The Great Dane

Having a superb goalkeeper is integral if a team wishes to be successful and compete for all the major trophies. In particular, if said team plays with the attacking potency and abandon which United did over the 1990s, where he will often be left isolated as the entire team swarmed forward in a marauding and cavalier fashion in search of goals, points and ultimately, trophies he has to be of the greatest quality.  Peter Schmeichel is considered by many as the greatest Premier League goalkeeper of all time because of his match winning contributions through saves and also the peerless way in which he distributed the ball with feet or with one of his infamous, pinpoint, accurate long throws.  A save from an Ian Wright header which would have beaten lesser mortals was quite simply supreme, the striker going so far as to acknowledge it by clapping his own hands together in appreciation for the athleticism and ability showcased. The goalkeepers whom we had subsequently to Schmeichel which included the likes of Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi and Roy Carroll before Edwin Van Der Sar arrived showed, in particular, the irreplaceable quality and assurance which Schmeichel offered United.

For most people, the crowning moment in Schmeichel‘s United career was the penalty save against Dennis Bergkamp in the FA Cup Semi Final in 1999. Although Giggs’ incredible wonder strike stole the headlines and remains the enduring moment of the match, had Schmeichel not kept out the Dutchman’s penalty in injury time the unprecedented Treble would have never been.  I have watched the save multiple times and still get the goose bumps at such a poignant moment, where a historic achievement could have been thwarted. However, the Great Dane clawed us back from the precipice of defeat and also ensured that the widely regarded best strike in FA Cup History took place.  Schmeichel has since revealed that he was unaware that it was the final minute of the match and of the immense import of the save. United down to ten men at that juncture, famously rallied driven on from the precipice of defeat, former national team mate Brian Laudrup explains his influence and personality on those he played with:

“The best ever. Peter’s charisma and character could change the game. His spirit spread to the rest of the team. Strong in the air, great reflexes and brilliant in one-on-ones. A true winner.”

Schmeichel was a colossus; a leader of men who would bark instructions at his defenders to ensure they remained vigilant and reinforce he was the unquestioned commander of his own penalty area. Schmeichel had a combative personality which intimidated strikers he faced and bred the respect that his immense talent deserved.  Opponents often recount how Schmeichel’s presence gave United an aura of invincibility and impregnability, he was a giant of a man physically who knew how to fully impose himself upon those around him. As Roy Keane recounts, Schmeichel was one of the rare few who stood up to him which flared up into the infamous scrap between the pair. Simply put, Schmeichel possessed an innate bravery and drive that earned him the immense respect and esteem which his team mates held him in. His defenders allowed him to vent so vehemently when they made mistakes because of his prodigious talent which so often saved their skins and atoned for their errors.

When Schmeichel was bought, it was for £505,000 which Sir Alex Ferguson was to describe later as “the bargain of the century”. Although his first season with United was tinged with disappointment given that we finished runners up, this was mitigated by League Cup glory and that summer Schmeichel was to play an integral part in Denmark’s greatest international football achievement, winning Euro 92. This cemented Schmeichel’s reputation and standing as the world’s premier goalkeeper, as he made his usual string of important saves. Furthermore, in the following season, 92-93, United were to break their title hoodoo, finally vanquishing demons and ghosts with their guardian between the posts contributing significantly, accruing a total of 22 clean sheets.  Schmeichel was a keeper who was worth his weight in gold and indeed in points as Ryan Giggs attests:

“Goalkeepers win you games sometimes, and Peter Schmeichel won more games than any other goalkeeper I’ve ever seen.”

In the following season, Schmeichel again showed his fiery temperament and tenacity when he argued strongly with Sir Alex Ferguson. The words exchanged were so terrible indeed that Sir Alex fired the Dane but subsequently reinstated him when he eavesdropped on Schmeichel’s apology to his colleagues.  In training, these colleagues had all experienced Schmeichel’s wrath, of course, in particular over any aberrations which might cause him to face a shot, never mind having to pick the ball up out of the back of the net. Absolutely inexcusable in his book were players who attempted to chip him, he would retaliate to such affronts venomously and with interest, hurling the ball straight at the offending miscreant who dared to commit such a cardinal sin.

Schmeichel was an unorthodox keeper in many regards, part of his speciality was in making the ridiculous look stupendous, for instance the classic star jump save which he counted amongst his goalkeeping repertoire which although looked decidedly ungainly came to the rescue on more than one occasion, most notably for the incredible save to deny Inter Milan striker Zamorano in the Champions League Quarter Final in 99.  Schmeichel’s clean sheet was of paramount importance and other concerns were of secondary relevance in the serious business of winning matches and trophies for the Great Dane. For someone who was so tall, Schmeichel could also be devastatingly quick and agile which really helped in those one on one situations, a striker looking to set himself would already find Schmeichel upon him before he had time to blink many times. This asset was very beneficial for United, as was an unparalleled shot stopping ability where he saved shots which he had no right to, tearing up and rewriting goalkeeping manuals on theories of the possible and impossible. Schmeichel’s method of communication with his colleagues whilst on the pitch is infamous, straining his vocal cords, every sinew in his neck showing as he marshaled his troops from the back. As he recounts himself in a game situation usual social niceties and graces had to take a back seat, with the fast paced nature of the beautiful game necessitating urgent actions at critical times. Some players who played with Schmeichel recount that he seemed almost managerial in his shouting, especially sometimes when the volume on the pitch was so loud the manager could scarcely be heard. Schmeichel explains that he felt it helped to reassure his team mates that he was there and fully engaged and ready to be called upon at a moment’s notice.

In 1996, Schmeichel became involved in a controversial incident where he was accused of making racist remarks towards Ian Wright during a typically heated game between Arsenal and United. However, eventually after much speculation and consideration no evidence was found and the case was dropped.  Schmeichel was someone who was outspoken and wore his heart on his sleeve. There would be no shirking his duty or hiding from situations. In training, he would play with the outfield players in control and dribbling drills, it was very important not only to foster greater camaraderie with his fellow United players but also so that they could appreciate and rely upon his ball skills. Schmeichel himself has often said that intelligence, knowledge and understanding as a keeper is the greatest skill which one can have in that position, knowing what your role is and appreciating the role of the team and their objectives. As the seasons of Schmeichel’s United career wore on he inevitably gained greater experience of what his job entailed and knew what permutations or eventualities he would encounter.  As former team mate Teddy Sheringham describes, even in training Schmeichel’s ability seemed absolutely supernatural:

“Awesome. He’s one of those players you didn’t like facing, but loved having in your team. Peter just fills the goal. Thinking back to my first year at Man United, when I struggled, maybe I should have trained against the reserve keepers instead. It’s so hard to score against him, psychologically it might have boosted my confidence to get away from him for a while!”

Schmeichel’s focus was legendary, he had a singular frame of mind during a game, he likens this to a kind of arrogance where you tell yourself you have never made a mistake, this mindset means you have a subliminal expectation or anticipation that your game will be flawless, lending itself in turn to a supreme confidence in your own abilities. However for opponents this mentality bred a respect and appreciation of Schmeichel, as John Barnes, who whilst playing for Newcastle had had a superb header somehow clawed out by Schmeichel miraculously, effuses:

“Simply one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time. [ . . . ] There are goalkeepers with presence who aren’t much good, but Schmeichel had both presence and raw ability. He was a great shot-stopper and a fine taker of crosses, he read the game superbly, he commanded his box. There hasn’t been a better player in the Premiership.”

In Schmeichel’s final season for United, he achieved ultimate glory as the club won the unprecedented Treble, securing him the greatest send off he could have hoped for. During key matches as ever, Schmeichel was omnipresent, making save after save and showing immaculate distribution as the United team cut down all foes that stood in their way. In particular his long throw was absolutely sublime, almost like a regular keeper’s kick such was its power and panache in launching some of the devastating counter attacks of that season. In the Champions League Final Schmeichel was to make save after save, including one where he had to use every inch of his towering frame to tip a Effenberg lob over his goal, keeping the score to within a goal, before the most amazing injury time the European Cup has ever seen. For the Sheringham equaliser, Schmeichel finally caused a chink in the legendary German organisation of Bayern Munich, when he raced up to join in with the corner. As the ball came across, he leapt for it but the ball evaded him and was half cleared to Giggs’ whose right footed shot was turned in by Sheringham grabbing the equaliser from the jaws of defeat. Of course moments later United won another corner and Schmeichel this time stayed in his own box. As Solskjaer gleefully prodded the ball into the roof of the net, the Great Dane, captain for the night, allowed himself a momentary exhilarating celebratory indulgence with joyous acrobatics which make up another piece of the glorious tapestry of that season and the night no United fan will ever forget.

It must be said that Peter Schmeichel is a United legend, he was simply an absolutely outstanding goalkeeper who provided the resolute foundation for the unparalleled success which the club enjoyed during the Nineties with so many Premier League and FA Cup glories, as well as the jewel in the crown of the Champions League in his final game for the club. He provided an inspiration to all young goalkeepers amateur and professional, including Oliver Kahn, for example and was someone who had a plethora of talents that beggared belief but which United fans and his colleagues adored and revered.  He was someone who had exceptional standards and who achieved those every day with a drive, desire and commitment which puts him in the ultimate bracket of goalkeepers who played the game, it is so singularly rare to find a keeper who has so many extraordinary talents and who showed a calmness and composure at the highest level reaching the pinnacle in his final outing for Manchester United. United were to struggle for many years to find a goalkeeper once the Great Dane had left, before Van Der Sar came along but in truth they would always find it hard to replace the greatest goalkeeper the Premier League has ever seen and arguably as Sir Alex Ferguson extols here the greatest there has ever been:

“I don’t believe a better goalkeeper played the game. He is a giant figure in the history of Manchester United.”

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