For eight seasons, Ferguson has had an unwavering presence, almost unbeatable in goal. Peter Schmeichel is probably the best goalkeeper to have played in the Premier League and he was United rock all through the 1990s.
The mere sight of the imposing Schmeichel in the goal would scare the opposition striker and inject conviction into the rest of the United team. They could breathe more easily when the Great Dane was behind them, repelling all comers.
When Schmeichel left United, however, it created a vacuum that took Ferguson six years to fill. It was half a dozen years of uncertainty and apprehension. Confidence in the men on target was gone. It was not until Edwin van der Sar signed with Fulham that United’s defensive steel returned to its best level.
In his 2013 autobiography, Ferguson described the difficulties he had encountered in replacing Schmeichel as his greatest regret at Old Trafford, eventually turning to van der Sar when the Dutchman was 34 years old.
“We had a bad time trying to replace Peter Schmeichel,” said Ferguson. “” That may not be my strong point.
“It wasn’t until we brought in Edwin that we got back to the level we had with Peter.
“Edwin was a great buy for us, absolutely brilliant. Looking back, I just wish we had it when Peter decided to leave. “
United already had Raimond van der Gouw and Paul Rachubka at the club, then went through Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Fabien Barthez, Andy Goram, Ricardo, Roy Carroll and Tim Howard before finally finding a long-term solution to van der Sar.
Van der Sar has given way to David de Gea in a much smoother transition, but as many top clubs can attest, replacing a world class goalkeeper with another is not as easy as it appears there. There are at least as many hiccups as hits when it comes to some continuity between messages.
Which brings us to the problem that United may face when trying to replace De Gea. The quadruple player of the year was United rock in the 2010s, just like Schmeichel was two decades earlier. The trophies did not follow, but De Gea’s importance to United during this period is difficult to quantify.
At 29, the end isn’t really close, but with just four fewer games for the club than Schmeichel’s 398 now, the past two seasons have not been De Gea’s best. As a goalkeeper, he may have another seven or eight years to go, but at some point United will have to consider a replacement.
The problem for De Gea is that his drop in form, minor this season compared to the end of last year, coincided with the rise of an academy graduate to Dean Henderson. By summer 2021, only one could be United’s number one, the other will surely want to go out.
Henderson has made it clear that he has no plans to take the place of a replacement, but his two-season form for Sheffield United, particularly in the Premier League this quarter, has made it clear that the 23-year-old is a goalkeeper intended for the top.
Schmeichel himself supported De Gea to win this battle, citing Henderson’s inexperience as a problem.
“Would anyone seriously consider not having David De Gea in the goal and putting Dean Henderson in now? ” he said.
“There is no doubt about Henderson’s potential, but he played a season in a club that had an incredible run in the Premier League.
“But Henderson will have to show another season, as he has just spent, then another and another, to convince everyone that he is the right guy.
“There is a very big difference between being # 1 at Bramall Lane and being # 1 at Old Trafford, a very big difference. Even being a player of these two clubs.
“For example, if Henderson made a mistake – and I only remember the one he made against Liverpool – it’s ‘oh yeah but he’s young and talented and blah blah blah’, because he plays for Sheffield United.
“If he makes this mistake at Old Trafford, for Manchester United, then those are the headlines and it’s all week until he plays the next game, where they question his ability to be the n ° 1. “
Yet Schmeichel may be asking the wrong question. It should be possible for United not to seriously consider the prospect of a smooth transition from 2021/22, rather than selling one of their own, a graduate of the academy who will then be an English international, so that all they will do is kick the task of replacing De Gea further? At that time, finding a new goalkeeper may also have been very expensive.
If Henderson takes another loan next season, either in the Premier League or at a European club, it will give United another season to assess the merits of their two goalkeepers. Will Henderson’s ascent continue, will De Gea’s plateau continue?
By then, United will have a clearer indication of who should be their # 1, but by the summer of 2021, De Gea will be in a few months from the age of 31 and Henderson has just turned 24. Can United risk not supporting the young man, especially when he also checks the boxes of the vintage?
When Ferguson says finding a suitable replacement for Schmeichel was his biggest regret, it’s worth listening to, which is why it might be the only decision they can make not to look at a gift horse in the mouth and sell an academy goalkeeper who may well continue to be England’s No. 1.