A quarter of a century.
25 years during a time when not lasting 25 weeks is sadly common.
Sir Alex Ferguson has accumulated a stunning array of silverware in the course of his reign at Manchester United and – even if we play football for millenia to come – is destined to be remembered as one of the greats. The praise has flowed freely in recent days, but there is one area of his record consistently derided – his ability to pick a goalkeeper. Is his record as bad as is made out? Here’s the story of the goalkeepers of Ferguson’s quarter of a century at Old Trafford.
Gary Bailey was United’s incumbent first choice when Ferguson arrived in town. The English-born, South African raised Bailey infamously paid for his own ticket to fly to Manchester for his trial with the club and with the arrival of the Scot, it wasn’t long before he needed to arrange more transport, this time out of the club. Ferguson’s first major goalkeeping signing came not long after with the purchase of Jim Leighton. Fergie had worked with him during the former’s stunningly successful stint in charge of the Dons. The Scottish goalie was much admired with Brian Clough – in that familiar style of combining a genuine compliment with a mild insult towards someone or something – observing “Jim Leighton is a rare bird – a Scottish goalkeeper that can be relied on.” For much of his time at Old Trafford, that assessment proved to be correct, but a loss of form culminating with being dropped for the replay of the 1990 FA Cup Final in favour of Les Sealey, signalled a bleak future at the club. Leighton wasn’t quite a liability, but if the club wanted to surge out of mid-table obscurity, the club were going to need a more reliable option between the sticks.
That option came in the form of Peter Schmeichel who Ferguson brought to the club after the Dane’s eye-catching performances for Brondby in the UEFA Cup of 1991. The decade of high finance and hyper-inflation that griped football during the 90s makes it easy to blithely accept Fergie’s retrospective assessment that Schmeichel was the “bargain of the century”, but back in the early nineties, £530,000 wasn’t exactly the risk-free, ‘shot to nothing’ purchase modern football pricing would have you believe. It turned out to be an inspired decision however, with the Great Dane going on to become a United legend with his combination of agility, leadership and controlled aggression raising the bar for what was expected of a Premier League goalkeeper. The outfield talent may have been the catalyst for United’s early dominance of the Premier League, but Schmeichel was the crucial foundation upon which the team was built. Such was his consistency during his eight seasons at the club, back-up keepers like Kevin Pilkington and Nick Culkin rarely got a look in. The one exception was the very under-rated Raimond van der Gouw did step in for the Dane on a few crucial occasions when Schmeichel was unavailable.
His quest to replace Schmeichel remains one of the more noticeable blots on Fergie’s copybook. No goalkeeper could truly have replaced a goalkeeper of such immense stature and influence, but Ferguson’s choices went badly awry. Massimo Taibi has become a byword for a costly and comical foreign import and his reign didn’t go much beyond a calamitous display against Southampton. Fergie deemed Mark Bosnich surplus to requirements in his early years at Old Trafford, but after his successful spell with Aston Villa, the older and more experienced Bosnich had an obvious attraction to Ferguson. Behind the scenes however, the Australian was struggling with his own demons and his return to the club never got going.
Bosnich remained at the club, but it was apparent he wasn’t going to be the solution to the problem and with that in mind, Fergie splashed the cash to bring World Cup winner, Fabien Barthez to the club. £7.8 million was handed over for his services and the size-able fee meant the pressure was on from the start. His spell was littered with mistakes and isn’t remembered with huge fondness, but Barthez was a quality goalkeeper and the problems he faced summed up the immense demand for consistent excellence that comes with being Manchester United’s first choice. With a league campaign, more than likely a couple of cup runs and almost always at least ten or so European games every season, the volume of matches any goalkeeper at Old Trafford is going to face means he’ll always be in the spotlight and the capacity for flaws to be exposed becomes greater. Barthez was generally good, but his dips in concentration were too frequent for the standards required. He could have been a roaring success at 98% of the other professional clubs in the world, but for Ferguson, he would never make the grade.
Perhaps stung by the failure of going for the big fish, Fergie then went for the comparatively unknown Roy Carroll with contributions from van der Gouw followed by the signing of Tim Howard. Initially the Northern Irishman provided cover for Barthez, but he got his chance as first choice when the Frenchman returned to Marseille. Sadly, his spell at Old Trafford will be mainly remembered for his comical attempt to save Pedro Mendes’ garryowen. As amusing as it was, it was somehow worked on the match officials, so at least he contributed to the cause. Howard is often regarded as flop. He wasn’t a success, but time has showed that it wasn’t the most misguided of decisions. Howard has gone on to become a Premier League stalwart with Everton and although it didn’t work out for him with United, the scouting system clearly correctly identified the player’s talent. It was certainly the wrong place at the wrong time for Howard, although I suspect even at his best, he would still be too error-prone for Sir Alex. Ricardo and Andy Goram also came through the revolving door for goalkeepers around this time, but again, were never likely to be the silver bullet Fergie craved in a custodian. Rather than being a rod to bash him with, it speaks volumes for Ferguson’s managerial acumen that he had assembled a team capable of winning trophies despite the handicap of under-performing keepers.
The second major goalkeeping success of the Ferguson era was to come in 2005 when he finally landed Edwin van der Sar. The Dutchman’s move to Fulham had the air of a great name cashing in before retirement, but he consistently impressed at Craven Cottage and despite his age, Sir Alex took him to Old Trafford a few months before van der Sar’s 35th birthday. What followed was one of the most remarkable Indian summer’s in the history of professional football. Van der Sar lacked Schmeichel’s revolutionary impact, but what he did bring was astonishing consistency and reliability. He commanded his penalty area with authority and excelled in doing the basics right. It wasn’t always spectacular, but it’s what was needed at the time and without van der Sar, some of United’s more recent successes could easily be more scarce. Ben Foster was brought in as a potential successor to van der Sar, but not dissimilar to Barthez – he’s talented, but a little too error prone for the United job.
In conclusion, I suspect that Ferguson’s perceived lack of talent in spotting goalkeepers is largely down to his length of time in the job. Of course not every one of his goalkeeping decisions has been a hit, but the sheer volume he has had to bring in during his time make the ratio look skewed in favour of misses rather than hits. If any other manager was at a top club for the same length of time, they would no doubt have a similarly patchy record. Plus one extenuating circumstance is the type of club he has made Manchester United. His success has meant the demand for complete excellence at the club is a constant and the goalkeepers who could achieve those standards have been exceedingly few of the course of the 25 years. Maybe he should have broke the bank for Buffon, Casillas or – by his own admission – gone for Edwin van der Sar sooner, but there simply haven’t been enough top quality goalkeepers around who could be expected to meet the immense demands that come with the clubs’ no. 1 role. Most of the time, they haven’t been available for any amount of money, so Fergie has had to go for riskier, less surefire options and that hasn’t always ended well.
Despite the fairly knee-jerk reactions of certain pundits and journalists, it’s too early to pass judgement on Fergie’s most recent dip into the goalkeeper market. David de Gea hasn’t had an ideal start to his time at United, but there are signs of improvement and he’s far from a write off. Anders Lindegaard is getting his chances too and he could yet be another Dane to have a big impact between the posts at Old Trafford. De Gea is the main hope however and much like Ferguson in his early days at Old Trafford, sticking with him through a rocky patch could be a decision to reap massive rewards.