FFC columnist Stephen Darwin continues his “Who’s the greatest series” on Manchester United. In his second part, Stephen turns his attention to the great centre back pairings who have graced Old Trafford in the last 20 yrs and pairs up Bruce and Pallister vs Vidic and Ferdinand.
The success of any football club is often attributed to the goal-scoring exploits of a striker or the creative brilliance of an attacking midfielder and effective defensive work often goes unnoticed. Manchester United experienced an incredible wave of success during the 90’s which simply wouldn’t have been possible without the dominant centre half pairing of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister.
As Sir Alex Ferguson takes his side into a new era, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are forging a substantially commanding partnership that has played a fundamental part in United’s impressive form over the last couple of seasons. So I pose the question, Bruce and Pallister or Ferdinand and Vidic? Which of these emphatic defensive units are truly the greatest?
Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister
It is difficult to summarise the significant impact that Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister had on Manchester United’s categoric domestic dominance of the 90’s. The duo possessed all the characteristics of an exceptional defensive partnership and were always reliable in a seven season stint together.
Although Pallister proved a shy figure in front of goal with only 15 to his name at United, his memorable if unspectacular strike against Blackburn Rovers in the 1993 title winning season will always be remembered by United’s fans. Bruce on the other hand provided a number of vital goals amongst the 51 he managed in the famous red shirt. Two fantastic headers against Sheffield Wednesday were arguably the pick of the bunch, inspiring United to their first title in 26 years. As well as being deadly in the air, Bruce was lethal from the penalty spot and surprisingly finished as United’s joint top goal-scorer in 1991, finding the net a remarkable 19 times.
Despite being consistently excellent for United, ‘Dolly and Daisy’ were never really sufficiently recognised on the international stage. During an era that included the prominence of central defenders such as Tony Adams, Des Walker and Mark Wright, it was a noticeably challenging time to break into the England set-up. Pallister only earned a mere 22 caps for his country and Bruce’s international career failed to launch completely bar captaining the England B team on just the one occasion.
With over 800 appearances for the Red Devils, Pallister and Bruce demonstrated an uncompromising loyalty and dedication. They were inseparable at the heart of the United defence and went on to claim 3 Premiership titles, 2 FA Cups, a League Cup and a European Cup Winners Cup as a partnership.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic
Nemanja Vidic has been instrumental for the Red Devils since joining from Spartak Moscow in the January transfer window of 2006. Despite being a relatively unknown quantity to many United fans, the Serb has successfully cemented his place in the side, forming a formidable partnership with Rio Ferdinand. It is fair to say that Sir Alex raised a few eyebrows with his decision to bring the Serb to Manchester, although numerous convincing performances have delighted the Old Trafford faithful and transformed Vidic into somewhat of a cult hero among the supporters. Vidic’s no nonsense style of play have earned many plaudits and after a prolonged period of time United may well have finally filled the gaping hole vacated with the departure of Jaap Stam.
Ferdinand and Vidic complement each other’s abilities in sublime fashion. Rio not only displays exceptional defensive qualities, but demonstrates an air of assurance with the ball at his feet and rarely squanders possession easily. Vidic is a brave and bustling central defender with his strength and aerial ability notable weapons in a hugely impressive defensive armoury. The pair are considerably dangerous going forward and will always strive to get on the end of an attacking set-piece.
It is important to note that both have experienced testing times at Old Trafford yet have triumphed through various adversities. The infamous missed drugs test controversy that hampered a portion of Ferdinand’s career is long in the past and deserving or not, Rio paid the ultimate price with a lengthy suspension. Vidic hardly came flying out of the blocks when he first joined the club, and with a string of indifferent performances, there were question marks raised as to whether the solid defender would prove a credible signing. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it seems preposterous to think that Vidic looked somewhat out of his depth at the preliminary stages of his United career.
With 84 caps between them, Vidic and Ferdinand have a wealth of international experience. Despite not being littered with honours as a partnership, the formidable twosome were instrumental in guiding the Red Devils to the Premiership title of 2006/2007. Both took up a deserved place in the PFA Premier League team of the year and will be undoubtedly influential in United’s quest for trophies for many years to come.
The unprecedented success witnessed by Pallister and Bruce edges this battle of the centre half partnerships for me. Vidic and Ferdinand may triumph in terms of individual talent and ability but the often telepathic understanding of Pallister and Bruce was sensational. It could be argued that the quality of the Premier League has improved drastically since the 90’s and it would be interesting to see how the sturdy Pallister and Bruce would cope in the modern era.
United’s current central defensive pairing are more than capable of emulating their great predecessors and have aptly proved they are a thriving partnership. To surpass Bruce and Pallister, it is imperative that Vidic stays fit and Ferdinand focused to help United maintain their hunt for silverware.