The Dutch fans have gone through it, and it’s about time for the Red Devils to endure similar agony. Although it’s nothing new for the Old Trafford faithful, as the anguish of parting away with a certain Great Dane is still fresh in their reminiscence; yet the Devils all over the world would invariably feel like losing their religion all over again when Edwin Van der Sar decides to hang his big gloves.
All the Red Devils knew that it is a matter of time before the Dutch-man’s honeymoon at the “Theatre of Dreams” comes to an end, but yet they intrinsically tried their best to remain aloof from the dreaded thought as long as possible. However this time around, the writing is certainly on the wall and a change of guard under the wooden cross-piece at Old Trafford is quite imminent. A true sportsman, whom every aspiring kids in the streets of Manchester, Turin or Amsterdam have idolized, would not only leave a rich legacy behind him, but will also leave an even bigger tear in the hearts of millions of fans when his farewell hurrah would come upon them.
Since the summer of 2005, when Edwin Van der Sar made his stance under the Old Trafford cross-piece, he has been an integral part of team and an epitome of excellence. Van der Sar is arguably the most complete goalkeeper to have graced the beautiful game in this generation. He has achieved it all with the Red Devils, including a European glory and a Club World Cup Champion’s medal. Turned 40 last summer, Van der Sar’s biggest strengths have been his excellent reflexes, unmatched command over his defenders, perfect anticipation, brilliant positioning sense, accurate ball distribution, supreme aerial high-claims, and the ability to stay calm even in the most demanding of situations. He has it all what it takes to be the best in business. Edwin’s unparalleled bequest would be almost impossible to emulate for his successor.
An achievement that deserves special mention here is Edwin’s incredible unbeaten streak of 1311 minutes without conceding a goal in English Premier League – which was a major contributing factor for Ferguson’s men in clinching their 11th Premiership title in 2008/09 season. With a 5-0 drubbing over West Brom, Van der Sar helped Manchester United set a new club and Premier League record for 11 consecutive clean sheets as the Red Devils had gone 1032 minutes without conceding a goal, beating the previous Premiership record of 10 matches and 1025 minutes set by Chelsea’s Petr Čech in the 2004/05 season.
The lanky United ‘keeper then broke the overall English record in United’s next league game against Everton, beating the previous record of 1103 minutes, set by Steve Death of Reading in 1979. He then went on to add another clean sheet, against West Ham, extending his record to 1,212 minutes, beating the unbeaten 1155 minutes British top-flight record previously held by Aberdeen FC’s Bobby Clark, a record that remained intact for a long 38 years since 1971. Ultimately, by remaining unbeaten till the 9th minute against Newcastle United, Van der Sar further extended the envious record to 1311 minutes, and in doing so, he broke Chilean Premiership’s José María Buljubasich‘s single-season world record of remaining unbeaten for 1289 minutes, which was set in 2005.
A Red Devil would certainly be dragged into the fantasy-land of nostalgia, if he decides to drive down the memory lane revisiting the wonderful moments produced by the Dutch Superman while donning the United jersey. However the one that sticks to mind must be his performance against arch-rivals Chelsea in 2008 Champions League Final. After the 120 minutes of gruelling encounter could not produce a result and the game progressed to penalty shootout, it was the great Dutchman who anticipated it perfectly and dived to his right to pull off a brilliant save off a Nicolas Anelka spot-kick to earn his team their third European cup.
The dose of trivia behind this fabulous save is even more fascinating and made its way in to the United folklore. After the match ended, it came to light that Avram Grant, the then Chelsea manager, did an extensive research with the help of his friend Ignacio Palacios Huerta, a renowned professor at London School of Economics, examining the way penalties are taken by the United players and more particularly, on Edwin Van der Sar’s spontaneous approach during a spot-kick. The research resulted in two key findings with respect to Van der Sar, and Grant used this research paper to formulate a strategy to outsmart the Flying Dutchman. The findings were –
1. Edwin van der Sar prefers to dive to the shooter’s natural side more often than most ‘keepers. For example – while facing a right-footed player, the higher probability is that he would dive to his right. Similarly, for a left-footer, he would predominantly dive to his left. So Grant instructed Chelsea shooters not to place their shots towards their natural side.
2. Van der Sar has great success rate in saving penalties which were aimed at mid-height. So it was decided that Chelsea strikers would aim their shots either along the ground or at the top corner to have the best chance of scoring.
And then the drama began. Michael Ballak took the first shot for Chelsea and placed the ball in the top right corner, that means to the left of Van der Sar. It went as per the script as the United goalkeeper decided to dive to his right, which was the natural side for a right-footed Michael Ballack. Juliano Belletti, again a right-footer, stepped up to take the second kick and hit it along the ground to Van der Sar’s left. Frank Lampard followed the same footsteps as Belletti and Van der Sar again anticipated it wrongly.
So everything was going in Chelsea’s way as per the Grant-Ignacio theory. Then came the left footed Ashley Cole and he went to Van der Sar’s left, breaking point 1. Unsurprisingly, Van der Sar too dived to his left, in line with Chelsea manager’s theory, and almost pulled off a save. However the ball touched his outstretched hand and went in. And the belief in Chelsea camp about the theory became even more strong.
Finally, it was all up to John Terry, the Chelsea skipper, to win the elusive silverware for his club. So the captain, another right footer, stepped up to take the winning shot, but unfortunately he lost his footing when planting his left foot on the ball and even though he went with the theory to place the ball to Van der Sar’s left sending the United ‘keeper the other way, it cannooned off the post and went wide. Soloman Kalou followed the predefined pattern and being a right-footer, went on placing his shot to Van der Sar’s left.
Meanwhile, with his experience of playing in the top tier football for over a decade, Van der Sar could notice the strange pattern in Chelsea shooters. That was the reason when Nicolas Anelka stepped up to take his penalty, after Ryan Giggs converted his to make it 6-5 in favor of United, the United goalie pointed the index finger to his left as if to say, “Your trick is up mate, I know that you’re gonna place this shot to my left and I am all up to save this.” That was enough for Anelka to take the bait and as they say, the rest is history.
Now Anelka was in a tricky situation. Being a right footed player, he was supposed to kick the ball towards Van der Sar’s left, but just a split-second ago he came to realize that the Dutchman had already cracked the puzzle, so in a confused state of mind Anelka hodgepodged the points mentioned in the theory and placed the ball to Van der Sar’s right, which was the Dutchman’s preffered side according to the Grant-Ignacio theory.
To make it even more worse, Anelka forgot the second point as well and hit the shot at a mid-height. The result – well, the Flying Dutchman dived to his right to pull off a magnificent save. The Red Devils erupted in joy and the Blues broke down in tears. An over the moon Sir Alex reveals in his post match interview – “Well, that wasn’t an accident, his penalty save. We knew exactly where certain players were putting the ball.”
The United faithful would have hoped that Edwin Van der Sar continues to don the United jersey forever, but the realization of his approaching departure sunk in when the United goalkeeper himself hinted about it in an interview on MUTV –
“I don’t worry about when that day arrives. I am now exceeding my own expectations so it doesn’t bother me. When I was younger I thought maybe I would finish in my mid-30s. But that is a normal time to be thinking about it when you are younger and for players at this level. That would have been the obvious time to finish, but I only came to United late in my career and maybe that is why I am still enjoying it. Coming to Old Trafford probably gave me a new lease of life. In the course of this season will I think about it (retirement), and then I will decide.”
In the month of December, with Sir Alex’s confirmed that the Flying Dutchman would indeed hang up the big gloves after the current season ends, the United faithful are dejectedly preparing themselves for the imminent farewell to the United stalwart. Sir Alex, in an interview with a MUTV correspondent, said –
“I have come to accept, this will be Edwin’s last season. It’s sad but the difficulty for a goalkeeper when he gets to 40 is something which happened with Peter Shilton. All of a sudden, because of age, Shilton’s form just collapsed and I don’t think Edwin would want that to happen.
He is such a proud man and it’s going to be a big loss. We had a chat about how he saw his future and he explained to me his plans, and nothing has changed from then. It’s difficult because he has his wife’s health to consider after her illness. She is fine now and seems to be really good but she still has treatments to get in Holland, with physiotherapy and things like that. So for him to be here with us would be difficult.”
United’s long term second choice goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak has failed to establish himself as the Dutchman’s natural heir. Keeping an eye at Edwin’s possible departure in mind, Manchester United have roped in Denmark international Andres Lindengard in the winter transfer window. However most of the Red Devils believe that the Dane, with pretty limited international exposure, might not be ready to take up the big responsibility to fit in Van der Sar’s big shoes and Sir Alex will go for another big name goalkeeper signing next summer. Atletico Madrid’s David de Gea, Lyon’s Hugo Lloris, Shalke 04’s Manuel Neuer all are looked upon as the potential transfer targets for the Red Devils. However, it would be unjustified even to expect a similar level of durability from the guy who ultimately would replace him at Old Trafford.
The resonance of – Van der Sar, Van der Sar / He’s the best ever // He’s a ****ing superstar / The pride of Manchester // Viva Van der Sar – would eacho in the ears of United faithful in the years to come. Mourning will engulf every blade of grass at Old Trafford and there will be nostalgia in the air when the Flying Dutchman would bid a final adieu to the emotional Red Devil family. And, there will be reverberation all around the Theatre of Dreams when the United family would sing in unison –
To the left or the right /
Making saves all day and night //
He’d remain the best ever /
The pride of Manchester //
Every Single one of us at Manchester /
Loves Van der Sar, Van der Sar //