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Charlton tops poll to find United's best-ever player

In the end, it comes down to what you believe the soul of Manchester United represents: the fleeting genius or the great, consistent goalscorer and record-breaker for club and country: George Best against Sir Bobby Charlton. And in the last 13 years United have come to represent more of what Charlton stood for than the more ephemeral talents of Best.

It will also have helped the publishers of the Manchester United Opus (Kraken Opus, 850 pages, £3,000-£4,250) that Sir Bobby finished top of the poll of contributing journalists, given that they have put him at the head of their marketing drive. He has become the club's statesman, although it still seems cynical of Old Trafford's powers-that-be that Charlton was sent to face the angry mobs outside the stadium in the aftermath of the Glazer takeover.

Once you have decided on Best or Charlton for the top spot, any list of United players should have Denis Law at No 3. His demotion to No 5 is a travesty, and although comparing a genial Scotsman to a sometimes less than genial Irishman is problematic, there is no way the King of the Stretford End should figure beneath Roy Keane.

Another difficulty with comparing players across history is that the contemporary candidates always seem to get a fairer hearing. There will be many of the United hardcore shaking their heads at Rio Ferdinand's inclusion, even at No 48, and asking questions like: where's Billy Meredith? Even though anyone still living who saw Meredith play is probably not adequately compos mentis to remember the occasion.

Meredith died aged 83 in 1958, and although he is equally well-remembered at Manchester City for his time there, he won United's first two League titles, in 1908 and 1911. He was a staunch union man who stood up to the Football Association.

Bill Foulkes beneath Wayne Rooney? The old defender worked down a coal mine, survived the Munich air disaster and scored the semi-final goal against Real Madrid that put United into the 1968 European Cup final. It is not Rooney's fault he has never had to dig coal, but it puts in perspective the problems of comparing players across generations.

Manchester United Opus: Top 50 Players of All Time: 1 Sir Bobby Charlton, 2 George Best, 3 Roy Keane, 4 Duncan Edwards, 5 Denis Law, 6 Bryan Robson, 7 Eric Cantona, 8 Peter Schmeichel, 9 Ryan Giggs, 10 Paul Scholes, 11 Wayne Rooney, 12 Bill Foulkes, 13 Roger Byrne, 14 David Beckham, 15 Ruud Van Nistelrooy, 16 Nobby Stiles, 17 Dennis Viollet, 18 Gary Neville, 19 Mark Hughes, 20 Denis Irwin, 21 Pat Crerand, 22 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, 23 Tommy Taylor, 24 Steve Bruce, 25 Liam Whelan, 26 Martin Buchan, 27 Brian Kidd, 28 Steve Coppell, 29 Norman Whiteside, 30 Alex Stepney, 31 Eddie Coleman, 32 Brian McClair, 33 Gary Pallister, 34 Tony Dunne, 35 Lou Macari, 36 Paul McGrath, 37 Paul Ince, 38 Arthur Albiston, 39 Cristiano Ronaldo, 40 Jimmy Delaney, 41 Andy Cole, 42 Dwight Yorke, 43 Sammy McIlroy, 44 Shay Brennan, 45 Jaap Stam, 46 Kevin Moran, 47 Harry Gregg, 48 Rio Ferdinand, 49 Johnny Berry, 50 Teddy Sheringham.