How do you pick just four people to represent the spirit of Manchester United?
The real-life Mount Rushmore is mired in controversy and political complexity, but we are dealing with the spirit of the idea here rather than the specifics of its execution.
Who deserves to have their face carved into a metaphorical mountain on the outskirts of Salford for services to Manchester United?
The immediate problem is there are too many candidates. And there are three spots that are inarguable; three men simply have to be on the list.
They are James W. Gibson, Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. The latter two will be familiar names to everyone with even a passing interest in the club. The former is less renowned but, for reasons we will look at in more detail, was crucial to the club’s survival.
But that fourth choice? Do we pick Ryan Giggs, the player with the most appearances in the club’s history? Should we plump for Wayne Rooney, the club’s record goalscorer? (spoiler: no, we should not.)
What about Eric Cantona, a player ingrained into the club’s iconography, whose arrival was the catalyst for so much positive change?
Or Sir Bobby Charlton, someone who spent almost his entire playing career at United and came back as an incredibly influential director?
Or even a left-field shout like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a man beloved by supporters whose best moment in a red shirt sent the club into the promised land of football success?
Before we get to that fourth choice, though, let’s take a look at why the first three are so nailed on.
1. James W. Gibson.
It is possible to be a United fan and be unfamiliar with Gibson. His is a name rarely discussed among supporters. Yet without him, there would likely be no such thing as a Manchester United fan because there would be no such thing as Manchester United.
1/ James W Gibson, without this man none of us would be here today. Most under appreciated man in our clubs history. https://t.co/PaZZYhTxLb
As Sam Wallace of the Daily Telegraph wrote in September 2016: “They call James W. Gibson the man who saved Manchester United, and yet when you look closely at what he accomplished at the club which would become a modern-day behemoth, even that status sells short the great Edwardian entrepreneur.”
Let’s start with that saving-the-club part, though, and then take a look at the rest.
As John Scheerhout wrote in the Manchester Evening News last year: “In December 1931, club secretary Walter Crickmer went to Gibson’s house in Hale to ask for help and, after an hour, Crickmer left with £2,000, which would enable the club to pay debtors, wages and even provide each player with a turkey for Christmas.”
Andrew Embling @andrewcembling
On this day in 1876 James W Gibson was born. He would save #mufc from bankruptcy & set foundations for future success #themanwhosavedunited https://t.co/Z7SRUsgwMQ
The club was on the verge of bankruptcy, but in Crickmer’s request for help, he set into motion a chain of events that, as Wallace says, went a long way beyond just saving the club.
He became chairman shortly thereafter; his most important decision in that role was to appoint Busby, the man who transformed the club’s on-pitch fortunes. But that was not his only contribution. It was under his watch that United purchased The Cliff, their training ground for six decades.
Raza Mehdi @srmklive
As a @ManUtd fan, James W Gibson is the one started it all. A great article by @SamWallaceTel https://t.co/deFrrLP48y
And as James Cooper and Patrick Surlis wrote for Sky Sports: “His forward thinking helped establish the first youth academy in the country, from which would come the Busby Babes and, more recently, the Class of ’92.”
The club’s official website notes a poignant story: “When Sir Matt’s first great side landed the FA Cup in 1948, the chairman—too ill to attend the Wembley showpiece after suffering a stroke—welcomed home his victorious side with the words: ‘You have fulfilled my greatest ambition.'”
Much more success was to come, but it was not until after his death in 1951 that the fruits of his labours ripened. There is no question, though, that a place on United’s mountain must be reserved for the man who saved the club—the man who did so much to help build what was to come.
2. Sir Matt Busby
After his appointment by Gibson, Busby set about changing Manchester United forever.
That might seem hyperbolic, but there is a reason no one would dream of the club’s Mount Rushmore without including him.
He set about identifying the best young talent in the country for United’s newly formed academy, and as soon as he felt they were ready, he was more than happy to put them into the first team.
After guiding United to a first league title since 1911 in 1952, Busby reinvented his team, and thus the Busby Babes were born, the brilliant young side that won the league in 1956 and 1957, earning the right to participate in European competition.
That would end in the club’s greatest tragedy. Eight players died in the Munich air disaster in 1958. A further two players lost their careers to the injuries they suffered.
Sir Matt survived. Somehow, he found the reserve of will to carry on. Out of the ashes of Munich, he built another great side, and 10 years on, at Wembley Stadium, that side lifted the European Cup.
He established the modern traditions of United, of youth and attacking football. He brought success and, more importantly, an ethos. Sir Bobby Charlton related a beautiful story of Sir Matt’s philosophy, per Lawrence Donegan of the Guardian:
“I’ll never forget what Sir Matt said to us one day when he pointed across to Trafford Park, which at the time was the largest industrial estate in Europe. He told us: ‘The people over there work hard all week long, and it is your job to go out on the field and provide them with some entertainment.’“
A simple, beautiful message from a remarkable football man.
3. Sir Alex Ferguson
Thirteen Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two UEFA Champions Leagues, a European Cup Winners’ Cup, a UEFA Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup. Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest manager in the history of the game.
There will be those who argue for others to be granted that title, but Ferguson passed every test set for him. He reawakened a sleeping giant, constantly reinvented himself and his teams, building three separate all-time-great sides.
He was a one-off, a titan of the game, and there is no need to elaborate further on the certainty of his position here. The realities and expectations of United in the 21st century were defined and created by Sir Alex.
4. Sir Bobby Charlton
In the end, there is not much debate about the fourth head on the mountain, either. As all such tributes are, it is a product of its time. If, in 20 years, Ryan Giggs returns to the club as a director and the East Stand at Old Trafford is eventually renamed the Sir Ryan Giggs Stand, then perhaps the conversation will be different. But in the here and now, Sir Bobby is the clear choice.
From Busby Babe to director, from goalscoring midfielder to Sir Alex’s closest boardroom ally, he is United through and through. While the modern-day romantic might argue for, say, Cantona—because he is Eric Cantona and kickstarted a generation of success—calmer heads have prevailed.
And with that, Mount Rushmore is set. Four elder statesmen of the club, whose efforts have passed the test of the generations, and without whom Manchester United would be a completely different club.
It will be fascinating to see whether anyone overtakes their contributions in our lifetimes.