Six years ago this week, Manchester United signed David de Gea. He has proved to be fantastic value for money, but it certainly didn’t appear that way initially.
“We had a bad period trying to replace Peter Schmeichel,’’ conceded Sir Alex Ferguson in his autobiography. ‘’It’s maybe not my strong point.”
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when many believed Ferguson had got it spectacularly wrong again during David de Gea’s early days at Manchester United.
The Spaniard moved to Old Trafford six years ago today as a successor to Edwin van der Sar, but at 20 he appeared utterly incapable of filling the Dutch veteran’s gloves, in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
We all know now that Ferguson’s choice proved to be masterstroke in the long term. But very few would believe that to have been the case when De Gea was being drowned by his untucked jersey and the weight of expectation.
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It is difficult to overstate just how miserable De Gea’s early days at United were.
Eric Steele, United’s goalkeeper coach who played a huge role in identifying the young Atletico Madrid stopper as Van der Sar’s replacement, admitted later: “His first six months were horrendous.”
Like Schmeichel, Van der Sar had given plenty of notice, allowing United’s scouts to thoroughly examine each candidate, but it initially appeared as those Ferguson had repeated his mistake from 1999.
Ferguson had identified Mark Bosnich as Schmeichel’s heir back then, but it proved to be a disastrous decision, and the subsequent attempts to rectify it also failed: “It wasn’t until we brought in Edwin that we got back to the level we had with Peter,” admitted Ferguson.
“Edwin was a great buy for us, absolutely brilliant. Looking back, I just wish we’d got him when Peter decided to leave.’’
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This time, Ferguson wanted the closest thing he could find to the new Van der Sar, and in De Gea the manager believed he had found it:
“He’s a young goalkeeper, very quick, good composure, presence and an outstanding replacement for Van der Sar,” Ferguson said upon the new keeper’s arrival.
“We were looking for the same type of qualities as Edwin, because the one great quality Edwin always had was his composure and organisational ability.”
De Gea needed every ounce of that composure at first. In the face of criticism so strong it often crossed over into mockery, more sensitive characters would undoubtedly have crumbled.
Was it justified? Perhaps not the gleeful way much of the criticism was delivered, but absolutely no one could make a justifiable case to suggest De Gea was proving himself worthy of the No.1 jersey at Old Trafford.
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HIs competitive debut came against Manchester City in the Community Shield at Wembley, where fingers were pointed at the keeper, perhaps harshly, for both goals United conceded in a come-from-behind win over their derby rivals.
His Premier League debut was a similar story, with Shane Long’s tame shot slipping underneath the Spaniard, who was once against bailed out by his team-mates.
De Gea was rescued by his team-mates on a number of occasions during the the first half of his debut season in the Premier League, but the press were far less forgiving.
James Ducker in The Times described De Gea as like “a kid who won a competition to play in goal for Manchester United,” while Patrick Barclay commented on the same paper’s podcast: “The goalie is like a jelly. He isn’t physically capable. He’s Heurelho Gomes without the shot-stopping.
Mick Dennis was equally as damning in the Daily Express: “He’s called David de Gea Quintana. But don’t bother learning all those names. There will be another chap along soon. There has to be.”
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The likelihood of that possibility increased when De Gea’s mistakes started to become costly around Christmas.
An error that would embarrass a schoolboy sent United tumbling out of the Champions League in Basel, while a horror show against Blackburn in a New Year’s Eve 3-2 defeat at home to Steve Kean’s Blackburn saw United waste the opportunity to make up ground on Premier League leaders City. That was too much for Ferguson.
De Gea began 2012 on the United bench as the “horrendous” six months Steele referred to took their toll. The coach, who picked up Spanish because De Gea was “lazy in his desire to learn English”, elaborated on the keeper’s problems and how the club helped him in an interview with fanzine United We Stand in 2013.
“One issue with him was that he was just 71 kilos. We worked with him on and off the field to make him more powerful. We changed his lifestyle. He would finish training and want to go home. When I told him to come back in the afternoon he’d ask: ‘Why?’
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“There were lifestyle issues. He’d sleep two or three times a day. He’d have his main meal late at night. He’d eat too many tacos.
“We pushed protein drinks on him straight after training. We physically made him drink. We had him in the gym a lot. He hated it. They don’t do the gym in Spain as much. We needed to build his core strength.
“I told him he needed to train better, that he was on show every day. There were times in his first season when he trained poorly. I told him that players made decisions for managers, not the other way around. That he should be first, not last out for training.”
De Gea spent four matches watching on from the bench before Anders Lindegaard saw his opportunity to stake his claim to the No.1 spot ruined by injury.
This time the Spaniard seized his chance, returning for the 3-3 draw at Chelsea, a game Steele described as “a turning point” for his young keeper following a barely-believable injury-time save to keep Juan Mata’s free-kick out of the top corner.
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“He came off the field and he’d grown another couple of inches,” said Steele. “From then on, he could say: ‘Now I’ve shown people what I’m about’.”
United subsequently went on a run of eight successive victories having climbed above City at the Premier League summit, while De Gea’s form began to provide evidence of an improved attitude on the training ground. Freguson was impressed.
“David has stood up as a man.” Ferguson said. “He got a grip of it, he didn’t let it get to him and the boy has improved every game.
“The area in which he had been criticised was aerial balls in the box and, if you watch the Blackburn game, the last corner-kick, he should have dealt with that.
“He knew that and he’s addressed that situation, so there’s a great improvement there. Now he’s playing with confidence and confidence is a great factor in English football. He’s shown fantastic improvement.”
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Ferguson soon had the smile wiped from his face. United surrendered top spot with two games remaining following defeats at Wigan, City and an inexplicable 4-4 home draw with Everton. City pipped them to the title by virtue of goal difference.
So tight were the margins that questions were inevitably asked whether the goalkeeper had again been Ferguson’s downfall. De Gea was directly culpable for at half a dozen goals before he was dropped at New Year, and you could shine a light upon at least three others.
The manager was less forgiving the following season. One mistake during the second Premier League game – a 3-2 home win over Fulham – led to another spell on the bench for De Gea and a warning that he had to fight with Lindegaard for the No.1 spot.
“The most important thing I am trying to achieve is to give them both experience of the English game,” he said. “They are both young, they do not have the experience of a Van der Sar or a [Schmeichel, so I am happy alternating them. That’s the policy I am adopting and I am happy with that situation.”
Ferguson kept his keepers guessing until December, when he finally settled on De Gea, and once his decision was made, the manager went to war for his young stopper. Even when a familiar failing reoccurred in January, when a weak punch led to a last-gasp Tottenham equaliser and two more blown points.
Gary Neville was among De Gea’s critics in the wake of the White Hart Lane draw, and the press reported interest in then-QPR keeper Julio Cesar, but a year on from the Blackburn debacle, Ferguson was more willing to back his keeper.
“You have to listen to some idiots in the game. It is better we deal with David de Gea rather than the press deal with him. We are quite good at that. He had a fantastic game and was 30 seconds away from that.
“It is unfortunate for the lad but he has to deal with it. We will help him. Outfield players maybe make 20 mistakes in a game. But goalkeepers are in a crucial position. We are OK with him.”
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There is no doubt Ferguson’s confidence in his recruit waivered, but the Champions League trip to De Gea’s hometown in February 2013 to face Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid confirmed the manager’s faith was well placed.
On more familiar territory, De Gea shone to earn United a 1-1 draw, making two particularly impressive stops to deny Fabio Coentrao – the first a diving save to turn a low drive on to the post, the second a kick-save from a header which showcased De Gea’s tendency to use his feet as a barrier, as well as a wand with which to deliver the ball on demand anywhere around the pitch.
From that point in Madrid, 20 months after arriving in Manchester from the Spanish capital, De Gea has gone from strength to strength.
Despite Ferguson and Steele’s exits, the keeper continued to develop into the goalkeeper both coaches believed he could be, which was handy for United given their struggles since the great manager’s departure four years ago.
De Gea won United’s Player of the Year award three times in succession before Ander Herera broke his streak last month, and he is now his nation’s undisputed No.1, having finally taken the gloves from Iker Casillas.
Real Madrid remain obsessed with the idea of bringing back the goalkeeping Galactico to his hometown – a deal they will only achieve by making De Gea the most expensive goalkeeper in history.
It is all a far cry from from those first 18 months when too often, it cost United more than they could afford just to play him.
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