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Aug 28, 2009

Schmeichel: The Great Dane

Greatness in football can be identified and categorised in any number of ways. Medals, statistics and individual awards all shed light on a player's standing in the game while some achieve recognition via a less tangible appreciation of the magical qualities that made them so memorable. Sometimes, though, a simple quote will suffice.

And when a man of the stature of Sir Alex Ferguson says, of Peter Schmeichel, "I don't believe a better goalkeeper played the game. He is a giant figure in the history of Manchester United", you know that the player in question is a very special one indeed.

As well as being a giant in the literal sense - with his bulky 6' 4'' frame, shock of white hair and glowing red nose a formidable facade to wreck the confidence of any opposition forward - Schmeichel was also a metaphorical colossus, his achievements dwarfing those of any other goalkeeper in the Premier League era.

With five Premier League titles, three FA Cups, one League Cup and, of course, one European Cup to his name at United, Schmeichel boasts the kind of silverware that puts the likes of David Seaman, Petr Cech and Shay Given to shame. But it was also his technical expertise, authoritative aura and bellowing voice, cajoling his hen-pecked defence on to greater feats, that left an indelible mark on English football during his eight years at United.

Indeed, after Schmeichel joined United from Brondby for a fee of £550,000 in August 1991, Ferguson described his arrival as the "bargain of the century".

Boasting an impressive reputation in Denmark having won four league titles with Brondby following a move from Hvidovre in 1987, the keeper soon displayed his aptitude for the big occasion when helping his country become the surprise winners of Euro 92, saving a penalty from none other than Marco van Basten in the semi-final shoot-out victory over Holland.

Denmark and Schmeichel's unexpected triumph in Sweden was the precursor to a tremendous second season at United in which he cemented his growing reputation as one of the finest keepers in world football when helping the club secure their first league title for 26 years.

Alongside luminaries such as Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson, Schmeichel was a key driving force for Ferguson's side as he honed an abrasive style of interaction with his own team-mates that would serve the club so well.

Many a game would see Schmeichel give his backline a tongue-lashing for a mistake, critical or otherwise. As Gary Pallister once revealed, no-one was immune from a verbal blast or two: "He can talk a bit, can Peter," the former United defender said. "It doesn't matter who's skipper or how old you are, he'll scream at you."

Along with Roy Keane, who moved to Old Trafford following the club's inaugural Premier League triumph, Schmeichel helped foster a culture of excellence in the United dressing room, constantly demanding high standards from the defence in front of him and frequently, and vocally, making that evidently clear, both on the pitch and off.

Fully immersed in the pursuit of perfection, Schmeichel did not take kindly to being criticised by Ferguson following a 3-3 draw at Anfield in January 1994 as United surrendered a three-goal lead to arch rivals Liverpool. A blazing row ensued and Schmeichel admitted some seven years later that he was told he would be sacked for his disciplinary lapse, before a heartfelt apology to his team-mates earned him a stay of execution.

It was a confrontation that demonstrated Schmeichel's headstrong nature but also proved to be a defining moment in his Old Trafford career as he avoided a premature departure from United and instead built on his early success to become one of the greatest players in the club's history.

The domestic Double was duly delivered in 1994 and although Blackburn claimed the Premier League title in dramatic fashion in 1995, United were back the following year as they memorably reined in Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United and won the double once more.

Ferguson's side trailed Newcastle by ten points at Christmas and visited St James' Park on March 4 with the Magpies four points ahead having played a game less. Defeat could have spelt the end of United's challenge with nine games remaining but Keegan's side were undone by a goalkeeping masterclass from Schmeichel.

Displaying the world-class reactions, one-on-one excellence and sheer shot-stopping brilliance that had served him so well down the years, Schmeichel repelled numerous Newcastle attacks in the first half, with Les Ferdinand, Peter Beardlsey and Faustino Asprilla all failing to break the Dane's resistance. An Eric Cantona strike gave the men from Manchester a 1-0 victory and the momentum to reclaim the title.

That dramatic night on Tyneside encapsulated just why Schmeichel was considered the globe's best keeper during his peak at United. He consistently produced all manner of world-class saves, spreading his frame to block out the goal with his trademark 'star jumps' and denying scores of strikers from close range with his unrivalled reactions - most notably with a Gordon Banks-esque effort when diving low to his right and scooping a header from Rapid Vienna's Rene Wagner over the bar in December 1996.

But Schmeichel was not merely one of the finest shot-stoppers of his generation, he was also a keeper in a very modern mould and his excellent distribution from the back, particularly when utilising his mammoth throws, helped provoke many a United counter-attack.

On occasion, Schmeichel even found himself at the sharp end of those attacks. He netted in a European tie against Rotor Volgograd in 1995 and, in a later incarnation at Aston Villa, scored a sumptuous volley against Everton when making a familiar run forward for a late corner.

The sight of Schmeichel steaming down the pitch in desperation also occurred on his finest night in football. At Camp Nou, with United losing 1-0 to Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, Schmeichel was still in the opposition penalty area when, from a late David Beckham corner, Teddy Sheringham turned the ball home to equalise.

When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer then famously scored an injury-time winner to ensure one of the most dramatic conclusions to any European tie, cameras captured Schmeichel performing an ecstatic cartwheel. As captain for the night in the absence of the suspended Roy Keane, it meant everything to the boy from Gladsaxe.

The 1999 Treble proved to be Schmeichel's last contribution for United as he joined Sporting Lisbon for two seasons but Aston Villa tempted him back to English football and he made 29 league starts in one year for the Midlanders before a surprise move to Manchester City.

Even in the twilight of his career, he maintained his proud record of having never lost a Manchester derby when contributing to a 3-1 victory for City over United in November 2002.

But Schmeichel could be forgiven that, and much more. In his eight years at Old Trafford, during which he was twice named the world's best goalkeeper by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, he carved out an unrivalled reputation thanks to his numerous feats between the sticks and crucial contributions to one of the most successful periods of the club's history.

Indeed, it could be argued that it took Ferguson almost six years to find anything approaching a reliable successor in Edwin van der Sar, with players like Massimo Taibi and Mark Bosnich victims of the Scot's failed search to fill the void that Schmeichel left in his team.

But how could could The Great Dane, the 'giant figure' of Old Trafford, ever be properly replaced?

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