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A mercurial Frenchman at Manchester United. No not Eric Cantona, I mean Fabien Barthez

After finding his way through a tricky first six years as Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson became the master of rebuilding his squads. These transitions were fluid and seem less and were what gave United the ability and impetus to be perennial challenges for the Premier League title.

Despite this, you could argue that Manchester United’s most successful manager was not the best judge of goalkeepers. That period between Peter Schmeichel leaving (1999) and Edwin van der Sar signing for the club (2005), was probably as challenging as it got for Ferguson. Trying to find a suitable replacement for the “Great Dane” became a well-known problem for the United boss. He went through no less than ten keepers before signing Van Der Sar from Fulham, the keeper he tried to sign from Ajax when Schmeichel left after the treble winning season. The ten keepers in chronological order were:

Raymond van der Gouw, Mark Bosnich, Nick Culkin, Massimo Taibi, Paul Rachubka, Fabien Barthez, Andy Goram, Roy Carroll, RicardoTim Howard.

In May 2000 United signed Fabien Barthez from AS Monaco for a then British record fee of £7.8 million. In that same summer, Barthez won the UEFA European championships with his native France. His winner’s medal from that tournament was just one in an impressive collection he had already amassed as a player, which also included a World Cup winners medal from 1998. The French keeper was brought in to replace the much maligned Mark Bosnich, as The Australian International had been sold to Chelsea due to being a “terrible professional“ as stated by Ferguson in his autobiography. 

Fabien Barthez joined Manchester United with a reputation for being one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Many believed he had all the attributes to not only solve United’s goalkeeping hoodoo but to become a United great. Replacing Peter Schmeichel was something that was not going to phase the World Cup-winning shot-stopper, in an interview just after signing for the club Barthez said:

“Schmeichel was a great, great goalkeeper and he played here for a very long time. I need to be strong but I don’t find it daunting. I have played in a World Cup final and Champions League final before and nothing troubles me.”

Barthez enjoyed a hugely successful first season at the club, playing his part in the club’s third consecutive title-winning campaign. During the successful 2000/01 season, the mercurial French goalkeeper quickly became a fan favourite because of his elaborate style and ability to pull off last-ditch saves. He was something of the like that the Premier League had never seen before, a goalkeeper who thought stepovers were just the norm. In modern-day football, it is seen as a necessity that goalkeepers are good with their feet. We laud the technical abilities of David De Gea, Ederson and Manuel Neuer to name a few, but we must not forget Barthez was doing all of this 15 years ago.

As a Manchester United supporter, you could see that Barthez got a buzz from risky play, that fine line between brilliance and disaster and whilst his first season was a success, there were to be moments of madness to follow. The first of these came in FA Cup fourth-round defeat to West Ham United. When facing Paolo Di Canio in a one on one situation, Barthez just stood there, pleading with the referee’s assistant to give offside with his arms above his head to no avail. This allowed the Italian striker to finish unchallenged, a goal that knocked United out of the competition and meant the French keeper was ridiculed in the media.

In a game against Leeds United, in March 2001, we saw three minutes that summed up the genius and madness that was Fabien Barthez. After kicking out at Ian Harte inside the six-yard box a penalty was given. Barthez, lucky to still be on the pitch redeemed himself by acrobatically saving the fore mentioned Harte’s penalty. Saving penalties became the eccentric Frenchman’s trademark. His acrobatic, instinctive style made him difficult to beat. His theatrics and mind games on the line also made him a daunting prospect for any penalty taker as Muzzy Izzet and Steed Malbranque found out, falling victim to Barthez’s penalty stopping expertise.

However, the colourful Frenchman’s honeymoon period was to come to halt during the 2001/02 season. He made crucial mistakes against Deportivo La Coruna in the UEFA Champions League and more importantly against Arsenal at Highbury in a 3-1 defeat in the league. These errors cast major doubts whether Barthez was good enough, after all, to play for United. The unfortunate irony of the Arsenal 3-1 defeat was, he gifted his international teammate Thierry Henry two goals, the prolific French striker was the man who had persuaded Barthez to come to the Premier League. 

Despite his failings, Barthez always showed a determination to improve and finished what had been a disappointing season for the Reds with some impressive performances. During the season he received public backing from the manager who stuck by his Number one goalkeeper the whole season. Moving forward in to the 2002/03 season there were even more inconsistent performances from the French stopper. After United were soundly beaten by a very good Real Madrid side in the Champions League, Ferguson’s patience had finally run out with Barthez. Roy Carroll was the man chosen to play between the sticks for the remainder of the season. In the summer of 2003, the search was on for a new goalkeeper and United took a chance on American Tim Howard.

Regardless of his high-profile errors, many of the Old Trafford faithful still hold fond memories of Fabien Barthez. Purchased as the solution to a problem, Barthez arguably created more issues than he solved, but amid the madness and the crucial mistakes, there was a world-class goalkeeper stacked with agility, tremendous reflexes and a career that deserves to be remembered.

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