So Edwin van der Sar has confirmed what most supporters expected all along – the 40-year-old goalkeeper plans to retire this summer and spend more time with his family. The decision will surprise few of course – least of all the club – with Manchester United scouting the global market for a replacement this past year.
The stopper, whose wife suffered a stroke in 2009, said that he will play his last match when the season draws to a close in May. After nearly 800 games – 245 and counting for United – the ‘keeper will be remembered as one the most reliable and decorated in the modern game.
And with van der Sar’s passing into the football wilderness United will lose a great of the game: a fine talent, a consummate professional and a true gentleman.
The former Ajax, Juventus and Fulham stopper told his management team’s website today that after two decades in football his family comes first.
“It is now time to pay attention to my family,” said van der Sar.
“I cannot really identify a time when it happened. Let’s just say that it was playing on my mind from the moment Annemarie had her stroke.
“She has fought back from it. We decided on another year in England and thus to stay at Manchester United.
“But, once engaged in the season, the thought of saying goodbye started to gnaw a bit more emphatically. I thought about stopping, maybe a year ago.
“It is a difficult process. After a defeat, I thought differently than after playing a few good games in a row.
“My age played no role. I am 40 years old but I still feel fit. And then the decision came suddenly. Do not ask me how or why, but suddenly you know. That was sufficient.
“The time has come to devote greater attention to my family – although they have never complained. Everyone in the family has indeed always had to focus on me, but we have also had a lot in return.”
The Dutchman’s arrival at Old Trafford in 2005 came six years too late of course. Ferguson’s attempt to sign van der Sar following Peter Schmeichel’s retirement in 1999 fell on deaf ears, with the stopper infamously refusing to renege on a verbal agreement with Juventus. van der Sar’s honour proved one of the costliest mistakes of Ferguson’s quarter century at the Old Trafford helm.
Instead, the Scot first signed Fabien Barthez, the erratic Frenchman whose career at United died on a series of calamitous mistakes. Others came and went too – Roy Carroll, Tim Howard, the risible Massimo Taibi, among many others.
Indeed, much as van der Sar’s contribution to three Premier League titles – potentially four come May – and the 2008 Champions League is central to United’s recent success, the Dutchman’s legacy is his stability through a period of uncertainty. The ‘keeper’s unflappable calmness, presence and authority steered United’s past a period of near terminal goalkeeping decay during the early noughties. United will surely miss him.
Over the past decade many stoppers can lay claim to be the world’s best – Iker Casillas, Petr Čech, Gianluigi Buffon, for example – and each has a strong case. But none could have done more for United than van der Sar. The right man, at the right time.
It is with sadness that Edwin hangs up his clubs; with regret that the Dutchman could not have joined the United family earlier. But United has also given much to the player, with the end coming after a glorious Indian summer.
“Which [trophy] doesn’t really matter, that’s the thing you aim for and I hope that materialises in the end,” added van der Sar, who finished with more than 120 caps for Holland.
“When I initially came here I was just happy to sign a two-year contract and try to win a league before I retired.
“Luckily I was able to achieve a little bit more than that and also prolong it for a little bit longer than two years.
“It would have been nice to have a few years longer here but that’s life – you don’t always get what you want at the right time. I am just happy that at least we got to come together and experience a good few years.
“It’s been nice, it’s been a great experience – even at my age – to be at a club as big as United. It’s just been a joy.”
But United, as Gary Neville once so accurately said, is a cynical club. Come the summer Ferguson will invest in a new ‘keeper to work alongside Anders Lindegaard, the Dane who joined a fortnight ago, and the team will inevitably move on.
Indeed, United has reportedly concluded months of search with a shortlist of three competing players as van der Sar’s top class replacement. It’s a high quality list too – compatriot Maarten Stekelenburg, German World Cup star Manuel Neuer, and the brilliant but callow Spaniard David De Gea.
Of the three Stekelenburg is the most experienced and the safe choice but, arguably, the least naturally talented. Meanwhile, Neuer is available although not necessarily affordable, with Schalke financially stable. Each will do a fine job at Old Trafford.
Yet De Gea is the romantic choice though. Just 20, and suffering a ‘difficult second season’ with Atlético de Madrid, De Gea has all the hallmarks of his erstwhile predecessor in the United net – calm under pressure, presence among men, genuine trust of his peers. He’s also the most talented.
In a summer of change, with Neville and Paul Scholes potentially heading out of Old Trafford too, the succession is now a decision of high importance.
Ferguson once missed out on van der Sar. Supporters and the club can only hope the Scot gets the right man this time.