This summer Manchester United faced a challenge in the transfer market that had similar connotations to 1999 when the great Dane Peter Schmeichel announced he would be leaving for pastures new. Back then, it was felt that the decision on his replacement was made in a rather hasty fashion with the unpredictable Australian Mark Bosnich being recruited from Aston Villa on a free transfer. Whilst it cannot be denied that he had talent, Bosnich failed to win over the Old Trafford faithful after a series of mistakes and poor quality distribution. It is often forgotten that this was the Australian’s second crack at United following a brief three game stint between the years of 1989-92. Second time around he made only 35 appearances before being replaced by Fabien Barthez in 2000.
Fast forward to 2011 and a similar problem was on the horizon. How do Manchester United replace a goalkeeping icon that has been a magnificent asset to the club and that has in many ways re-defined the art? Schmeichel’s brilliance stemmed from his command of the penalty area, his apparent invincibility when it came to one on one’s with an opposition striker and his unique ability to pick out a pacey United forward with a long throw. In many ways, what the Dane brought to United back in 1991 when he signed from Brondby changed the perception of the modern goalkeeper. Now it was no longer acceptable to be simply a good shot stopper or someone who collected the odd cross. He was now expected to be the first line in the attack and also the last line in defence, often becoming an unorthodox sweeper resulting in a dash from his penalty area.
United developed into a wonderful counter attacking team in their successful spell in the mid 1990’s and this often relied on Schmeichel picking out the likes of Sharpe, Giggs or Kanchelskis who could be seen anticipating the early throw out, to set the attack on its way. At the time no other domestic keeper had this in their armoury.
Looking into United’s past goalkeepers, a mention for Harry Gregg is essential. Born in Northern Ireland, he moved to United from Doncaster Rovers in 1957 for a world record transfer fee of £23,000. He is often referred to as “The hero of Munich” due to his bravery on that fateful night as he helped pull many of his team mates to safety from the burning wreckage. Those who saw him at the time rated him very highly and it was unfortunate that he failed to pick up any trophies during his United career due to poorly timed injuries. He was voted the best goalkeeper at the 1958 World Cup and won 25 caps for his country.
Alex Stepney was United’s keeper when they won the European Cup for the first time in 1968. He was bought from Chelsea in 1966 for a record fee of £55,000 having made just one appearance for the club. Stepney helped the club win the league championship in 1967 and thus entry into the following season’s European Cup. He is often best remembered for his late save in the final at Wembley from Eusebio when the scores were level. The Benfica striker was so appreciative of the save that he applauded the Englishman as the ball was returned to play. United went onto win 4-1 after extra time. Despite this, he failed to win any more than a single cap for England due to intense competition from Gordon Banks and Peter Bonetti (briefly his colleague with Chelsea). He did, however, travel to Mexico as 3rd choice for the 1970 World Cup. Stepney played 433 times for the club before leaving for Dallas Tornado in 1978.
Manchester United’s recent past has been littered with goalkeepers good and bad but only one of Schmeichel’s predecessors really stands out. Gary Bailey was born in Ipswich as his father Roy played for his son’s home town team. Having grown up in South Africa, Bailey paid for his own airfare to commence a trial at Old Trafford in the late 1970’s. My recollection of the player mainly stems from the fact that he was the first United keeper I can remember when I began supporting the club in the early 80’s. He became an early hero for me following his block at the feet of Gordon Smith in the 1983 FA Cup against Brighton. With the score poised at 2-2 and heading towards a replay, the big Scotsman was left with just Bailey to beat following a pass from Michael Robinson to send the South Coast club into history.
Unfortunately for Smith, his attempt was blocked by the onrushing keeper’s legs and United went onto win the replay comfortably a few days later. The confrontation between goalkeeper and striker was immortalised by the iconic words of the legendary broadcaster Peter Jones on BBC Radio and also sums up the gilt edged nature of the opportunity that had presented itself to Smith that day. The words “…And Smith must score” have gone down in broadcasting history.
Bailey went on to win the FA Cup with United in 1985 after a brilliant Norman Whiteside goal saw the Reds (down to ten men after Kevin Moran’s sending off) past the challenge of Everton. It was something of a travesty that someone so talented only won two England caps but he was behind both Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence in the international pecking order.
Two years after Alex Ferguson took over the reins at Old Trafford, he signed Jim Leighton who had been a mainstay of his hugely successful Aberdeen side of the 1980’s. The move to Manchester United never really worked out for the Scottish keeper whose confidence seemed to suffer as the Reds languished in mid table. The one saving grace in a desperate time for the club was the run to the 1990 FA Cup final which many claim ultimately saved Ferguson’s Old Trafford career. Leighton was selected for the game at Wembley against Crystal Palace but was hesitant throughout and arguably at fault for Palace’s opener and third goals. Going into the replay, the manager made the brave and ultimately brilliant decision to drop Leighton for the veteran Les Sealey who had previously played just two matches for the club. Sealey went on to have an inspired game, keeping the Palace attack at bay and helping United to a narrow victory. Leighton was understandably devastated by his shock omission and his career never really recovered. Sealey made a fantastic gesture by giving his winners medal to Leighton as the Scotsman had played in the games leading to the final but the FA subsequently gave medals to both men.
Sealey further ingratiated himself into Old Trafford legend by appearing in the Cup Winners Cup Final the following year and helping United overcome the might of Barcelona in the final in Rotterdam. After a spell at Aston Villa, he rejoined the club as Schmeichel’s deputy. Remarkably, his last four appearances in a United shirt were in the Cup Winners Cup Final, two League Cup Finals and an FA Cup Quarter Final. Tragically, he died of a heart attack in 2001 whilst at West Ham as a coach.
Edwin Van Der Sar joined United in 2005 after a glittering career had seen spells at Ajax, Juventus and Fulham. Louis Van Gaal had given him his debut at Ajax where he stayed for nine years before making the move to Turin to play for the “Old Lady” where he became the first non-Italian to keep goal for them. His spell in Italy came to an end when the Italians paid a world record fee (still standing) of £32.6 million for Gianluigi Buffon from Parma and the Dutchman did not want to remain as his understudy. It is at this point that Sir Alex admits regret at not following up some interest at a time when United were struggling to find a suitable successor to Schmeichel. By the time that 2005 arrived and the club still no nearer to locating a solution, the wily Scot was not going to make the same mistake again and signed Van Der Sar for a fee of around £2 million. From day one, it looked a wise decision. Rather than taking another risk on an untried keeper such as the many that had come before, the boss plumped for a world renowned, experienced custodian who was not going to be phased by playing in the goldfish bowl that is Manchester United.
What set Edwin apart from many of his peers and those that have come before him was the sheer composure and confidence that he exuded. This transmited itself to whichever back four was in front of him and then radiated throughout the team as a whole. This confidence expressed itself in so many ways that are crucial to the art of a goalkeeper. His height allowed him to come for crosses that others would not attempt; his positioning meant he was usually in the right place to make a save with the minimum of effort; his reflexes meant that he was often ready to make a second save moments after the first one has been parried and finally his supreme fitness meant that he was able to hold down his position as number one at United into his forties and amass 130 caps for Holland.
An often overlooked quality that Van Der Sar’s possessed was his ability with either foot. Since the back pass rule was introduced following a turgid 1990 World Cup littered with incidents of time wasting and back passes, a modern goal keeper could no longer progress at the top level without being a “footballer”. There are numerous examples at United who have struggled with this aspect of the art since the rule’s inception. It could be argued that this lack of quality with the ball at their feet helped cost the likes of Ben Foster and Mark Bosnich a long career at Old Trafford, as supporters were often acutely aware of their nervousness resulting into a slice into touch and a dent to confidence. One United goalkeeper who did not suffer from either lack of confidence or ability with the ball at his feet is the aforementioned Fabien Barthez. The eccentric Frenchman’s biggest problem was arguably over confidence in his ability in this department leading to costly mistakes seemingly every time he encountered his international team mate Thierry Henry and Arsenal! This in turn undermined the confidence that his back line had in him and led to him leaving the club in 2004 having been superseded by Tim Howard and then Roy Carroll.
Van Der Sar was equally adept with either foot and his back line had no qualms about passing the ball back to him when in trouble. His ball control regularly put many outfield players to shame and his distribution was often been the first cog in a swift United counter attack.
It would be remiss of me not to mention some other custodians for United over the last decade who did not quite come up to scratch. These include Andy Goram, Tim Howard, Massimo Taibi, Ricardo, Roy Carroll, Andy Goram (see what I did there?!), Ben Foster and Raimond van der Gouw.
The long and exhaustive search for Van Der Sar’s successor culminated in the signing of David De Gea. The Spanish U21 keeper is highly rated by all those that have seen him but he has massive gloves to fill at United. He will take time to settle as it is a big move at such a young age and he also has the added complication of a new language to learn. We may well be re-visiting this piece in a few years with a genuine contender for a place among the best ever to pull on a United keeper’s jersey with De Gea but only time will tell.
Those were all the runners and riders and I have to make a decision as to the best Manchester United goalkeeper. My shortlist of three comes down to Schmeichel, Van Der Sar and Gregg for the reasons outlined above.
After much consideration, my choice is Peter Boleslaw Schmeichel who excelled over such a long period of time and helped the club embark on such a sustained period of success. Many point to the attacking threat at the club during these exciting years but the true foundations of the side were built firmly on the shoulders of the Great Dane. An impenetrable force that gave the whole team freedom to express themselves leading onto one of the most successful era’s in modern football.
Thanks, I hope you enjoyed my take on Manchester United’s All Time Best Goalkeeper.
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