Manchester United`s left back position has been a source of some amusement over the decades, because of the inordinate strength of the incumbent in his position, and the consequent difficulty encountered by newer players seeking to wear the shirt numbered 3. After the appointment of Matt Busby in 1946, the left back spot was filled by John Aston, who also served as a forward for United and England, and was later known as John Aston Snr, because his son, England`s John Jnr, was the left winger for United when they won the European Cup in 1968. He received instructions from Matt Busby to run at the Benfica right back, Adolfo Calisto, who `turned as slowly as a Portuguese carousel`, according to the manager`s coaching staff reports, and Aston`s pace along the left touchline as he beat the defender that day was a feature in United`s eventual 4-1 victory after an opening rare headed 53rd minute goal from deep lying centre forward, Bobby Charlton, was equalized by Benfica`s Jaime Graça (73), and extra time was needed to complete the triumph with goals from Irish winger, George Best (92), teenage striker, Brian Kidd (94), and Charlton again in the 99th minute. John Aston Snr was at left back when United won the F.A. Cup 4-2 against Blackpool in 1948.
For the league championship campaign of 1951-52, a season which saw United win with 57 points from Tottenham Hotspur with 53, John Snr is credited with being played by Busby as a forward scoring 4 goals in 18 appearances, although future England and United captain, Roger Byrne, who made several appearances on the left wing that season, scoring 7 goals, effectively was competing with Aston for the left back berth in the side and John was proving difficult to replace. In fact it was probably Byrne`s attacking flair that won him the number 3 shirt and, despite pressure from his understudy at United, Geoff Bent, who also went on to play fullback for England, Byrne retained his position as United and England`s left back until both he and Bent lost their lives in the Munich air crash as the team was coming back from a European quarter final away leg victory over Red Star Belgrade, which they`d drawn, 3-3, but had qualified to meet A.C. Milan in the semi-final on aggregate, because of a 2-1 home win at Old Trafford, Manchester. Although with a weakened squad that had lost nine players, seven dead, and two who`d never play again, United won the home leg against A.C. Milan on a wave of unparalleled sympathy and emotion that had persuaded inside forward, Ernie Taylor, who scored, to transfer from Aston Villa before the game, and which carried United forward at the `theater of dreams`, 2-1, with another goal from uninjured forward, Dennis Viollet. At the San Siro stadium in Milan, however, the team succumbed to the harsher realities of practical Italian demolition experts against inexperience, 0-4, and didn`t make the Final.
On February 6, 1958, seven players lost their lives as the plane carrying the team back from Belgrade crashed on take off from Munich airport, while others suffered career threatening injuries. Those who died were England left back, and captain, Roger Byrne, and his understudy, right back, Geoff Bent, England midfielders, Eddie Colman, the player who`d been hailed as the `giant` of the England team for the forthcoming World Cup, that is, central midfield striker, Duncan Edwards, and England centre back, Mark Jones, England left winger, David Pegg, England centre forward, Tommy Taylor, and mercurial Irish forward, Liam `Billy` Whelan. Irish inside forward and sometime centre back, Jackie Blanchflower, and England winger, Johnny Berry, were so badly injured they never played again. Busby`s rebuilding program began with his adopting the devilishly difficult to beat symbol of the devil with its pitchfork and a new nickname for the club, `The Red Devils`, where before the Munich air crash the young squad had been affectionately known as `The Busby Babes`. United`s `Babes` had largely been a product of the youth team and that`s where Busby turned for a new left back to replace his England and United captain, Roger Byrne, and his understudy, Geoff Bent. Although Ian Greaves was the first player to fill the left back position, Irishman Shay Brennan played on the wing that season, as Byrne had done before, replacing Aston Snr. Greaves had won a 1956 championship winners` medal, but Brennan would move from the wing to fill the left back position in due course and would be there to win a championship medal in 1964-65, and 1966-67, and a European Cup winners medal in 1968 as a member of the team that beat Benfica at London`s national Wembley stadium, 4-1.
As it turned out, left winger Shay Brennan, scored in the semi-final of the F.A. Cup that season, but United lost in the Final, 0-2, to Bolton Wanderers. It wouldn`t be until 1963 before the team returned to Wembley and won against Leicester City, 3-1, with goals from record transfer buy from Italy`s Torino, Scots` striker, Denis Law (£110, 000), and England`s striker, David Herd (2). When the 1968 Intercontinental Cup Final was played between Manchester United, as the winners of the European Cup, and the South American champions, who were Estudiantes of Argentina, winners of the Copa Libertadores de América, Tony Dunne and Shay Brennan were vying for the established United left back position. With Dunne at right back, and Francis Burns at left back for United, Estudiantes won their home leg, 1-0, with a header from Marcus Conigliari in the 27th minute. With Dunne at left back, and Shay Brennan at right back for United, the South American champions drew 1-1 at Old Trafford after a surprise 6th minute header from the `little witch`, Estudiantes` right winger, Juan Ramón Verón, to take the trophy, and despite a last gasp 89th minute strike from United`s record new signing from Burnley (£117, 000) Scots` right winger, Willie Morgan.
Manchester United`s recovery was slow after the blow of losing manager, Sir Matt Busby, through retirement, and so newly knighted by England`s queen, Elizabeth II, after the team`s European Cup win. It wouldn`t be until after relegation to the second tier of English soccer that United would win a further major trophy, under the managership of Scot, Tommy Docherty, in the F.A. Cup Final of 1977. Arthur Albiston had made a few appearances for the team that won the Second Division championship in 1974-75 to return to the top tier of English soccer, and Albiston would go on to be a winner of the only three trophies United would capture, before Alex Ferguson`s appointment as manager in 1986, as left back for a team that would win the F.A. Cup in 1977 and again in 1983 and 1985. Albiston took over from fellow Scot, Stewart Houston, who was injured for the 1977 Final, which United won, 2-1, against Liverpool with a goal from centre forward, Jimmy Greenhoff, who in the 55th minute deflected a shot from Scot`s midfield dynamo, Lou Macari, off his chest and into the net after England centre forward, Stuart Pearson, had drilled a shot under Liverpool `keeper Ray Clemence in the 51st minute, but a 53rd minute trademark unstoppable volley from Liverpool midfielder, Jimmy Case, had equalized. It was a double blow for Houston, because he`d been on the losing side in the 1976 Final, 0-1, to Southampton, and an 83rd minute breakaway strike from Bobby Stokes when United had been pressing throughout the contest and had been expected to win.
Before Houston`s career began at left back with United under Docherty, and before the relegation season of 1973-74, left backs came and went in quick succession. Bobby Noble had won a championship medal in the left back position in 1966-67, but a car accident ended his career and Shay Brennan resumed in the left back berth. Francis Burns flattered to deceive from 1970-73 under the successive managerships of former United coach, Wilf McGuinness, and manager Frank O` Farrell, brought from Leicester City. When McGuinness failed to progress the team in successive League Cup semi-final defeats, 3-4, to Manchester City (1970) and 1-3 to Aston Villa (1971), and in an F.A. Cup semi-final defeat to Leeds United, 0-1, after a third replay in which both previous games ended 0-0 with Scots` legendary goalscorer, Denis Law, kept inexplicably unused on the substitutes` bench, Tommy Docherty, who`d been managing Scotland, took over for the 1972-73 season run in. Burns` days as United`s number 3 were over, and Scots` left back, Stewart Houston, was bought from Brentford for £55, 000 in 1973.
Tommy Docherty`s tenure was characterized by a refusal to proceed at a pace suitable to an ageing squad. Players came and went in a whirlwind of wheeler dealing and an unsettled playing staff weren`t able to find the right blend of skill and determination quickly enough. The club was ironically relegated on the last day of the season through a Denis Law back-heeled goal after the legendary scorer of 171 league goals for United had been transferred to rivals Manchester City by Docherty, because of his age, 34, and where he scored nine goals that season, while United`s top scorer, Sammy McIlroy, finished with six. An affair with Mary Brown, the United physiotherapist Laurie`s wife, resulted in the appointment of Dave Sexton and Docherty`s removal after the 1977 F.A. Cup triumph. Sexton took United to a further F.A. Cup Final Appearance in 1979 but lost, 2-3, to Arsenal, and despite United`s pulling it back to 2-2 through Sammy McIlroy, and centre back, Gordon McQueen, who`d been playing up front because he`d cramp and couldn`t deal with the Arsenal forwards. In the dying seconds of the game an Alan Sunderland header from a Graham Rix cross wide on the left cost Sexton his position as United manager, and flamboyant West Bromwich Albion boss, Ron Atkinson, was appointed for the 1981-82 season. Atkinson immediately brought Bryan Robson, the future captain of United and England, from W.B.A., for a club record transfer fee of £1.5 million, and it was Atkinson that brought the club its only subsequent successes in the F.A. Cup Finals of 1983, 4-0, against Brighton, after a replay following a 2-2 draw, and 1985, 1-0, against Everton. Atkinson was sacked for inexplicably offloading top striker, Mark Hughes, to Spain`s FC Barcelona for £2 million after the Welshman had top scored in the successive seasons 1985 (16), and 1986 (17).
Alex Ferguson, brought from Aberdeen in Scotland, where he`d been the only manager to bring a European trophy, the 1983 Cup Winners Cup, to a team other than Celtic or Rangers, bought Hughes back for £1.8 million in 1988 after his appointment in 1986, and Hughes went on to play for Alex for seven seasons until 1994-95 when, although he played in the F.A. Cup Final, which United lost to Everton, 1-0, and the team finished runners up in the league to new money soccer aristocrats, Blackburn Rovers, bankrolled by local entrepreneur Jack Walker, Mark had scored only 8 league goals, and although he left for Chelsea, where he won the F.A. Cup again in 1997, 2-0 against `Boro and the League Cup, 2-0, again against `Boro, and the Cup Winners Cup in 1998, 1-0, against VfB Stuttgart of Germany (albeit as an unused sub), he never got close again to his usual dozen or more for the season, which was necessary to United if they were to challenge for honours.
Hughes even managed a swan song at Blackburn Rovers as a central midfielder, winning the League Cup of 2002, 2-1, against Spurs, while at United Mark won league titles in 1992-93, 1993-94; the F.A. Cup in 1984-85, 1989-90, 1993-94; the League Cup in 1991-92; the Cup Winners' Cup in 1990–91 and the 1991 European Super Cup, 1991, 1-0 against Red Star Belgrade, with a Brian McClair tap in on 67 minutes from a rebound off the post after a shot from England midfielder, Neil Webb. McClair was a Scots` centre forward, signed for the 1887-88 season from Celtic for £850, 000, and who`d also been the only scorer of the game in the 14th minute of the League Cup Final of 1992 against Nottingham Forest, 1-0. Centre back, Gary Pallister, had played the ball to McClair inside the Forest half, who laid it off to left winger, Ryan Giggs, who drew defenders towards him by running directly at goal, before sliding the ball sideways to McClair, who was able to slip into the penalty area to strike left-footed into the bottom right corner of the net. It`d been Hughes that`d brought United back from the brink of defeat to Crystal Palace before the replay victory, 1-0, after the game ended 2-2 when first Bryan Robson had equalized Palace centre back Gary O` Reilly`s header in the 17th minute. It was 1-1 at half time after McClair floated a ball to the far post from the right where Robson headed it home on 35 minutes. Hughes gave United the lead in the 62nd minute after he latched onto a cross-shot from Neil Webb, but Palace `supersub`, Ian Wright, went on a run past two United defenders before sliding the ball past United`s Scots` `keeper, Jim Leighton in the 72nd minute. In extra time Palace left midfielder, John Salako floated a ball to Wright at the United back post and his volley made it 3-2 before United winger, Danny Wallace put a ball through for Hughes to chase and the Manchester forward calmly steered it past the onrushing Palace `keeper, Martin in the 113th minute to force the replay, which United of course won with a goal from Lee Martin, left back, who speculatively ran the length of the pitch, before receiving a ball from Webb on his chest and, observing it fall at his feet, delightedly crashed it into the roof of the Crystal Palace net on 59 minutes.
Arthur Albiston remained United`s first choice left back until 1987 but was giving way to Colin Gibson who`d been bought as a more attacking fullback by Ron Atkinson from Aston Villa for £275, 000 in November 1985, and despite playing his due quota of games Albiston didn`t quite recover his place with the appointment of Ferguson. Gibson, and Clayton Blackmore, a midfielder with a powerful shot, began to appear in the left back berth more frequently than anyone might have supposed and Blackmore was there when United won the Cup Winners Cup themselves with two goals from Mark Hughes against his old club, Barcelona, in the 1991 Final. After making only 5 appearances, and another 6 as sub, Albiston left United for Ron Atkinson`s W.B.A. on a free transfer at the end of the 1987-88 season. Although Clayton Blackmore had the left back berth for the 2-1 win over FC Barcelona in the CWC Final, it`d been Lee Martin who`d played at left back and scored the only goal of the replay against Crystal Palace to win the F.A. Cup, 1-0, after the first game had ended 3-3. United`s search for a left back finally ended with the arrival of Denis Irwin from Oldham Athletic for the 1990-91 season, a player similar to Irishman Tony Dunne, who`d played at left back, or right back, for United until 1973, after United manager Busby had brought him from Irish side, Shelbourne, for £5, 000 in 1960. Consequently, when England`s Paul Parker was his right back partner (1991-96), Irwin played left full back, and again when Gary Neville emerged as right back during the era of the `Fergie fledglings`, who`d win two F.A. Cup and league doubles (1996 and `99), and the 1999 European Cup against Bayern Munich, 2-1. Neville properly emerged in 1994-95 and although Irwin`s last full competitive season in a United shirt was 2001-02, while Neville continued in his regular right back spot until 2010-11, apart from Neville`s injury ravaged season, 2007-08, when he didn`t play at all, Irwin was his left back partner for 7 campaigns, during which the pair combined to win the F.A. Cup and league double in 1996 and 1999, the league in 1997, 2000, and 2001, and the league, F.A. Cup and European Cup treble in 1999.
French left full back Mikael Silvestre had been a large part of Denis Irwin`s finding he had the ability to switch to right back if required. Silvestre had been bought from Italy`s Inter Milan for £4 million before the 1999-2000 season, and he went on to contribute as a mainstay of the defence, sometimes as a centre back, until the end of the 2006-07 term. Silvestre was a league champion with Manchester United in 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2002-03, 2006-07, and 2007-08. In addition, Mikael was a 2003-04 F.A. Cup winner, a 2005-06 League Cup winner, a 2008 European Cup winner, and a 1999 Intercontinental Cup winner. When Sir Alex Ferguson, who like his predecessor, Sir Matt Busby, had been knighted by England`s queen, Elizabeth II, for winning the European Cup in 1999, brought Argentine left back, Gabriel Heinze, from Paris Saint-Germain in 2004 for £6.9 million, it was rather as cover for Silvestre and the central defenders, because Heinze could play in central defence too. The arrival of Patrice Evra from A.S. Monaco for £5. 5 million coincided with the departure of Heinze, although the Argentine defender had won a league championship medal with United in 2006-07 with 17 appearances, and 5 more as substitute. Evra would be United`s mainstay left full back until 2014 amassing a huge total of medals before leaving after Ferguson retired due to ill health and new manager David Moyes arrived from Everton. At left back for United Patrice Evra won league championships in 2006–07, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11, and 2012-13; the League Cups of 2005-06, 2008-09, 2009-10; the European Cup in 2008 against Chelsea, 6-5 (a.e.t.), on penalties after a draw, 1-1, and the World Club Cup in 2008, 1-0, against LDU Quito.
Like Wilf McGuinness before him, Moyes` nemesis was a League Cup semi-final. Against Sunderland at home after a 1-2 defeat away, Moyes` United side won, 2-1, in front of an incredulous crowd that saw the team lose on penalties with only sometime Scots` captain, Darren Fletcher, finding the net for the reds. Evra was giving Moyes his last season at United on the left, and right back on the night, Rafael Da Silva, the Brazilian signed by Ferguson through Brazilian club Fluminense, along with Rafael`s brother, Fabio, who also played right back, missed the last United penalty that would have given them another chance, because Sunderland were equally abysmal in front of goal and themselves only managed two. Like McGuinness before him, who lost two League Cup semis in `70 and `71, and an F.A. Cup semi in `70, it was mene tekel upharsin for Moyes, that is, `the writing on the wall`, and he was replaced after the 2014 World Cup by Dutchman, Louis Van Gaal, who`d managed Holland into third place. Van Gaal`s left back, Marcos Rojo of Argentina, arrived from Sporting Lisbon for £16 million at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, and was still there when Van Gaal left to be replaced by Portugal`s Jose Mourinho after only winning the F.A. Cup Final against Crystal Palace, 2-1, in his two seasons in charge. England`s Luke Shaw, bought from Southampton for £30 million by Van Gaal in 2014, looked set to be one of the foremost in a long history of quality left full backs with years of tenure in the position ahead, but injury limited his first season`s appearances to 16, and in his second season (2015-16), injury again saw Luke make only 5 appearances, so it remains to be seen whether Rojo will find favor with Mourinho, or Shaw will recover lost ground. Rojo was in the Final at left back when goals from Spain`s right midfielder, Juan Mata, and England winger, Jessie Lingard, won the trophy for United, so Marcus will doubtless be reluctant to be left back at home when it`s time again for the team bus to wend up Wembley way.