre-back: Gerard Pique

It’s not easy being a young defender. Especially one at a club the size of Manchester United. Add in the presence of several experienced players currently in your position. And then throw in the fact that you are playing in a foreign league and don’t speak the language. Not exactly straight forward. Such was the challenge for Gerard Pique at Old Trafford. He had been signed from the Barcelona youth team which was to yield quite a few stars in years to come. He played mainly in the reserves to begin with, along with a spell on loan with Real Zaragoza. He begun to make a number of starts in cup competitions, along with a few league starts. He played in a few Champions League games during the 07/08 campaign. He struggled to deal with the pace and physical aspects of the English game however. He was held culpable for a mistake during a loss away to Bolton. It was clear the skill he possessed but he was still behind in the pecking order for starting places.

He returned to Barcelona and did reasonably well. Alright, he became one of the most successful players in their modern history. His debut season saw him win the league and the Champions League against United at Wembley. During his career, he was a constant pillar in their defence. And also during a golden era with the Spanish national squad. At this point in his career, there is probably not many trophies he hasn’t won. Maybe a League Cup or Auto Windshield Trophy. A tall stature, along with his ability on the ball, made him a nightmare for most opposition strikers. Could he have made it on the same level with us? It is difficult for a defender of any level to displace either Ferdinand or Vidic. A player of his standard needed to get game time and the Catalans benefited.

Left-back: Gabriel Heinze

Gabriel Heinze seemed to be exactly what United were looking for upon arrival. He was an experienced Argentinian international who was a well-used to European football. Versatility was a big part of it. He was comfortable with playing as a centre-half or at left back. Added to the fact that he was comfortable on the ball and a threat from set-pieces. In a campaign where the reds flattered to deceive, he was cited as being one of the exceptions. Fans immediately took to his committed and rampaging style. Named as the supporter’s player of the year for 04/05 showed his impact. Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for him. He picked up an injury that ruled him out for the following year. United were forced to sign a back-up and that was Patrice Evra. Chances were limited upon his return and he then made the ultimate sin in the eyes of supporters. Angled for a move to Liverpool. His future was decided, and he was sold to Madrid instead.

In his first year in the Spanish capital, he was joining one of the most powerful squads in Europe. He was used sparingly in his first year but did manage to become a league winner. He made more appearances in his second year, but the Spaniards finished empty-handed. From there, he moved back to France with Marseille. His two years at the club saw him lauded by Didier Deschamps. The southern club won their first league since 1993 and won two French Cups in a row. They gained the reputation of one of the most defensively tight sides in the league and he was a major part of that. He went on to join Roma in Italy and then back to Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina. Had he not received that injury in 2005, who knows where he might have ended up. But wanting to join the scousers tainted him in many fans minds.

Right-wing: Keith Gillespie

Northern Irish man Gillespie was part of the now famous Class of ‘92, and looked to have a spot on the wing ahead of him at Old Trafford after scoring on his debut in a 2-0 win against Bury, but he was unable to shift Andrei Kanchelskis from the first team and after 9 league appearances, was exchanged with Newcastle United, in a then record transfer deal, for striker Andy Cole.

Gillespie was part of the Newcastle side that pushed United all the way in 96 and 97, with Alex Ferguson trying time re-sign him when Kanchelskis left but it didn’t materialise.

143 appearances over 3 and a half years, including a famous Champions League 3-2 win over Barcelona, saw Gillespie move on to Blackburn Rovers in 1998 for a few of £2.3m.

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Gillespie featured 138 times for Blackburn, winning The League Cup in 2002 and went ok to feature most notable for Leicester City and Sheffield United with a few shorter spells at other clubs before eventually retiring in 2013 after a solid career, known as a tricky winger with a cracking cross of a ball.

Gillespie made 86 appearances for Northern Ireland and is one of their most capped players and a very well-regarded member of the setup.

Centre-midfield: Danny Drinkwater

Local lad Drinkwater joined United at the tender age of 9 and although he progressed well through the youth setup and into the reserves, the closest he came to the first team was making the bench against Hull in 2009.

He bounced around on loan with Huddersfield, Cardiff, Watford and Barnsley until finally leaving United for Leicester in 2012 for an undisclosed fee, where he finally found his feet. After helping them gain promotion to the Premier League, he went on to win it in 2016. Totalling 193 league appearances for The Foxes, he joined Chelsea in 2017 for £35m which turned out to be a less than inspiring move for him. He has since had an unsuccessful loan spell with Burnley and is currently on loan at Aston Villa where he has seemingly head butted teammate Jota in training!

Centre-midfield: Tom Cleverley

Cleverly came to United at 11 years of age, and remained at the club for 15 years, however he only amassed 55 league appearances for the club during his 6 year’s as a senior player, a time spent making appearances on loan more than with United.

A tenacious centre midfielder, he broke into the United side under Alex Ferguson, but it was under David Moyes his form took a dip and after Moyes’ disastrous spell as manager came to an abrupt end, Louis Van Gaal’s signing of Daley Blind spelt the end for a flailing Cleverly.

He departed for Everton, his contract ending with United after a spell on loan with Aston Villa, who he was expected to sign on a permanent basis for, but he decided on The Toffees and spent 2 years there before again finding his chances in the first team limited.

January 2017 saw him join Watford on loan, where he has previously been on loan in 2009, and it was eventually made a permanent move where he remains to this day.

Left-wing: Memphis Depay

Signed with a great deal of excitement in 2016 Louis van Gaal acted quickly to secure the services of his fellow Dutchman with PSG circling. The early signs were promising with Depay excelling in Europe and scoring some early goals in the Premier League. But things soon turned sour as Depay struggled for form as he failed to come to terms with the pace of English football and his off-field activities started to cause concern. Depay was also blamed for a late draw with Chelsea when he cheaply conceded possession then failed to track back to regain it as Chelsea claimed a late equaliser. He didn’t make another league appearance before leaving for Lyon in January 2017.

Since moving to France Depay has 43 goals in 102 games and had established himself as a key player in an emerging Dutch side which defeated England in the Nations League. He’s recovering for a torn ACL but still has plenty of time left. United also have a buy back clause.

Striker: Dion Dublin

Originally a centre half, Dublin joined United for £1m in 1992, the same summer United tried, and failed, to sign Alan Shearer from Southampton.

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In a heartbreaking turn of events for the big centre forward, a mere month into his United career he suffered a bad leg break against Crystal Palace, and by the time her had recovered, a certain Frenchman has arrived from Leeds United who led United to their first title win in 26 years that season, forming a partnership Dublin couldnt dislodge, with Mark Hughes.

Dublin was granted a winner’s medal on special circumstances, having failed to make the required 10 appearances in the league, a fate he repeated the following season without a medal as United went on to win the title again.

In September 1994 United sold Dublin to Coventry City for the then handsome sum of £2m and Dublin flourished with the sky blues, quickly earning the reputation as one of the league’s top strikers, which saw him make his England debut in the 97/98 season, the same season he finished joint top scorer in the league with Chris Sutton and Michael Owen.

After a shock exclusion from the England World Cup squad in ‘98, he moved on to Aston Villa for £5.75m and had another colourful stage to his career. A life threatening broken neck in ‘99 nearly ended his career but he fought back to fitness a mere 3 months later and went on to have a sterling career with spells at Leicester City, Glasgow Celtic and Norwich City, fondly remembered as a very likeable character with a keen eye for goal.

Striker: David Healy

Perhaps not successful in the way you would imagine for this list, David Healy had a far better career than most people would imagine. 378 club League career games, scoring 92 goals, alongside 95 caps and 36 goals for Northern Ireland are some extremely impressive numbers for a career than spanned 14 years. The striker may not have been destined to make it at Old Trafford, but he certainly wasn’t wasted talent.

Honourable mentions include Tom Heaton, Ryan Shawcross, Jonathan Greening, Wilfried Zaha, Giuseppe Rossi.

Tom Heaton

Time for the honourable mentions. And even here we didn’t manage to fit in everyone deserving of a spot in our starting 11. Sub keeper is Tom Heaton, the former Burnley stopper, now plying his trade at Aston Villa, never actually made an appearance in the United first team but instead enjoyed several loan spells away from Old Trafford. Moving to Cardiff permanently after United, Heaton went on to Bristol City and then Burnley where he really found his feet. Now 34, Heaton is in the twilight of his career, but with 3 England caps and 343 senior appearances, Heaton has made something of himself certainly.

Ryan Shawcross

With 371 league appearances for Stoke to date, alongside a solitary England cap and countless rumours linking him with a move back to Manchester, Ryan Shawcross can think himself unlucky not to find his way into the starting 11. However, much like his Manchester United career, Shawcross doesn’t quite make the grade. Not to diminish anything he has achieved, he has over 400 games under his belt in an injury laden career. Pivotal in Stoke earning promotion, long-term captain of the side and a 14-year long professional career to date, Shawcross is a worthy sub.

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Jonathan Greening

An emerging young player at the time of United’s 1999 Treble, Greening was an unused substitute at the Nou Camp, going on to make his name at West Bromwich Albion and Fulham where he finally had a crack at the European big time during the Cottagers giant killing run to the final. His failure to make the grade at United was certainly not due to a lack of ability, more the fact that the likes of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Jordi Cruyff were ahead of him in the midfield pecking order. Won the League Cup with Middlesbrough in 2003-04 and the second tier with West Brom four years later. Retired from playing in 2017, he is currently a coach at the International Soccer Academy in York. Called up for Sven Goran Eriksson’s England but never played.

Wilfried Zaha

Perhaps United’s biggest case of what might have been, Sir Alex Ferguson’s final United signing was never given a chance by the great Scot’s immediate successor. Only made a handful of league appearances for the Reds as David Moyes never seemed sold on the talented, temperamental and mercurial young winger. Had the likes of Nani, Antonio Valencia, Ryan Giggs and United’s next big thing – or so we thought – Adnan Januzaj to compete with for a place in the side. He arrived at United at the wrong time and I would have loved to have seen more of him – he certainly never played enough to be able to judge him but we’ve seen elsewhere how good a player he is. Twice capped by England, he has also represented Ivory Coast, the country of his birth. Now back at his first club Crystal Palace as one of the most thrilling wingers in the land and a key cog in Roy Hodgson’s well oiled Eagles. The question is: Did he s**g Moyes’ daughter?

Giuseppe Rossi

Still playing in the MLS, his time at United will sadly be remembered for his plethora of injury problems. Rising through the ranks at Old Trafford, he scored four times in 14 games in the Red of United – a respectable ratio for a player who had to settle for third fiddle behind Ruud van Nistelrooy, an emerging Wayne Rooney and a quickly maturing Cristiano Ronaldo. United’s Young Player of the Year in 2004-05, he helped to steer United to League Cup success a year later, paving the way for another trophy laden decade. Had stints in Serie A and La Liga, also playing for Italy at every level from Under 16 to senior team including the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Rossi has often been compared to namesake Paolo Rossi, 1982 World Cup winner, because of his pace, agility and prowess in front of goal. A generational talent, he really was one that got away. Born in the USA, Rossi has since returned to his native homeland to ply his trade for Real Salt Lake.

A special thank you to all authors: Brian Murphy, Jonathan Kahn, Matt Henderson, Philip Morrissey, Jamie Spoor.

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More Stories Ben Foster Danny Drinkwater Danny Simpson David Healy Dion Dublin Gabriel Henize Gerard Piqué Giuseppe Rossi Jonathan Greening Keith Gillespie Memphis Depay Ryan Shawcross Tom Cleverley Tom Heaton Wilfried Zaha