Sir Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United for 26 years and 1500 matches, but he only took part in 1497 of them. He missed three: one for his son Mark’s wedding, one for his sister-in-law’s funeral and a League Cup game against Scunthorpe in 2010 when he went on a scouting trip.
The opinion at the time was that he was watching United’s Champions League opponents Valencia; instead, the teenage goalkeeper of the opposition, Atletico Madrid, was the focus of his attention. A dozen years since he was signed, David de Gea’s departure removes the last survivor of the Ferguson era: for the first time since the relegation season of 1973-74, in 2023-24 United will have no one who has made or will make an appearance for the big Scottish. For the first time since 1934-35 there will be no one who has played or will play for Ferguson or Sir Matt Busby. Erik ten Hag calls on Ferguson’s advice, but there are ways in which he makes a break with the past, as Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo can testify.
But De Gea was always meant to be part of Ferguson’s legacy: bought as the manager approached 70th birthday, signed with his successors in mind. Ferguson could be selfish and selfless and De Gea reflected the latter: United got 545 games from the Spaniard, the seventh most in their history and second only to Wayne Rooney among those bought by Ferguson, and 190 clean sheets, 10 more than even Peter Schmeichel.
And yet his legacy is one that leads to other conclusions. De Gea’s dozen seasons brought a solitary league title: the previous 13 produced eight, with four Champions League final appearances and two victories on the biggest stage. De Gea’s last decade consisted of United’s wilderness years; in the worst of them, 2021-22, one of their most eloquent critics was the goalkeeper himself, as his own excellence gave him the freedom to express his frustration.
But his last game produced a sadly fitting end: De Gea was beaten inside 13 seconds in the FA Cup final, then horribly at fault for Ilkay Gundogan’s ultimately decisive second goal. His last year felt a series of indignities: United’s Europa League exit to Sevilla owed much to a De Gea shocker capped by an embarrassing error. His last few years at Old Trafford were marked by two problems: an increasing number of mistakes – far more forgivable in his good years – and his limitations in distribution; many of his best saves were with his feet, but he struggled to use them to find teammates.
Perhaps August’s 4-0 defeat at Brentford was the beginning of the end in that respect; it was clear that he was not a perfect fit for Ten Hag’s play style. It underlined the way De Gea seemed old before his time, an old-fashioned goalkeeper in a rapidly changing role. He is only two years older than Alisson, three older than Ederson, less than five older than his likely successor Andre Onana, but seemingly drawn from a different generation where a goalkeeper’s job does not extend beyond stopping shots. The hashtag at his peak was “DaveSaves”. The problem was that Dave didn’t kick very well.
De Gea was the future once; at 32, he has become a thing of the past. He almost joined Real Madrid in 2015 but due to a faulty fax machine, but there is no such fight for his services now. Even before his contract negotiations with United ended, it became more likely that he would not be first choice. Staying would have always entailed a significant pay cut; partly because his previous deal was so lucrative. He was famously the world’s highest paid goalkeeper; Ole Gunnar Solskjær used to lazily parrot the line he was the world’s best, long after evidence suggested otherwise.
But at his peak he was definitely in the top five. He had days when he seemed invincible. His 14 saves against Arsenal in 2017 came in an extraordinary display of defiance. United branded him a “legend” in the announcement that he would be leaving. Perhaps both he was and he wasn’t: De Gea was sometimes a beacon of excellence in mediocre teams, especially in the years immediately following Ferguson’s retirement. He was named United’s Player of the Year a joint-record four times, but this often reflected a lack of competition.
Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar never won the award, but they were Ferguson’s two biggest goalkeeping signings. Each chose his exit and each played his last game in a Champions League final, Schmeichel lifting the trophy in 1999. De Gea’s departure has more in common with that of the only other goalkeeper to make 500 appearances for United: Alex Stepney ended up dropped by Dave Sexton, his fifth manager. He, too, had had his greatest days in his mid-twenties. There was a time when it looked like De Gea would be a fixture for years to come, perhaps finishing second only to Ryan Giggs on United’s all-time appearances list. But he began to look a man out of time, even before the interest in Onana suggested he would be a man out of the team. But outstanding as De Gea was in the mid-2010s, when the last link to Ferguson is severed, it serves as a reminder that the last decade has hardly gone to plan.