United turn to a ‘rabbit’ with experience

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Edwin van der Sar was striding past a small table in what, by his standards, was an emotional frenzy. It was September 1 2001 in Dublin, and Holland had just been knocked out of the World Cup by Ireland. It was possibly the worst afternoon of the Dutch goalkeeper’s career. The table – standing beside the field – appeared doomed.

Van der Sar lifted a long leg to administer the coup de grace. But then, instead of demolishing the table, he lifted his leg an inch higher and merely flicked a plastic cup off the tabletop. It was typical Van der Sar: the kick, delivered without breaking stride, marked him out as the best footballer among living goalkeepers. It also revealed his mastery of his emotions: the Dutch call him an “ice rabbit”. Both these qualities will help him in his new job, arguably the most stressful in football: goalkeeper of Manchester United, whose season starts against Everton today.

Van der Sar, 34, comes from a village in the Dutch bulb fields and looks it: at 6ft 5in, he is around average height for the region, and his long pale gloomy face, that of a Calvinist pastor circa 1872, is typical too. As a boy he liked playing football – as opposed to keeping goal – but he never dreamed of turning professional.

Nonetheless, Ajax Amsterdam spotted him. The club had original ideas about goalkeeping. Ajax’s greatest player and house philosopher, Johan Cruyff, believed keepers should do more than stop balls. They had to start attacks, passing like outfield players. Van der Sar, good enough with his feet to have become a professional outfield player, was made for the job. Cruyff called him “Ajax’s best attacker”.

He was also their best goalkeeper. Ask other keepers about Van der Sar, and the point they return to is that he seldom errs. Being an ice rabbit he doesn’t get nervous. Entering a tunnel of concentration before a match, he usually meets his own definition of reliability: “Stopping the balls that people expect you to stop.” The one complaint is that he rarely stops the improbable ones.

“Goalkeepers are crazy,” says the football cliché, but Van der Sar isn’t. He never seems to enter the emotional state of losing oneself that characterises football. Even after great victories, he has fought off team-mates who grabbed him too boisterously during the celebrations.

When Juventus signed him from Ajax in 1999, he was considered perhaps the world’s best goalkeeper. Two years later, he wasn’t. At Juve, for the only time in his career, he lost confidence and made blunders. The Italians dubbed him Van der Gol, for “goal”. In 2001 Juventus dumped him. The former “world’s best keeper” spent the next four years at Fulham, not one of Europe’s more successful clubs.

On a television last December, Peter Schmeichel, who had been Manchester United’s last great goalkeeper, recommended the Dutchman to United and Arsenal. Van der Sar and his wife, watching from their sofa, were pleased. Yet neither club rang. They seemed happy soldiering on with substandard keepers. Whereas in the Netherlands a keeper is expected to be a footballer, and in Italy an infallible shot-stopper, in England little is expected of him at all.

Playing in the wilderness was particularly irritating for Van der Sar because he knew he was at his peak. His best match ever, he believes, was Arsenal against Fulham in 2003. Playing for Holland, alongside young men who had been his ballboys years before, he won his 100th cap and finally began rescuing the team with brilliant saves.

Like many keepers, he is peaking in his mid-30s. Joop Hiele, his former keeping coach, explains why: “Goalkeeping is registering the situation, recognising it and finding the solution. The more often you do it, the easier it gets.”

An older keeper is so familiar with the structure of attacks that he has time to organise his defence. Younger keepers can’t. All they have is their talent. And when they make mistakes, they start doubting themselves. After this happened to United’s young keeper Tim Howard, the club finally rang Van der Sar.

Sir Alex Ferguson, United’s manager, had been signing fallible goalkeepers since 1999. He is not alone in this: Arsène Wenger at Arsenal shares the same blind spot. Few managers understand goalkeeping. This is a shame, because not only have keeping errors cost United prizes, but the team still misses Schmeichel’s playmaking. Though the Dane, like most keepers in Britain, was not skilful with his feet, he could launch counter-
attacks by hurling a ball 40 yards to a team-mate’s feet. Van der Sar can do likewise with a pass.

Furthermore, he won’t melt under the spotlights at the world’s biggest club, where a keeper’s mistake is national news, and he will bolster United’s reading circle, which currently consists of captain Roy Keane.

When this interlude is over, Van der Sar will return to his amateur club in the bulb fields, where he will give up keeping to become a striker. “Scoring goals is the most fun,” he explains.

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