United's humble tower of strength

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am

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He won more Manchester United silverware than Eric Cantona and lifted the Premier League trophy twice as many times as Bryan Robson, yet there's a low-key, matter-of-fact quality about Edwin van der Sar.

He appears to have few of the eccentricities of fellow international goalkeepers Fabien Barthez, Bruce Grobbelaar or Jens Lehmann.

Hopping between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore last week as he showed off Manchester United's Premiership prize from last season, Van der Sar hardly oozed star quality. If it were not for his towering stature (197 centimetres), you might not cast a second glance at the unassuming visitor wearing a black shirt, blue jeans and sneakers.

But Van der Sar, now 40, will be remembered along with Peter Schmeichel and Alex Stepney as one of Manchester United's great goalkeepers, whose arrival in June 2005 turned out to be a crucial stepping stone in a rich era of success at Old Trafford.

Four Premier League titles and three Champions League finals were the highlights of his six seasons under Alex Ferguson. He was man-of-the-match as United edged Chelsea on penalties on the soggy Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in 2008, but he admits that his thoughts still linger on the finals where he tasted defeat.

'I am proud of what I achieved and don't want to be greedy, but I think more about the finals I lost,' he said. 'I played five finals and won only twice, so that meant I lost three times. You think more about the ones that slipped through your hands than the ones you actually won.'

Two of Van der Sar's losing finals came at the hands of Barcelona (in 2009 and 2011). The other was with Ajax in 1996 when they fell on penalties to Juventus.

The previous year, Louis van Gaal's Ajax wunderkinder earned the Dutch superpowers their fourth major European trophy with a 1-0 victory over Fabio Capello's AC Milan in Vienna.

Ahead of that 1995 final, I was among a group of foreign journalists invited into the Ajax player bar after training. Van der Sar was part of a golden generation that included Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, the De Boer twins and Patrick Kluivert. Frank Rijkaard and Danny Blind were the two old heads. Even 16 years ago, Van der Sar was a seasoned campaigner, claiming two major European goalkeeping awards before the age of 25, travelling with the Dutch squad to the 1994 World Cup and winning the 1992 Uefa Cup in his early days with Ajax.

'I came in when I was 18, and it was great because you were playing with guys of the same age,' he said. 'You grow up together, you get in the first team together and suddenly you beat Milan a couple of times and you win the Champions League.

'It's a little bit comparable to when Man United won the Champions League in 1999: a lot of youngsters were involved.'

From Ajax, Van der Sar became the first non-Italian to wear the gloves for Juventus in 1999, playing under Carlo Ancelotti. But his two seasons in Turin were largely disappointing, as Juve twice finished runners-up in Serie A and Van der Sar lost his place when Gianluigi Buffon was recruited from Parma.

Moving to the Premier League with Fulham was the boost that Van der Sar's career needed. After 127 league appearances over four years at Craven Cottage, he attracted the attention of Ferguson, even though Van der Sar was approaching his 35th birthday.

The fact that he won three of his four Best European Goalkeeper awards wearing the red of Manchester United showed just how shrewd a signing Van der Sar was. In February 2009, he even set a world record for the longest period of not conceding a league goal - 1,311 minutes.

Manchester United went through 10 different keepers after Schmeichel's departure a dozen years ago. Now new recruit David de Gea has the large shoes of Van der Sar to fill.

'I think he just has to just play his own game,' Van der Sar said of De Gea, 20. 'He won the Europa League with Atletico Madrid, and the Under-21 European Championship with Spain. So I presume the Man United scouts did their homework well. Of course it's going to be different, but that's what all new players have to go through.

'Of course with the departure of myself, Scholesy [Paul Scholes] and [Gary] Neville, it's going to be hard for Man United with the other teams beefing up their squads. But I think the goal each season is the Premiership and they should be able to defend it again.'

Van der Sar's flying trip to Asia coincided with the start of pre-season training for most Premier League clubs. For several weeks last season, he tussled with the idea of whether to play on for another year before deciding to hang up his gloves for good.

'You hope it's the right time but you're never really sure of course,' he said. 'I've been doing this for 21 years. That's quite a long time at this level. I think I've made the right decision to stop and retire.'

One feels the calm demeanour and common sense in the Old Trafford dressing room of the man the fans nicknamed 'Van der Save' will be missed almost as much as his steady hands, sharp reflexes and solid positioning on the pitch.

Golden gloves

Born: October, 29, 1970

Clubs: Ajax (1990-99, 226 appearances, 1 goal)

Juventus (99-2001, 66 apps)

Fulham (01-05, 127 apps)

Manchester United (05-11, 186 apps).

International: 130 caps for Netherlands 1995-2008.

Honours: Ajax - four Dutch titles ('94, '95, '96, '98); three Dutch cups ('93, '98, '99); one Uefa Cup ('92); one Champions League ('95); one Uefa Super Cup ('95); one Intercontinental Cup (95)

Manchester United - four Premier League titles ('07, '08, '09, '11); one League Cup ('06); one Champions League ('08); one Fifa Club World Cup ('08)

Awards: Best European Goalkeeper ('95, '08, '09, '10); Dutch Goalkeeper of the Year ('94,'96, '96, '97); Dutch Footballer of the Year 1998; Uefa Club Goalkeeper of the Year ('95, '09); Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau 2010

Records: Oldest player to play in Champions League final (40 years 211 days); oldest player to win Premier League (40 years 205 days); most caps for Netherlands (130); worldwide clean sheet record (1,311 mins)