Any big club can brag about having the occasional great goalkeeper in their ranks, but for a club of Manchester United’s stature, world-class is the norm. It is they, the goalkeepers, who have shaped the periods of success at the club, starting from as far back as 100 years ago when Harry Moger lifted the club’s first domestic title to modern-day David De Gea on his quest to revive United to old glory.
Here are the ones that matter in between:
7. Harry Gregg
Sir Matt Busby owed his life to Gregg, literally. Gregg was a hero when that plane with the whole Manchester United squad went down near Munich. Being fortunate to remain unscathed, Gregg risked his life going back into the burning wreckage to save other people too: all in all five people. George Best later described what Gregg had done as ‘beyond brave’.
On the pitch, Gregg was considered United’s best goalkeeper ever who had not won a single trophy despite being part of the famously successful Busby side. His abilities were unquestionable, and he was awarded World’s Best Goalkeeper during the 1958 World Cup despite his Northern Ireland losing 4-0 to France in the quarter finals.
6. Fabien Barthez
Barthez was the first ‘near solution’ to the Schmeichel problem. Before he joined Untied in 2000, he had already won the World Cup and the Champions League with Marsellie. He had also dominated the French League with Monaco. He was a complete keeper backed with courage bordering on the unsound. Barthez often stuck to the organizational responsibilities of the goalkeeper to an almost an archetypal level – shouting intense orders at confused and hapless defenders and rushing out with an exaggerated sense for territorial possession.
In his four years at Old Trafford, Barthez won two titles which sandwiched a coming-to-age ‘Invincible’ Arsenal side in 2002, and continues to be considered one of United’s more successful keepers.
5. Alex Stepney
Stepney was more in the mould of Van der Sar than Schmeichel. He never stood out with spectacular last-ditch saves but with his reliability, positioning and anticipation. With Gregg’s departure from United in 1966, manager Matt Busby was left a hole to fill between the posts. He signed Stepney from Chelsea despite the player having played only a year at the London club.
Stepney proved his worth almost immediately, helping the club to the title that season. A year later, Manchester Untied faced Benfica in the European Cup final. Stepney would produce one of the finest saves in his career. World star Eusebio rushed one on one against him and unleashed a close-range shot which to his surprise Stepney not only saved but held onto the ball eliminating any further danger. Impressed, Eusebio applauded.
Stepney played at Old Trafford until 1978, helping the club to three more trophies.
4. David De Gea
A natural-born goalkeeper with sharp instincts and a stable mind, David De Gea is a nice mix of qualities. He sits right in between Van der Sar and Schmeichel because he has the best of both worlds. It would be an underestimation to say he is not world-class. In 2012, De Gea was diagnosed to be farsighted – this is when objects near or right in front of the line of vision are blurry. This might have contributed to him developing stunning reflexes.
De Gea is considered somehow unlucky to play at Manchester Untied in times of transition after Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Despite that, he has helped the club win a Premier League title and the FA Cup in 2016: much less than a player of his quality deserves.
3. Harry Moger
Looking deep into the Manchester United archives you are likely to find a few gems here and there. United has not always been a global power in football and without figures such as Harry Moger, it might have never been.
Moger joined the club when they were still playing the Second Division in the far 1903. He didn’t shine as the ‘ready’ package but worked his way to the first team spot a year and a half later, helping his team qualify for the First Division for the first time in 20 years. Under manager Earnest Mangnall, United were the hot coal of English football – a young and developing side with bags of potential.
Already a key member by 1907, Moger’s athleticism allowed him to dominate the penalty box aerially as the Red Devils strode to their first ever title and the FA Cup two years later.
2. Edwin Van der Sar
Van der Sar is the second most decorated goalkeeper, behind only Viktor Baia, having won 25 trophies during his career. His feats with the famous Ajax side of the mid-90s which won the Champions League turned Alex Ferguson’s gaze towards him in 1999. The Scot would have to wait until 2005 to gain his signature.
In the twilight of his career, at 35, Van der Sar would continue to produce top quality performances for Manchester United for five more years, winning Best European Goalkeeper in 2009 and adorning his trophy cabinet with 11 more trophies among which the Champions League in 2008.
A rock at the back, Van der Sar offered more to his team than agile reflexes. His unflinching focus offered team-mates in front of him calmness to tend to their game. He broke many records during his stay in rainy Manchester, among which 1311 minutes without conceding a goal in the Premier League.
- Peter Schmeichel
When Ferguson signed Schmeichel from Brondby for 505,000 in 1991, he called him ‘the buy of the century’. Ferguson must have a foretelling dream because Schmeichel went on to dominate the No.1 position at United for the next eight years.
Scooping inspiration from handball, Schmeichel perfected his skills to a point where the ball glued almost unnaturally to his hands. He was particularly famed for his success in one-on-one situation and his vision when distributing the ball forward. He was, in a word, the complete goalkeeper – one that Pep Guardiola, had he been a manager then, would never consider doing a Hart with.
Schmeichel won 15 trophies during his United stay before he suddenly and shockingly announced his intention to leave in 1999. Such was his impact between the goal posts that Ferguson struggled in the following years to find a worthy replacement.