By Mark Taylor
When Edwin van der Sar called time on his playing career, every top goalkeeper in the world was linked to the vacant post at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson chose to invest in potential and smashed the British transfer record for a goalkeeper, signing David de Gea from Atlético Madrid for a fee believed to be in the region of £18m.
The young man had a rocky start to his United career with mistakes made against Manchester City in the Community Shield and against West Brom on the opening day of last season. After the games, every newspaper and TV pundit was lining up to criticise him and question the faith that the boss had in the player. I remember before the Arsenal game Sky TV pundit Jamie Redknapp said he looked like a ‘kid who had to grow in to his shirt’ while he compared him to Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny, yet it was the Arsenal man who conceded eight goals that day.
Over the next few games, De Gea showed consistent form and produced some world class saves to give evidence of why United pursued him for so long. Critics were expecting the cold Tuesday night at the Britannia to prove too much for him to handle with Stoke’s physical style of play, but he came up trumps. There was a lot of pressure on the Spaniard at the time as Anders Lindegaard had put in an impressive midweek performance against Benfica in Europe. After a nervy start, De Gea ‘s ability shone through, making important saves against Walters, Crouch and a world class save against Wilkinson after he fired a thunderous shot that was superbly tipped onto the bar from close range.
As the season progressed, cynics all over the country were having to bite their tongue. However, it is often said in football and especially for goalkeepers that you are only as good as your last game. All his valiant efforts seemed to be undone when United lost 3-2 to Blackburn Rovers in the league. He failed to deal with an aerial ball into the box that led to Grant Hanley scoring the winner for Blackburn. Brad Friedel once said: “For a goalkeeper, there is no hiding place’. This proved true as De Gea was dropped and Lindegaard got his opportunity to prove that he was United’s successor to Van der Sar.
Many believe that in football you make your own luck but De Gea got given his chance when Lindegaard picked up an ankle injury just after he had kept five clean sheets in a row. De Gea was once again at the helm and the media hovered around him like vultures, waiting for him to slip up. I remember that the media attention around him at the time was horrendous and it seemed to be having an effect on him as he had another shaky game against Liverpool in the FA Cup. When United found themselves 3-0 at Stamford Bridge, no one could have imagined them leaving there with anything that day. However, in typical United fashion, a stirring fightback drew the game level and then De Gea’s epiphany happened.
Undoubtedly the save of the season, De Gea tipped over Mata’s majestic free kick that was destined for the top corner in injury time. We may not have won that day but it almost felt like it, such was the quality of the second half performance from everybody, De Gea included.
Since that game, De Gea remained in United’s goal for the rest of the season and the initial damning of his performances was swiftly turned into praise. What impressed me the most was that it seemed he was now developing into United’s number one keeper. He was quick to criticise his defence after the defeat to Athletic Bilbao and in doing so he was showing that desire and passion that we got from past greats such and Edwin van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel. He finished the season with the best saves-to-shots ratio (77.9%) and has been awarded the captaincy of Spain’s Olympic squad.
What people seem to forget is that this young man has had to adapt to playing a different style of football and also playing at the highest level. If he is producing these types of performances at 21 years of age then I for one cannot wait to see how he will be performing when he reaches his peak.