Age-old problem for United as Van der Sar hits 40 mark
Edwin van der Sar will celebrate his 40th birthday today having already taught Alex Ferguson a priceless lesson in how to avoid the pitfalls of failing to prepare for the replacement of the irreplaceable.
It is June 1999 and the 28-year-old Van der Sar is waiting to board a flight from Amsterdam to Turin when he takes a call on his mobile phone. The voice on the other end is Ferguson's, offering the Ajax goalkeeper the opportunity to succeed Peter Schmeichel at Manchester United.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Van der Sar had taken a similar call from Juventus vice-president Roberto Bettega, inviting the Dutchman to move to Serie A. Van der Sar accepted and, despite his yearning for a move to United, pledged his future to Juve. Ferguson's call was a day too late.
By the time Ferguson finally tempted Van der Sar to Old Trafford in 2005, with a £2m transfer from Fulham, no fewer than 10 goalkeepers had tasted first-team action for United as the club searched for a suitable successor to Schmeichel.
Ferguson has since admitted the cost of allowing Van der Sar to slip through his fingers in the wake of the Treble success in 1999.
"We really should have gone for him when Peter left," Ferguson said. "We went in too late.
"I have always rated Schmeichel as the best goalkeeper in the world, but I now think Edwin is right up there with him. I cannot separate them in terms of who is better. Edwin is such a great example of what can be achieved and how long you can last in the game if you keep the light of enthusiasm and ambition inside you."
With Van der Sar's landmark birthday looming large, however, Ferguson has already started the process of identifying the man most capable of extending the Schmeichel-Van der Sar dynasty at Old Trafford.
Ferguson and United's goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele, have spent over a year compiling a dossier of contenders.
Both men flew to Spain last month to make a personal check on Atletico Madrid's 19-year-old prodigy, David de Gea. Steele has also been dispatched to Norway to assess Danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, the 26-year-old earning high praise for his performances for Aalesunds.
Lyon's France international Hugo Lloris, the CSKA Moscow goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, Schalke and Germany No 1 Manuel Neuer and Van der Sar's successor in the Dutch national team, Ajax's Maarten Stekelenburg, have also been scouted.
Van der Sar's intentions beyond this season remain unclear, other than the acceptance on both his and Ferguson's part that the situation will be discussed, as usual, at the end of December.
Van der Sar said: "When I was younger, I thought 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."
Just as United and Ferguson struggled to fill the gaping hole left by Schmeichel's departure in 1999, Van der Sar's exit, whenever it may be, will present the club with a problem, especially if it coincides with the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes strolling off into the sunset.
Giggs, who spent eight years in the same United team as Schmeichel, admits that only Van der Sar has come close to emulating the Dane.
"Edwin has been fabulous since he arrived at Old Trafford. He is very composed, projecting a calmness that spreads throughout the team, and he's superb with his feet, which is no doubt a legacy of his total football upbringing with Ajax. I wish we'd bought him straight after Peter left," Giggs said.
Fabien Barthez, Tim Howard, Mark Bosnich, Roy Carroll and, infamously, Massimo Taibi all tried and failed to replace Schmeichel, but Van der Sar's list of achievements at Old Trafford highlights his success at the club.
Three Premier League titles and a Champions League winners' medal top the billing, and Van der Sar also set a top-flight record of 1,311 minutes without conceding a goal during United's march to the championship in 2008-'09.
The man nicknamed 'Ice Rabbit' in Holland due to his unflappable temperament will become only the second United player to represent the club as a 40-year-old when he faces Tottenham tomorrow. The other fortysomething -- Billy Meredith -- played for United until he was 46 in 1921.
Not even Ferguson can expect Van der Sar to threaten that record. (© Daily Telegraph, London)