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All Time Best XI Series

All Time Best XI Series: Goalkeeper

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.

You can follow me on Twitter @writtenoff_mufc

James (




  1. tonymontanna4united

    September 3, 2011 at 1:59 am

    Have to agree with you james, the big dane was an absolute god. Not only the best keeper united have ever had, but in the time ive followed football (since the mid 90s) no one comes close to him, anywhere. My idol growing up, and the man to which, all other keepers have to be measured against, just a great, great player.
    As for edwin, an absolute legend, i absolutely loved him too, but he’ll have to be happy for 2nd on the list. He arrived 6 years too late, but man, what a 6 years we enjoyed during his time here. Great great player, on all accounts a lovely bloke, and a legend to boot for all he did during his time here.
    Also looking at the list, have to say, i personally thought tim howard was a class keeper. In his first season, he was top class, and looked settled from day 1.
    Had a shite start to the 2nd season, but why oh why we dropped him for roy fucking carroll i’ll never know. Yes he sucked up the joint, but bearing in mind 2nd season syndrome an all, and the fact he was still a rookie keeper with very little experience, i still felt we should have given him more time. Dont get me wrong, ultimately he was probably not good enough, and its not like we regretted his departure when we brought in edwin the following season, just felt he had more to offer, and it was a mistake during that season to persist with roy carroll ahead of him (i still remember how useless carroll was in that FA cup final against arsenal with penalties).
    Still as i said, it was probably best he moved on, and hes had a good time at everton now so has well and truly moved on, but i personally rated the guy and to this day still consider him a very good keeper. Not united quality but quality nonetheless.
    Other names, like harry gregg, i know from regular talks with my grandfather how great a keeper he was, and also what an amazing man he was for what he did at the time of the munich disaster. Top bloke, and id definitely have him 3rd on the list.
    The rest, well i remember barthez being a bit of a calimity mixed up with a lot of quality, but he was too inconsistent to ever be a great, and the likes of bailey, i know from my father was rather highly rated, and came in as a kid (bit like de gea) and stayed there for the majority of the 80s.
    Bit surprised theres no mention for ray wood (RIP) who gregg ultimately replaced, who i know again from my grandfather, was a very good keeper.
    Other than that though, a great read. As i said on a previous thread, im loving these posts, especially the ones which also include players from years gone by, who we maybe dont know, or hear enough about it. Its important i feel, as a united supporter, we learn as much as we can about the history of the club, and its players, who served us so well in days gone by, so i really appreciate these threads.
    PS- Les Sealey is an absolute legend who was amazing the FA cup final in 1990. You cant underestimate what a massive decision it was to bring in sealey for leighton, who was obviously suffering from a total lack of confidence at that time, and was awful in dealing with the 3 goals we conceeded in the first game.
    Sealey came in, played his heart out (as he always did), played brilliantly, the FA cup was won, and some could say, fergies job was safe. Just makes you wonder what would have happened if we’d stayed with leighton, lost that replay and fergie gotten the sack eh. Scary really.
    So thanks for the memories les, an absolute fucking hero of mine and my dads.

  2. Lars

    September 3, 2011 at 3:35 am

    Schmeichel was the reason that I (and many other Danes alike) decided to follow United. Every Saturday that my brother and I got the chance to watch United (and Schmeichel) on TV we would always run to the local soccer (concrete) field to reenact the game where one of us would be Schmeichel and the other would be Cantona or Giggs. Without Peter the Great I would probably not have been a United supporter!

    • [OPTI]Madschester United

      September 3, 2011 at 9:00 pm

      EXACTLY the same. Danes rule!

      • RedDevilEddy

        September 3, 2011 at 9:35 pm

        Norge kommer til å vinne mot dere på tirsdag likevel! :mrgreen:

  3. RedDevilEddy

    September 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Oh boy, International weekends are the best! 🙄 Aren’t bored at all…

    • Moscow is my heaven

      September 3, 2011 at 12:30 pm

      word 😐

    • 20LEgend

      September 3, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      Is there a fast-forward option? And why 3 weeks after the start of the season? FFS

      • RedDevilEddy

        September 3, 2011 at 2:51 pm

        Freeze yourself and wake up next weekend! 😆

  4. Grognard

    September 3, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Schmeichel wasn’t a goalkeeper, he was and still is a god. And a legend. Second in my heart only to the King, Cantona.

    • [OPTI]Madschester United

      September 3, 2011 at 9:01 pm

      He is not a God anymore… have you ever heard him commentate?

      Correction: He was and still is a brick-wall. 😀

  5. Rimmerstweets

    September 3, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Really wish he hadn’t dishonourably defected to the other side though….even if his best days were behind him I for one didn’t appreciate it.

    Cole, Schmeichel, Hughes, Kanchelskis Hargreaves (sorry Owen, you need to be a United legend to get into this list!)

    • Grognard

      September 4, 2011 at 5:14 pm

      Best example yet of going from the penthouse to the outhouse. 😀 😀

  6. Nikos

    September 4, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    Doesn’t mean this video expresses my views. Just want to show another point of view.

  7. Grognard

    September 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I actually believe from what I have read that Schmeichel’s exit from OT was rushed because he had had enough of Fergie. Although he respected the Boss for all he had done for the team and him, the pressure to perform at the highest level often put the two in each others faces and I do remember a period in 98/99 when Schmeichel was going through a bad patch and Fergie actually sending him on holidays for ten days to get his focus back. It really made no sense to retire when he did because as a goalkeeper, he was far from what I would say was a standard retirement date. Him leaving to play in Portugal was because he would not have to deal with pressure in that league like the kind he felt at OT and also, to get away from Fergie. Coming back a year later to join Man City was probably intentional only as it was aimed as a snub at Fergie and not the rest of us. Still, as Ian said, this was not appreciated. However, I would prefer him going to then a toothless City as opposed to Liverpool or Arsenal.

  8. Craig Mc

    September 4, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    WTF – who does schneider think he is? Fergie (well done Sir) pulled the plug when greedy git schneider demanded United buy his house in Italy, and provide him with a private jet 😯 . What alien planet does this dutch geezer live on? Schneider – FYI you need to get youself over to Moneylands – Los Vegas Shitty – because only the sheik of wastelands is foolhardy and fucking stupid enough to give you those crazy requirements. Fergie on the otherhand is from the tough docklands of Glasgow – you will get no frills out of him. I just kicked your arse into touch myself – you ain’t worth the value you put on yourself – dutch prick!

    Talking about dutch prickism – wtf doesn’t mulensteen keep his big gob shut – commenting on Chelsea and ruling them out of the title race – and that just prior to them coming to OT to play against us. They won’t need a team talk – our daft dutch coach just wound them up all they need. 🙄 🙄 👿

    • Grognard

      September 4, 2011 at 9:30 pm

      He sounds like he is a little retarded or suffering from denial? All through this he never got his move because his greed got in the way and for some stupid inexplicable reason he thinks Fergie will change his mind and cough up a king’s ransom in January. He needs to wake up. Personally, if the present experiment fails and we need to get a AMF for the future I’d spend the money on Mario Gotze. At 19 he is already just as good.

      And for those who were feeling that peace would come once the transfer window closed, I argued that the next day the tabloids would be linking Sneijder and others for January. Well I guess I was right. It never ends.

      • Craig Mc

        September 5, 2011 at 1:35 am

        You couldn’t be more right Grog! 😀

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