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United will miss Van's saving grace

Was there ever a Premier League bargain like Edwin van der Sar? Five and a half years ago, Alex Ferguson paid Fulham €2m for the Dutchman. Given the inflated prices paid for even modest talent these days, it must rank as the canniest bit of dealing ever executed by the Manchester United manager.

The low price was perhaps understandable. Van der Sar was 34 and, even considering the tendency for 'keepers to maintain their form much longer than other players, could well have had just a couple of seasons left. Instead he has maintained the same high levels of performance throughout his time at Old Trafford and been the Premier League's best 'keeper. His retirement at the end of the season will leave United with a huge gap to fill.

You get a sense of Van der Sar's footballing longevity by looking at the two biggest nights of his career. The first was on May 24, 1995 in Vienna when Ajax defeated AC Milan in the Champions League final in Vienna. Among his opponents was Franco Baresi, born in 1960. The second was on May 21, 2008 in Moscow when Manchester United defeated Chelsea on penalties after a 1-1 draw. Among his team-mates was Wayne Rooney, born in 1985, by which time Baresi had already played five seasons for Milan and made his Italian debut.

Van der Sar was the link between the two very different footballing worlds they inhabited. Good enough to be selected as best goalkeeper in Europe in 1995, he won the same award 14 years later, thanks largely to his remarkable achievement in keeping 14 clean sheets in a row in the Premier League season.

It's easy to forget that Van der Sar came into a United team suffering a serious goalkeeping crisis. Fabien Barthez's error-strewn reign between the posts was followed by the failure of either Tim Howard or Roy Carroll to stake a convincing claim for a permanent position. Van der Sar gave United a solidity between the posts which they hadn't enjoyed since the departure of Peter Schmeichel in 1999.

In doing so, he may have been the most important figure in the second coming of United at a time when the future looked to belong to Chelsea and Arsenal. Ferguson must wonder if there might have been a couple of extra titles for his team had he signed Van der Sar in 2001, when he moved from Juventus to Fulham, rather than 2005.

What is most striking about Van der Sar is the low-key, old-school way in which he went about his business. There were no off-field controversies, no media blasts at opponents or team-mates, no self-promoting interviews. He just got on with his job, doing it 226 times for Ajax, 66 times for Juventus, 127 times for Fulham, 174 times and counting for United, a record 130 times for Holland. Before the season is out he will no doubt frustrate opposing fans and delight his own many more times.

If I was Shay Given, I'd be getting my CV in now. Given's age? 34.

Sunday Indo Sport