Sunday 25 February 2018

Van der Sar seeks perfect way to punctuate career

A Wembley victory for United over Barca would be fitting finale for the Dutchman, writes Duncan White

It is a fitting way to bring a grand career to an end. Edwin van der Sar has always had perfect timing and has judged his retirement with the same precision as a rush from his goal-line; not too early, not too late.

After two decades of excellence, he goes into his final match, against Barcelona at Wembley, still at the top of his game just five months short of his 41st birthday. If he features against Blackpool today, the final will be his 950th appearance for clubs and country. If United win, it will be his 16th major trophy.

"This is going to be my last game," he said. "It's not because of physical stuff that you have to quit. Nor is it because you can't compete in training anymore but at a certain point you have to make that decision. At a certain point you know you can't keep on progressing or even sometimes staying at the same level. You just hope to make the right decision."

Those who quit too early are consumed by regret, those who quit too late end up distorting their legacy. Many don't even get the choice, felled by a twisted knee or late tackle. Few get to go out like this, in a major final.

If it comes off it is a perfect way to punctuate a career but the pressure to exit in style can be too much. Think of Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final, ending a sublime career with that headbutt.

"I will try and leave a different way!" Van der Sar said. "Frank Rijkaard did it in 1995 [winning the Champions League in his last game]. He had played for a few years with Milan and won everything there then he came back and had success with Ajax. I was told that when Frank was ready to quit he lived in a tunnel for the last three or four weeks with everything concentrating on his last game. It's not like that for me."

With the Premier League secured, though, he will have to enter that tunnel for the next week at least. Van der Sar and his team-mates had their pride dented by the way Barcelona outplayed them in the 2009 final. That night in Rome the team froze once they went a goal down; this time they have to get their focus right.

"None of the 11 players had a good feeling. You never have a good feeling when you lose but normally one or two have a good game and you think 'Okay, I did my bit today'. But there wasn't one player from the team in 2009 that could say 'yes, I really gave it everything and had a decent game'. We have to make sure we all turn up and be ready to do what the manager wants us to do.

"We know what we have to do. We tasted that success in 2008 and felt that hurt in 2009, so you know exactly which one you want to feel at Wembley. We just have to make sure our plan is 100 per cent right, everyone has to be 100 per cent behind it and execute it."

Just like Barcelona's football philosophy, Van der Sar's career was born in Amsterdam. Johan Cruyff had exported the Ajax way to Catalonia in the late 1980s and in the following decade the Dutch club provided Barcelona with the players and coaches to implement it.

It was with Ajax that Van der Sar emerged as a world-class goalkeeper, winning the Champions League in 1995, beating Fabio Capello's Milan in the final. His coach at that time, Van Gaal, would leave Ajax for Barcelona and eight of his team-mates would go on to play for the Catalan club. A ninth, Rijkaard, would coach Barca to the 2006 Champions League title. That victory, courtesy of Patrick Kluivert's late winner, launched many great careers.

"They were stronger but we scored in the 87th minute and suddenly you have this incredible feeling -- 'is this going to happen?' The thing that you have dreamed of since a little boy to have that big trophy. It was amazing for a 23-year-old like me."

Van der Sar was the last of that Ajax generation to leave when his contract ended in 1999. With Peter Schmeichel leaving United after winning the treble, it would have been the perfect move for Van der Sar. They came in too late, however, and a deal with Juventus was agreed. In two seasons in Turin, playing under Carlo Ancelotti, Van der Sar began to lose confidence and form and when Juventus signed Gianluigi Buffon he knew his time was up.

He was coaxed to Fulham by Mohamed al Fayed's utopian visions of a football powerhouse in Putney. While that never materialised, it did provide him with a haven to rebuild his confidence.

It is easy to see why Ferguson wishes he had got his man earlier. For most of his career he has had to play for teams which dominate their opponents so his value is as much about covering the space behind the defenders, intelligent positioning and distribution. He was one of the first sweeper-keepers. He kicks off both feet and would even mix in the outfield sessions with the Dutch team at the 1994 World Cup.

Having won the league in 2007 and 2008, Van der Sar was man of the match in the 2008 Champions League final against Chelsea, saving a sudden-death penalty from Nicolas Anelka in Moscow. "It was very different to the feeling of winning it the first time because I had so many other experiences in between -- so many highs and lows between them. To be the last man to touch the ball in the final in Moscow made it even better than the first one."

Van der Sar just seemed to get stronger. In the following season he did not concede a goal in nearly 22 hours of league football (between November 2008 and March 2009) as United retained the title.

Then, shortly before Christmas of 2009, while in Holland doing recovery work on a knee injury, his wife, Annemarie suffered a brain haemorrhage. He spoke to Ferguson who put him on open-ended compassionate leave and Van der Sar stayed at his wife's bedside in Holland, looking after their two children.

While his wife made a full recovery, Van der Sar has now made spending time with his family a priority after he quits. He had enrolled on a coaching course in Holland but does not feel ready to throw himself into it quite yet, looking forward rather to enjoying watching his kids play sport.

There will be no escape from football, or United for that matter. His 13-year-old son, Joe, is a promising goalkeeper at United's Carrington academy. "I want my children to have all the joys that I had and when they're good at a certain thing you want to encourage. There's a big pressure in life anyway and I don't think kids need that, not at his age anyway."

So this might be the last chance to see Van der Sar keep goal for Manchester United but maybe not the last time we see his name on the back of the No 1 shirt.


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