The last time Manchester United lost a top goalkeeper, it
sent them into a kind of existential crisis from which they did not escape
until they signed Edwin van der Sar, six years too late, in 2005.
The quest to find the New Schmeichel encompassed
not-good-enoughs (Bosnich, Ricardo, Carroll), past-its (Van der Gouw, Goram), a
not-ready-yet (Tim Howard), an unmitigated disaster (Taibi) and a ciggie-puffing
Then came Van der Sar, who ticked all the boxes, and proved totally
unperturbed by Schmeichel's legacy - he was already 34 and a huge name in his
Each week, we select the five best saves for our Premier
League video section, and I can hardly remember a single appearance this season
from Van der Sar.
It is all Robert Green, Ali Al-Habsi and Richard Kingson. It
makes sense, since the goalkeepers who stand behind the worst defences will
have the most shots to save.
But it means the job of a keeper at a top club is very
different than lower down.
Shot-stopping pales into insignificance compared with
concentration, communication, handling of crosses and command of the penalty
That was the problem with Barthez who, though brilliant at
reflex saves, was a bit small, a bit mad and a bit rubbish at English.
Even at 40, Van der Sar is exceptional at all four of those
key jobs. And now he is retiring from football.
Having learned from the post-Schmeichel experience, Ferguson
has tried to set up an order of succession.
He signed Ben Foster at the same time as Van der Sar, and
picked up Tomasz Kuszczak a year later.
Kuszczak won their personal duel - Foster is now excelling
at Birmingham, but never looked comfortable in a United shirt - but the Pole does
not look anywhere near Van der Sar's class.
Arsene Wenger would throw Kuszczak in, and tolerate his
mistakes. It is what he has done with Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski - and
it is probably the main reason Arsenal have not won a trophy since Jens
Ferguson is less tolerant of goalkeepers' errors, and
rightly so. But, when things are going wrong, it can lead to fearful instability
- witness Massimo Taibi's four-game reign of terror.
He needs a top class keeper who needs no bedding-in period,
who can come in and perform straight away.
Of the players linked with Old Trafford, Igor Akinfeev looks
terrific and David De Gea very good. But neither speaks English well, and
neither has played in a league where goalkeepers are subjected to such an intense
That is not so say either player would not be a success -
just that there is a risk. Both players would cost a fortune, and United's
present financial state means they cannot afford to break the bank on a
So, who should United go for?
Jussi Jaaskelainen has always seemed to me a greatly
under-rated keeper, while Howard might thrive at Old Trafford the second time
But United surely want someone with a bit more about them. Someone
with experience, someone who has played under intense pressure, someone who
knows English football, someone of international quality.
Step forward one Pepe Reina. The Liverpool goalkeeper is
known to be restless, a situation unlikely to change with the Champions League
places a distant dream.
He is a great age (28, the same as Kuszczak), has been a
pillar of consistency despite the club's tragic-comic decline, and he even
lives in the right part of the country for United. He is a lively character who
would likely be unfazed by the hostility of swapping one shade of red for a
slightly different one.
But would Liverpool sell? John W. Henry might have extracted
the club from the crippling derby of the Hicks/Gillett era, but he is no benevolent
His background is in American sports, where players swap
clubs all the time. Henry's Boston Red Sox lost centre fielder Johnny Damon to the
hated Yankees a year after winning the World Series. It happens.
US sports are all about value. If United make Liverpool an
offer they cannot refuse, say, £20 million, which facilitates the purchase of multiple
players, Reina could go.
And if Reina can help United avoid the sort of
tracksuit-bottom-wearing calamity that blighted the first half of the
Noughties, he would be well worth the outlay.
Liverpool fans might not like it. In fact, they definitely wouldn't like it. But it looks like a move that works in the interest of both clubs. I'm not saying it will happen, but it should do.
- - -
P.S. It's probably fair to say from the comments below that most Liverpool fans value Reina at more than £20m. Maybe I'm living in 1998.
But the point remains - if United could get a keeper who is almost guaranteed to do well, and Liverpool get a serious pile of cash to rebuild their squad, it makes sense.
- Edwin van der Sar
- Manchester United