Two of the four? Sir Matt and Sir Bobby.Harris/Associated Press

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.

Three contenders for the mountainside.

Three contenders for the mountainside.Touchline/Getty Images

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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