Retrospective #18: Edwin van der Sar becomes ‘King of the Nil’
They say that the Premier League is no country for old men, that its dash and intensity are too much for the over-30s.
The year is still in its infancy, but already 2012 has proved the nay-sayers wrong. With the broad shouldered Phil Jones losing impulsive cult followers with every passing game, English football is turning to tried and tested players.
In its perpetual quest to destabilize the English national team, club football has sent a resounding message. The returns of Paul Scholes to Manchester United and Thierry Henry to Arsenal are reminders that the Premier League lacks faith in the youth game, and that its cynical commercialism trumps all. Fancy a Paul Scholes No. 22 shirt?
However, 2011/12 will never seduce the Premier League’s most recent retiree. Edwin van der Sar’s career ended in May, without an asterisk. But United fans remember him, with throbbing temples every time David De Gea leaps for a corner, or Anders Lindegaard’s complacent feet encourage an opposing striker to press high-up the pitch. The ghost of van der Sar still haunts the United penalty area, undermining its youthful commanders.
It’s unsurprising that De Gea and Lindegaard are struggling to emulate the man who Rio Ferdinand still calls “the best I’ve ever played with”. Van der Sar set incomparable standards, refining his on-field presence through years of experience and incessant success. United’s defensive struggles this season are a tribute not only to their former goalkeeper’s shot stopping ability, but also to his encouraging yet aggressive attitude; van der Sar was able to unite ever-changing back fours, and to ride calmly through the worst of injury crises.
His poise was admirable. He saved Nicolas Anelka’s weak penalty to win Manchester United the Champions League. Van der Sar, glistening in the Moscow rain, his arms raised high in the air is an iconic image; as famous as Ole Solskjaer sliding across the Camp Nou turf.
Van der Sar’s calm confidence facilitated his record-breaking run of clean sheets in December and January of 2008/2009. From Samir Nasri’s lash at the Emirates to Peter Lovenkrands’ prod at St. James’ (a total of 20 hours of football) the Dutchman didn’t concede a single goal. Against West Brom, he broke Petr Cech’s record run of clean sheets in the Premier League; a game later he toppled Steve Death’s British record. He smashed Danny Vanderlinen’s European total at home to Fulham*.
“His calming influence goes right through the team,” Giggs said after the West Brom game. “He is getting better with age. Yes, he has great players in front of him but, when he is called upon, he never makes a mistake.” From the beginning of his streak Van Der Sar maintained that numbers were not what mattered, that Manchester United’s quest for an 18th title was more important than any statistical milestones. Yet, 3-0 up and with just minutes left against Fulham, a Bobby Zamora shot bounced inches wide of the United goal, and van der Sar grinned – a slightly mischievous half smile. That was about as close as he ever came to self-indulgence.
Henry Winter lucidly described Manchester United’s frightening confidence during van der Sar’s record tilt. “These are memorable days and nights for Sir Alex Ferguson’s players,” he wrote. “From San Siro to St James’, they gleam with conviction… An aura of invincibility surrounds them.”
When Peter Lovenkrands slotted home after just eight minutes at St. James’ Park to end van der Sar’s record run of clean sheets, the Geordies behind the goal began chanting “dodgy keeper, dodgy keeper.” The humor, however, failed to ruffle van der Sar. His focus and composure over the last eighty minutes helped United to a 2-1 win.
Van der Sar’s run ended at 1311 minutes, but the resolve it instilled never left Manchester United that season. Even in Rome, where United’s Dutch No. 1 was denied a third career European Cup, fans left convinced of United’s potential.
“When we go 1-0 up, other teams think ‘Oh no, here we go, it’s going to be hard,’” van der Sar said that year, after one of his many clean sheets. “That’s what we want, we want to create fear in the opposition.”
Van der Sar placed his record-breaking achievement in the context of its importance to his team. More than most players, he subscribed to Alex Ferguson’s belief, however cliched, that “no man is bigger than the club.”
It’s the Dutchman’s pervasive calm that Manchester United has missed most this season. The foundation of United’s 2009 back five is slowly crumbling: Nemanja Vidic is out with a long-term injury, John O’Shea plays for Sunderland, and Ferdinand and Evra are regressing. In a year, of the seven key contributors to the 2008/09 defense, perhaps only Rafael and Evans will remain.
It’s telling that van der Sar was the first to leave. He was more than just a fabulous goalkeeper; he was the foundation-stone on which United’s most parsimonious rear guard was built. His decision to retire began the defensive decline that United are experiencing now. After so many years of solidity, though, it would be churlish to complain.
*The length of Verlinden’s streak remain unclear. According to some reports, van der Sar actually fell 72 minutes short of the Belgian’s record.