Trouble at the back – From Peter Schmeichel to Edwin van der Sar


The last season of Peter Schmeichel with Manchester United could not have been any more symbolic of the legacy he was leaving behind. United won the 1998-99 FA Premier League, the FA Cup, and the UEFA Champions League, not only completing the treble but also writing in bold letters the kind of quality United was expecting from anyone who was going to inherit Schmeichel’s gloves. It was not going to be easy and easy, it wasn’t.

When Mark Bosnich was signed in 1999 as a successor to one of the greatest United goalkeepers, it was going to be his second time between the sticks in United colours, having already been part of the squad from 1988-1991. Having been highly successful for Aston Villa, the fans at Old Trafford were pinning a lot of hopes on him. But his second spell, even though brought success for the first team in the form of the Premier League and the Intercontinental Cup, did not do much wonder to his own career.

He was not exactly on good terms with the manager which was evident when Ferguson called him a “terrible professional” in his autobiography. After being the first choice goalkeeper for one year he was sidelined by the coming of the French international, Fabien Barthez and Bosnich eventually moved to Chelsea in 2001, after making 35 appearances for the Red Devils.

Raimond van der Gouw was at the club since 1996. He had arrived as a replacement for Tony Coton and had patiently played the second role to Peter Schmeichel till the arrival of Mark Bosnich. But even in that season, he was far from being the first choice goalkeeper. He had started the match only on 11 occasions as compared to Bosnich’s 22 in United’s title-winning campaign. The arrival of Barthez made the competition tougher than it already was. Having made only two substitute appearances in 2001/02 season, he moved to West Ham United in June 2002.

One can either look down and mock the shortest Premier League career ever or perhaps be curious about the £100,000 that was spent on Nick Culkin. His story is a testament to the fact that patience is not always good and yet, one cannot blame him for not leaving the United ranks during one of their most glorious runs ever, in hope of a place that was not to be. He made just one appearance during his five years at United, if it could be said so. That one appearance came against Arsenal and lasted for just two seconds, what with him having the last kick of the match and his only kick in United colours.

Culkin’s move to Queens Park Rangers was triggered by the arrival of Massimo Taibi. The Italian was bought for £4.5 million from Venezia in 1999, only to make four appearances during his time at United before returning to Italy in January 2000. Taibi’s career at United, if discussed at all, is synonymous with his gaffes against Liverpool and Southampton. While against the former, he went on to win the Man of the Match award, having made many saves after that unfortunate moment but for the latter, he was dubbed as “The Blind Venetian” by a newspaper. A 5-0 defeat at the hands of Chelsea practically ended his career at Old Trafford.

Paul Rachubka, in spite of being a Manchester United Academy graduate, failed to cement his place in the first team. The American made just a single Premier League appearance, as he was first loaned out to Royal Antwerp and then to Oldham Athletic before finally moving to Charlton Athletic in 2002. He is currently associated with Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League.

Fabien Barthez, having won the World Cup and the Euros, seemed to be the permanent answer to the vacancy that was left behind by Schmeichel. He joined the Red Devils for £7.8 million in 2000 and went on to make 139 appearances for the club before returning to France. He was mostly known for his antics on the pitch and had become a crowd favourite during a phenomenal first season with the club in which United went on to win the FA Premier League for the third time in a row.

When Laurent Blanc joined United in 2001, the Barthez-Blanc head-kissing ritual had become a norm during the Champions League matches that season. One of Barthez’s antics included playing mind games by refusing to stand between the sticks during penalty kicks which resulted in a loss of concentration of the kick-taker and ensuing misses as had happened with Muzzy Izzet of Leicester City in November 2001.

Things began to go downhill when the same antics he was popular for began to hit back at him in the form of unnecessary goals in high-profile matches. The 2001/02 season marked the beginning of his end at United, even though he seemed to come back to form in the second half of the season after having a disastrous first half. Even though United won the 2002-03 Premier League, but it also implied the exit time for Barthez as he was blamed for the Champions League exit at the hands of Real Madrid.

Sir Alex had lost his patience with the Frenchman and Roy Carroll took guard for the final three games of the season. He was loaned out to Marseille during the 2003-04 season before finally moving to the same club in the next season.

‘F*** off! I have got a pub to run and goats to feed’, was reportedly Andy Goram’s response to Sir Alex’s phone call in March 2001, presuming it was an old friend pulling out a trick on him. Sir Alex had to call him again to convince him about the genuineness of the offer. He was being seen as a short-term solution due to the injury to both Barthez and van der Gouw. He had all but hung up his gloves, what with having opened a bar and having bought some livestock, when the offer from United came knocking at his doors. He made just two appearances for the club during his brief loan period.

Roy Carroll played 72 games for United after arriving from Wigan in July 2001 for an undisclosed sum. Even after getting a considerable number of starts for the team, he is most famous for his odd mishaps. “The goal that never was” against Tottenham Hotspur even though did not cost United the match, surely put question marks against his place in the United ranks. And then the blunder against Milan, which resulted in a 1-0 defeat turned that question mark into a full stop, as far as getting starts at United was concerned. Barthez’s presence during 2002-03 and Tim Howard’s arrival in 2003-04 had already made it difficult for him to start for United and was eventually released by the club upon the expiry of his contract in May 2005.

Ricardo’s debut in the Manchester United colours was against Blackburn in 2003 which is synonymous to his conceded penalty even before his first touch in the game. If that was unfortunate for the £1.5 million purchase from Real Valladolid, then the 25-yard kick which sailed over his head and the conceded penalty by him which resulted in a 3-0 defeat against Maccabi Haifa, all but marked his end at the club. His return after the loan period at Racing was not met with many starts for Manchester United. He finally moved to Osasuna in 2005 upon the arrival of Tim Howard, which pretty much signalled no more time between the sticks for him in United colours.

Tim Howard was signed in the middle of the 2003 MLS season for $4 million and went on to make 77 appearances for the club before he was loaned out to Everton before the 2006-07 season. He had a good start at the club and had some brilliant performances against Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City, including a decisive penalty save against Arsenal in the Community Shield. What left him shattered was the 2004 Champions League exit against Mourinho’s Porto, wherein he spilt a last-minute free kick resulting into the winning goal.

This was the very match Mourinho was referring to with his  “nothing new for the club” comment,  in the press conference after this year’s Champions League exit at the hands of Sevilla. Embarrassing? Yes. Even more so for the then United goalkeeper who never really regained his form while at the club. Howard’s second season was mostly marked by alternate strings of poor performances by him and by Carroll. Both his competitors at the club, Ricardo, and Carroll, were then released by the club in summer 2005. But soon after, a transfer from Fulham made the back-end a safe place again for Manchester United. That translated into Howard’s exit from the club in 2006.

It was Edwin van der Sar, the tall Dutch goalkeeper, who had come from Fulham to put an end to United’s search for a permanent answer to Schmeichel’s absence. The rest is history.

Written by Arijit Gupta

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