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Edwin van der Sar at 40: Manchester United's iceman stays cool
Daniel Taylor - 3 years ago

It is the kind of age where, for some men, the only form of participation sport that is left is hunting for their spectacles. Edwin van der Sar has been a "veteran" for longer than he probably cares to remember but it is probably a measure of the man that, when he turns 40 tomorrow, we are still no closer to knowing for certain when he intends to hang up those gloves.

A few weeks ago Eric Steele, Manchester United's goalkeeping coach, told the Manchester Evening News he thought Van der Sar had already decided he would retire at the end of the current season. It didn't feel quite right and the following day Van der Sar issued a clarification through United's website, saying he had no idea where the headlines had originated (clue: he's the guy chucking balls at you most mornings).

What can be said with certainty is that Sir Alex Ferguson has already started looking at bringing one, possibly two goalkeepers, into the club. David de Gea, of Atlético Madrid, has been watched. Anders Lindegaard, the Danish international, is another possibility, but finding a goalkeeper for a club of United's size and ambition is not easy, as Ferguson knows from bitter experience.

"There are certain criteria to be a goalkeeper here: good experience, personality and a track record," Ferguson says. "Edwin has all of those qualities. He didn't cost us a lot of money, about £2m, so he's right up there with my best signings. I just wish we had signed him earlier, to be honest."

Ferguson's hope is that Van der Sar, the ninth man to play at the age of 40 since the Premier League's formation (seven of them goalkeepers), will delay his retirement by another season. After five years of working with him, United's manager now openly talks about the Dutchman, the most capped Holland international in history, being the equal to Peter Schmeichel as one of the two most supreme goalkeepers in the club's history.

Yet the two are very different in their style. Schmeichel was a brute to get the ball past, whereas Van der Sar operates by the theory that goalkeepers make great saves only as the last resort. His talent is about controlling the penalty area, understanding the angles, when to leave his line, the right commands for the defence. Joop Hiele, Van der Sar's former keeping coach, once explained why he had played so long at the top: "Goalkeeping is registering the situation, recognising it and finding the solution. The more often you do it, the easier it gets."

Van der Sar has perfected the art to the point there was genuine disbelief when the man they know as "Ice Rabbit" in the Netherlands on account of his temperament spilled a routine cross to let in Somen Tchoyi for the softest of goals for West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford two weekends ago. "Here's a lad with 130 caps for Holland, the most fantastic career you could imagine," Ferguson later reflected. "You couldn't even criticise him because he doesn't deserve that. He'll probably make one horrendous mistake in his life."

Otherwise, Van der Sar's story at Old Trafford has been a demonstration of long, calm assurance, incorporating two Champions League finals, three league titles and a place in the record books for not conceding a league goal during 1,311 minutes of play over a three-month period in the 2008-09 season.

"I just think he's so suited to Manchester United," Michael Owen, the United striker, says of the oldest post-war player in the club's history (though still some way short of Billy Meredith, who was 46 years and 281 days when he played his last game in 1921). "The way he is with his feet, for example – the way he never panics when he is kicking. You might not notice it but you can't underestimate how much that helps the team.

"He'll play the ball out to his full-back and get it back and there might be no pass on with somebody charging him down. But he won't panic. Some goalkeepers are so scared of making a mistake they will just whack it, but not Edwin. Edwin sets off everything for us."

The oddity is that Van der Sar somehow remains a largely unsung hero, as if we have grown so accustomed to him doing his job we are guilty sometimes of taking it for granted. Think of the 2008 Champions League and what is the first thing that comes into your mind? The abiding image is of John Terry's penalty miss. But it was Van der Sar who was Uefa's man-of-the-match in Moscow that night and his save from Nicolas Anelka won the game. Look closely at the video and you will see he is smiling before the ball even hits his hands.

Golden oldiesIf Edwin van der Sar plays against Tottenham on Saturday, he will become only the ninth player, and first non-Brit, to appear in the Premier League in his forties. Six of the previous eight have been goalkeepers

John Burridge Manchester City 43 years 162 days

Alec Chamberlain Watford 42y 327d

Steve Ogrizovic Coventry 42y 237y

Neville Southall Bradford 41y 178d

Kevin Poole Bolton 41y 164d

Teddy Sheringham West Ham United 40y 272d

David Seaman Man City 40y 113d

Gordon Strachan Coventry 40y 83d

List compiled by Opta

This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.

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