The goalkeepers. The outcasts. The strange balls. They ran aground.
It’s a position that is so integral to football that yet was somehow undervalued, and still is to some degree. The transfer fees normally considered acceptable to spend on them have supported this.
Gianluigi Buffon’s £47.6 million move from Parma to Juventus in 2001 was an astonishingly high fee for the time, but it was not uncommon to see players go for that much at the time, and it stood as the record for the most expensive goalkeeper, until it was broken twice in the same summer in 2018. Buffon remains the third most expensive goalkeeper of all time, but ranks 89th when outfielders are added to the mix.
Kepa Arrizabalaga tops the goalkeeper chart as Chelsea spent a ridiculous £71.5 million to sign him, but he is still only 26th in all transfers. For such a crucial role, it is remarkably underrepresented in the biggest transfer of all time, as teams consider players like Wesley Fofana, Raphina and Luka Jovic more important. Large sums of cash will be splashed on away players without much thought, but when it comes to those between the sticks, the purse strings tighten.
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This is bizarre because teams have proven that a great goaltender can be one of the smartest investments you can make and often lead to success. Six of the ten most expensive goalkeepers – Buffon, Alisson, Ederson, Thibaut Courtois, Manuel Neuer and Francesco Toldo – have all won multiple trophies, including domestic titles and Champions Leagues.
Likewise, getting your goalkeeper signing right can have disastrous consequences, as Manchester United discovered.
Legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel could not have left Old Trafford on a higher note. He was the undisputed best goalkeeper in the world and had collected the goals for a treble-winning side, even captaining the Champions League final triumph with Roy Keane suspended.
But after that historic night in Barcelona, Schmeichel decided to leave the grueling life of playing for a top club and left for the slower pace of Lisbon. It left Sir Alex Ferguson in a bind that would take him six years to get out of.
Mark Bosnich was the unlucky soul first asked to fill the huge void left in the great Dane’s wake and he struggled to do so, although he played his part in reclaiming the Premier League the next season. But Ferguson was not satisfied and planned for Schmeichel to terminate his contract at Sporting and return just a year later, before then pulling the plug on signing Fabian Barthez instead.
The eccentric Frenchman came in as No.1 and proved a capable but fallible No.1, with his erratic nature between the sticks often leading to a starring role in blooper DVDs and the manager having to defend him.
Ferguson called Barthez ‘the best goalkeeper in the world’, but in 2003 he was on his way to Marseille on loan after being rejected by Roy Carroll and Tim Howard.
Carroll played 50 times for United, but is best remembered for letting a Pedro Mendes shot bounce off his grasp and cross the line, only to get away with it as the goal was disallowed. Ferguson could never settle on his preferred goalkeeper over the years and made 10 appearances between 1999 and 2005, with Raimond van der Gouw, Nick Culkin, Massimo Taibi, Paul Rachubka, Andy Goram and Ricardo all failing to lock down the number 1 shirt. as well.
In those years, attempts were made to bring in the other goalkeeper on the field in Schmeichel’s last game for United, Oliver Kahn, but the German icon decided against it. “Sir Alex Ferguson is still mad at me today,” Kahn told German publication Bild in 2017.
“He thought I would go to Manchester United in 2003 or 2004, but I was more interested in trying to define an era at Bayern. Looking back, I should have. It would have been a good challenge for me.”
United were hardly without success in that period, winning the Premier League twice and the FA Cup, but their stranglehold on the ground was clearly loosening as Arsenal grew in strength and new challengers Chelsea rose to prominence. The instability at the back shook the whole team out of trouble and they only made it past the quarter-finals of the Champions League once.
“I tried to replace Schmeichel but it was very difficult,” Ferguson admitted in 2009, before going into detail in his 2013 biography: “We had a bad period trying to replace Peter Schmeichel,” he wrote, stating it as one of his biggest regrets. “It may not be my strong point.
“You don’t get over losing a Peter Schmeichel easily. He was the best goalkeeper in the world, and suddenly his presence, his personality was no longer there.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that Ferguson finally found the solution to his problem by signing the goalkeeper he always wanted in Edwin van der Sar. Ferguson had identified the Dutchman, crucial to the thrilling Champions League-winning Ajax side of 1995, as the perfect replacement for Schmeichel, but the club had already agreed a move for Bosnich, although Ferguson had serious concerns about the Aussie’s attitude to fitness. and perform off the pitch.
“He didn’t do anything in the session that convinced me he was the right man for Manchester United. So I changed tack and went for Edwin van der Sar instead, spoke to his agent and then to Martin Edwards, who told me , ‘Alex,’ I’m sorry I shook Bosnich’s hand.
“It was a blow. Martin had shaken Mark’s hand and wouldn’t go back on his word, which I respect. But it was bad business. Bosnich was a problem.
“We should have replaced him [Schmiechel] with Van der Sar. His agent had told me ‘you’ll have to be busy because he’s talking to Juventus’ but we missed the boat. I had to go back to Edwin’s agent and tell him that we had already agreed to take someone else and that I had to withdraw my interest.
“I should have taken him as another purchase as well. We would have quickly figured out Bosnich and Edwin would have played from the end of the Schmeichel era pretty much until my last years as a manager.”
Things hadn’t exactly gone to plan for Van der Sar at the Old Lady after he was the one to lose his place when Buffon arrived for the huge fee. Bizarrely, the celebrated goalkeeper moved to newly promoted Fulham in a shock move and spent four years at Craven Cottage.
Even well into his 30s, he proved excellent in the Premier League and continued to impress Ferguson, who finally got his hands on him at the age of 35 after six years of frustration.
A League Cup was immediately won, but the fallow period continued for a few years as Ferguson rebuilt the team around Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, with Van der Sar anchored behind a dream defense of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. The Premier League was claimed again in 2007 and would be so for the next two seasons, along with the Champions League in 2008. Van der Sar shone in the twilight of his career, claiming the record for most consecutive clean sheets with 14, which still stands at this day.
“I was lucky to have the two best goalkeepers of these three decades,” Ferguson wrote. “An honorable mention would have to go to Peter Shilton and to Gianluigi Buffon, but for me Schmeichel and Van der Dar were the best from 1990-2010.
In 2011, Van der Sar hung up his gloves at the age of 40 and Ferguson wasted no time securing a replacement for his legendary goalkeeper this time around. Atletico Madrid star David de Gea was signed and despite a rough start when he came close to joining Real Madrid and countless shaky moments, the Spaniard served as No.1 for most of the following 12 years.
Now Erik ten Hag faces the same challenge that Ferguson has faced twice, but it doesn’t look like there will be a long wait this time.
Andre Onana, fittingly another goalkeeper cut from the Ajax cloth, has quickly been identified as the top target and United are closing in on a deal. Like Van der Sar, he could have a transformative influence at the club.