How many United stars made debuts in make or breaks?


It’s rarely the case for a blog to be prompted so rapidly in the wake of a comment on another, but “The reds” raised an interesting poser ahead of tonight’s Champions League game in Germany – what kind of scenarios where some of the clubs greatest players thrown into for their debut match and is there any link between the direness of the situation and the ability of the player? launched a mini investigation.

Firstly of course it has to be said that there can be no definitive answer because the fundamental basis for this “investigation” is regarding an introductory scenario which is not in any way related to the quality of said player. Gary Neville made his competitive bow for the club in an unremarkable UEFA Cup tie at Old Trafford against Torpedo Moscow in a goalless draw in the autumn of 1992 and didn’t play for the club again until May 1994, in another goalless home draw against Coventry as United lifted the title. He has since gone onto become the most decorated full back in the clubs history.

Nevertheless it’s a very interesting topic of debate – not least because in Manchester United’s rich history there seem to have been several cases of mass absence. As referenced in our history section (part 2 coming soon, promise) in 1909 the club were almost without a team to start the season due to an ongoing issue with the FA and the PFA in which the governing body threatened to suspend all union members – most clubs managed to get amateurs to replace their union members, United didn’t, as reflected in the “Outcasts FC” photograph being taken that heads this article.

The FA relented so the story never reached a conclusion – and then almost 50 years later, of course, tragedy struck the club when the Munich Air disaster cruelly took the lives of some of the clubs best ever players.

Yet Sir Matt Busby was able to somehow take a team of survivors, youth players and those donated from other teams in an act of sporting generosity to second place in the league the following season. UEFA had compassionately invited United to play in the European Cup alongside Wolves who were champions but the English FA inexplicably refused on the clubs behalf.

The English FA’s intervention also meant United were unable to participate in the English FA Cup to defend it in 2000, when the club would probably have been forced to field an unfamiliar team.

So there are plenty of what ifs in the clubs history too – as well as many of the players have done in unprecedented adversity, there may have been even greater achievements.

But to concentrate on the question asked by “The reds” let’s look at some individual players.

Simon Davies, a young Welsh left winger, had actually played in the infamous League Cup games against Port Vale in 1994 but was thrown into the deepend to play Galatasaray in a dead rubber Champions League game – the club were already eliminated but injuries and the foreigner rule meant Davies had to start and he struck a great drive across goal to spark a 4-0 rout. The side included Beckham, Butt and Gary Neville, all of whom went on to bigger and better things, sadly Davies steadily dropped down the leagues, eventually moving to the Welsh League and after retiring managing Chester City where he was sacked and then appointed as youth team manager last year.

Ryan Giggs made his debut against Everton on March 2nd, 1991, as substitute, and made his full debut in May of that year in the Manchester Derby and was credited with scoring the only goal even though he openly admits it should be an own goal. His introduction to the first team was not one borne out of Ferguson’s forced hand, and the same can be said for the likes of Schmeichel, Cantona, Scholes, Keane, Stam, Cole, the list goes on. In the main, unremarkable debuts for some of the clubs best ever players.

Even way back to George Best, the mercurial Northern Irishman was introduced to the first team much the same way by Sir Matt Busby the same way Ferguson does with his current crop.

Arguably only Wayne Rooney is a current day United great who made a spectacular debut – that hat-trick in the Champions League over 5 years ago now – but, again, he was introduced into the team having been injured.

Conversely then we have to look at remarkable debuts and what happened to the players since – Kevin Pilkington made his full debut in the York City battering in 1995, while that same season saw the emergency signing of Eric Cantona’s good friend William Prunier who had an average game against QPR then was absolutely shocking against Spurs. Pilkington is now still playing, on loan at Luton after spells at Mansfield and Notts County, while Prunier is probably grateful that he slipped into footballing obscurity.

Other bad debuts? Massimo Taibi gave a Jekyll and Hyde performance at Anfield where we didn’t know what to make of him – we were giving him a resounding thumbs down after shockers against Southampton and Chelsea. To be fair Taibi went on to have a successful career in Italy.

Good debuts in forced circumstances? That’s probably as close as we can get to “the reds” question.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is my earliest true recollection. Injuries to Cole, Keane and Scholes meant a re-shuffling of the side and a place on the bench against Blackburn in August 1996 for the baby faced Norweigan whose name nobody could pronounce. United had signed him for £1.5m after failing to sign Shearer from Rovers for ten times the price.

United were 2-1 down and on come Solskjaer, scoring with the rebound after Flowers had saved his first shot. It was somewhat of a blueprint as Ole become renowned for saving games from the bench, never more expertly displayed than in the treble winning season when a last minute goal at the Stretford End eliminated his boyhood club Liverpool from the FA Cup, and of course, his flick of the boot that won the European Cup that same season. Most managers had a tactic as a plan B, for the best part of ten years, Sir Alex Ferguson needed only one player.

Darron Gibson and Danny Welbeck both scored amazing goals on their Premier League debuts but, again, they were hardly thrown in at the deep end. Another measured judgement call by Fergie.

The same cannot be said, however, for perhaps the best example of an answer to the question than Federico Macheda.

No Rooney, suspended. No Berbatov, injured. Scholes suspended. Ronaldo, a wide player, forced to play through the middle, and Tevez, who was not an out and out striker and was completely ineffective. Macheda and Welbeck were on the bench against Aston Villa who had taken a 2-1 lead a United side who had lost two on the bounce and saw their title hopes flagging, worst of all, Liverpool were the contenders.

Macheda came on with half an hour to go and changed the face of the game, hassling the Villa back line in a way that defied their earlier comfort. Ironically, Welbeck’s introduction for Tevez with 3 minutes left almost saw the Englishman snatch the headlines. Ronaldo had equalised and Welbeck almost got the winner, but Friedel was as usual at his imposing best.

There seemed no way through until Macheda, well, you know the story. His dramatic winner was repeated in similar circumstances at Sunderland a week later and perhaps his career has something of a Solskjaer tone about it, having only scored in those substitute appearances and not in any of his subsequent starts. There is however no doubting the young Italian’s talent – a view shared by our coaching staff who have just secured his long term future.

Tonight’s deep end introductions for whoeever of the travelling youngsters who get the nod will not have the same level of repercussions riding on their performance but nonetheless Ferguson will drum in the importance of finishing top and avoiding the possibility of playing Real Madrid or Barcelona in the next round.

If United are able to avoid defeat tonight then even though there is not the destiny of a trophy riding on the result, their character in doing so may just alert Sir Alex to their ability to step up. After all, less remarkable introductions did the same for some of the clubs most successful ever players.

1 Comment on How many United stars made debuts in make or breaks?

  1. Mate great post.

    Thanks. I am going to look into this more too. And perhaps Rate the debut against caps gained.

    There is only one Yolkie.

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