Edwin van der Sar turns 40 today, becoming the first quadragenerian to play for Manchester United since Billy Meredith in the 1920s. The Dutchman, possibly in his last season before retiring next summer, has appeared 231 times for United since joining from Fulham in 2005 and 888 in a career that now spans nearly 20 years.
In a career of remarkable longevity van der Sar has won 25 major team honours and countless individual awards, together with amassing 130 international caps before retiring – for a second time – from the Dutch national side in 2008.
The Dutchman has created a stature at the very highest level of the game that few ‘keepers can match in recent times.
“There are certain criteria to be a goalkeeper here: good experience, personality and a track record,” said Ferguson recently.
“Edwin has all of those qualities. He didn’t cost us a lot of money, about £2m, so he’s right up there with my best signings.
“We really should have gone for him when Peter left. We went in too late. Martin Edwards, the chairman at the time, had an agreement with Mark Bosnich which took the wind out of our sails.
“Edwin is such a great example of what can be achieved and how long you can last in the game if you keep the light of enthusiasm and ambition inside you.”
van der Sar had already agreed to join Juventus when Ferguson’s call came. The Dutchman’s word to the Old Lady was kept and Ferguson seemingly spent another six years seeking a permanent successor to Peter Schmeichel.
Indeed, Ferguson used 10 different ‘keepers before settling on van der Sar five years ago. While Fabien Barthez and Tim Howard initially succeeded at Old Trafford, others were calamitous failures. The Scot’s purchase of Massimo Taibi ranks alongside the worst in nearly 25 years at Old Trafford; Ricardo, Raimond van der Gouw and Roy Carroll not talented enough to succeed.
Bosnich, meanwhile, arrived at Old Trafford for a second spell at the club overweight and seemingly unable to deal with the inevitable pressure of being United’s ‘keeper.
The question now is whether 40-year-old van der Sar will commit to United past summer 2011 or retire as widely expected. The club’s goalkeeping coach Eric Steele recently said that “Ed has made his mind up and said this is his last year.” The player later described Steele’s comments were “nonsense” and denied that a decision is imminent.
Should van der Sar indicate he will stay at the club beyond 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson will offer the Dutchman a new contract in a heartbeat. With Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes also on the cusp of finishing their careers, and Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves out of contract, any postponement will bring Ferguson a welcome delay in finding a replacement.
It seems an outside bet though and the challenge of adequately replacing van der Sar is one that Ferguson is yet to resolve. Tomasz Kuszczak, the erstwhile number two, is also likely to move on in the summer after fours years as an under-study.
Yet, United’s net has been cast globally in the search for the right replacement. The club’s scouts have watched Atletico Madrid’s brilliant teenager David de Gea, Denmark’s late-developing Anders Lindegaard, Igor Akinfeev of CSKA Moscow and Germany’s Manuel Neuer in recent months. French stopper Hugo Lloris is also under consideration, although there is little chance of United meeting Olympique Lyonnais’ prohibitive valuation.
The club also invited Algeria’s World Cup goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi and Thailand stopper Kawin Thamsatchanan for trials at Old Trafford in a search that is both global and intensive.
For his part, van der Sar is understandably reluctant to make a decision on retirement too early.
“When I was younger, I thought maybe I would finish in my mid-30s, but that is a normal time to be thinking about it when you are younger and for players at this level,” said the former Ajax, Juventus and Fulham ‘keeper.
“That would have been the obvious time to finish, but I only came to United late in my career and maybe that is why I am still enjoying it.”
Three Premier League titles, a Champions League winners’ medal and a new top-flight record of 1,311 minutes without conceding a goal in 2009 have followed in his time in Manchester.
In common with many supporters and his manager, perhaps van der Sar might concede he join United six years too late.