Last week, Edwin van der Sar confirmed that he will retire from professional football at the end of the current campaign at the age of 40. Speculation that the former Dutch international goalkeeper was ready to hang up his gloves had been increasing over the last couple of the season and the announcement sees him bring an end to an illustrious and trophy laden career that has seen him win three Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues. Not many players, even goalkeepers, are able to play into the fifth decade of their life and it is testament to the ability and fitness of the man that he has been able to stay at the top for so long.
However accompanying the sadness that is inevitable when such a revered player decides to retire is a sense of déjà vu. Twelve years ago, Peter Schmeichel left Manchester United for pastures new and the club will hoping that the process of finding a suitable successor for Van der Sar will be less arduous than the one that followed the great Dane’s departure.
A succession of keepers arrived at the club in an attempt to fill the massive void left by his exit. Mark Bosnich, Fabien Barthez, Tim Howard and Roy Carroll all tried and ultimately failed to replace Schmeichel in a process that proved not only costly off the pitch but also on it. This was epitomised most spectacularly by the signing Massimo Taibi from Italian side Atalanta for a fee of £4.5m. Taibi just lasted four error-strewn games including a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Chelsea and ended with a 3-3 draw at the hands of Southampton during which he let a tame shot from Matthew Le Tissier slip underneath him. Only the signing of Van der Sar himself in the summer of 2005 brought stability to the position and set the foundation for the club’s success in the latter part of the last decade.
Van der Sar’s decision has not come as a massive surprise and moves had been made to prepare for his eventual retirement. Ben Foster arrived at Manchester United in 2005 and had been groomed as the long-term successor. He had been touted as the next England goalkeeper, but unfortunately for him and the club, Foster was unable to recreate the form that he had shown in loan spells at Watford and he was sold to Birmingham City in the summer.
Foster had been the most likely of Van der Sar’s understudies to inherit his Number 1 jersey with current second choice keeper Tomasz Kuszczak considered a rank outsider. Kuszczak joined the club in 2006 from West Bromwich Albion and although he has represented Poland ten times, he is unlikely to become first choice at United.
This points to an outside candidate taking the job and although the signing of Anders Lindegaard in the Janaury transfer window gave a clue to the plans of Van der Sar, it is still unclear whether the Danish Number 1 was signed as a replacement for the Dutchman or as a back up. Peter Schmeichel himself has said that Lindegaard is not ready to be United’s first choice goalkeeper, so it seems likely they sign another player in the summer.
A number of goalkeepers have been linked with Manchester United over the last twelve months or so as speculation over Van der Sar’s future has grown. Schalke stopper Manuel Neuer has been strongly linked with a move after his impressive performances at the World Cup for a youthful German side that reached the semi-finals, while Atletico Madrid’s David de Gea and CSKA Moscow’s Igor Afinkeev have also been mentioned.
However in recent days, Dutch Number 1 Maarten Stekelenburg has emerged as the favourite to succeed his compatriot at Manchester United. First team coach Rene Meulensteen is reported to have told Dutch Radio that Stekelenburg is United’s top target this summer.
Whoever replaces Van der Sar, it is clear that United have to handle this changing of the guard far better than they did back in 1999. All signs point to the club signing a relatively young goalkeeper, but if this is to be the case then any new recruit should be given time to settle into the role and avoid the constant chopping and changing that occurred six years ago.
Whether United opt for a new keeper or promote from within, it is going to be a tall order to replace the giant Dutchman that has protected the home goal at Old Trafford for the last five and a half years. Edwin Van Der Sar brought stability and presence to a position that had been a problem since Schmeichel left in 1999. Hopefully the transition will not be as difficult as last time.