“OMG,” extolled BBC pundit Mark Bright on Twitter in August, “Man Utd cannot win the Premier League with de Gea.”
Bright’s deliciously reactionary, and embarrassingly premature assertion, made on the evidence one suspects, of having watched young David de Gea in matches against Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion alone, was not the only knee-jerk response in late summer. Indeed, critics from the blogosphere to broadsheet newspapers rounded on the £18 million Spanish acquisition, varyingly comparing de Gea to the hapless Massimio Taibi, and questioning Sir Alex Ferguson’s sanity in replacing Edwin van der Sar with such a callow youth.
But this was not so much a critique of de Gea’s talent, as an assassination; a player thoroughly defenestrated by a media posse unwilling to entertain realistic mitigation. In the wake of de Gea’s outstanding recent performances, one wonders whether the English media pack will now discover the requisite humility.
de Gea’s critics were not simply intransigents in Bright’s mould, but media commentators of an altogether more studied nature. In the Guardian, for example, long-time United observer Daniel Taylor brought forward the question of dropping de Gea after the Spaniard’s Premier League début against West Brom at the Hawthornes. Similar responses came in most, if not all, Britain’s broadsheets.
“Not every team will be as generous as West Bromwich Albion and there has to be a case for Anders Lindegaard to take over,” argued Taylor.
“The Dane is seven years older than De Gea, has a greater penalty-box presence and, when he played in the United States in pre-season, had the trust of his team-mates. The Premier League can be an unforgiving place and, rightly or wrongly, De Gea has already been identified as a ‘dodgy keeper’.”
Meanwhile, in The Times, de Gea’s self-appointed critic-in-chief, and one-time Fergie biographer, Patrick Barclay described United’s new net-minder as “Heurelho Gomes with less shot-stopping skills.”
“The goalkeeper is like a jelly,” continued Barclay, in The Times‘ podcast last August. “I can’t see what he’s got. How on earth Ferguson and all his millions of coaches could have watched this boy week-in-week out and then signed him for the first team I just don’t know. It’s always a risk signing a goalkeeper from Spain, and Ferguson should have known this.”
“I’m looking forward to Man United versus Stoke,” Barclay added, with ill disguised glee.
Barclay, being Barclay, will likely be the last to come down from this particular high horse, let alone the xenophobic rant about Spanish ‘keeping, which has produced the considerable talents of Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes, together with Liverpool’s Pepe Reina, in recent years.
The theme continued in the The Independent, where the normally excellent Ian Herbert was quick to join the throng.
“It is unclear whether the English lessons, with which his manager says he is progressing so well, have acquainted him with an understanding of the term “dodgy keeper” but when it was being blasted out only 35 minutes into his competitive English career yesterday it was hard not to fear for him. The Premier League has a way of finding a player’s weakness and offering no sanctuary.”
Then in The Telegraph former Liverpool defender Alan Hansen, who has enjoyed a season-long war-of-words with Ferguson, was quick to claim that de Gea did “not have the trust of his teammates.”
“My record with underestimating how successful kids can be dreadful, but the crucial difference between the class of 1995 and Ferguson’s current crop is in the defence. It is too simple to say you will win nothing with a kid in goal, but it is a monumental challenge to ask a defence with an average age of 22 to go into games with the likes of Arsenal and Spurs.”
So monumental - it is tempting to point out – that United hammered 11 past the north London duo. Hindsight is a powerful weapon, of course, especially with the bravura of correct foresight in the face of overwhelming opposition. But none of the criticism really made any sense, except as a narrow observation on de Gea’s individual performances over a short period of time.
Certainly, the Spaniard should have kept out shots against City in the Community Shield, West Brom in the Premier League, and perhaps even Theo Wallcott’s strike through the ‘keeper’s legs in United’s 8-2 demolition of Arsenal at Old Trafford. Then came the calamitous performance against Blackburn Rovers in defeat, which precipitated the Spaniard’s demotion, and the cup loss to Liverpool at Anfield, where the home side thoroughly bullied the young ‘keeper.
In truth this was a quintet of games in which de Gea will have learned much about the brutality of the Premier League, but more about the media pack covering the world’s most widely broadcast competition. The former Atlético de Madrid stopper, who has already won a Europa League medal and the European Under-21 Championship, deserved none of the widespread psychological over-analysis.
After all, here was a kid, in his first weeks away from home, girlfriend a plane ride away in Spain, living in a hotel room, and who had little serious command of the language. What else, bar uncertain performances, could ever have been expected, of even the most the brilliant young player?
“There’s obviously an agenda from the media on de Gea and we experienced that again after the game in Benfica,” mused Ferguson in September.
“For some reason, it seems to me they [the press] are desperate for the boy to fail. I don’t understand it. They will all want interviews when he is doing well.”
Six months on and the tidal wave of revisionism flows freely. Some praise followed de Gea’s outstanding performance at Stamford Bridge in early February; barely a week after the loss to Liverpool, which had prompted some commentators to suggest the Spaniard’s time at Old Trafford was up. Assured performances against Norwich City, Tottenham, Fulham and Blackburn Rovers demands even more.
On Monday night, at Ewood, two outstanding saves kept United in the game as the home side tried, and failed, to break the Reds as the game seemed destined for a goalless draw.
Indeed, de Gea’s phone – or more accurately his agent’s – will now be ringing off-the-hook with media requests such is the turnaround. If the Madrileño was culpable for goals conceded earlier in the season, then he undoubtedly saved United points against Chelsea, Norwich, Fulham and Blackburn.
Barclay, who in October accused United fans offering de Gea support of being “trolls,” only partially revised his former position, claiming in October last year that his was merely an observation, correct at the time. The Scot has said nothing on the subject since. Ferguson, and his “millions of coaches” who bought “a jelly,” might wonder when Barclay will take a step further and bite down on humble pie.
Other commentators will be forced to offer revisions to premature judgement too, as de Gea eventually – inevitably some might say – blossoms into one of the world’s finest goalkeepers, as his talent – evident to those who, unlike Barclay, have watched the kid from an earlier age – shines through.
“David de Gea made three fantastic saves to keep us in the game,” said Ferguson on Monday, echoing words he has now become accustomed to repeating.
“Although we had all the possession, we couldn’t create the openings to get in front. Javier Hernandez hit the post and we had a penalty kick claim – I didn’t think it was – so David has done his bit for the team. He has really grown in stature the boy. He was outstanding.”
Now five points clear – possibly eight by next weekend’s end – Bright is increasingly likely to be proven wrong. Both in United’s ascent to the Premier League title, and de Gea’s role in it.
Some, like Spanish commentator Guillermo Balague, never questioned the youngster’s ability to make it at United: “People doubting David de Gea? Seriously? It will be a feast of eaten words at the end of the season,” he said with much prescience in August.
It is a pity his English colleagues lacked the same patience.