Opinion: Schmeichel was a different breed
When Peter Schmeichel arrived at Manchester United in 1991, he just seemed different from the outset. He possessed a mix of attributes I’d not seen before in a goalkeeper and gave an early impression that he would prove a game-changer.
I remember the protracted bid to sign the Dane from Brondby and, according to newspapers at the time, the haggling over the fee that was taking place. One of the Sunday tabloids suggested the Reds were at serious risk of losing our top target to another English side and I was seriously worried we’d lose out on him. He simply appeared to be the perfect fit at the time.
Goalkeeping coach Alan Hodgkinson had scouted the Scandinavian and was convinced he had identified the right man to take over the gloves – in the previous season Les Sealey, Gary Walsh and Mark Bosnich had all played. “Having established our interest, I rang Alex [Ferguson],” recalled Hodgkinson in his autobiography. “'He's the one', I told him. 'He will win the Premiership for you.'”
A commanding debut, and clean sheet, in the first game of the season, at Old Trafford against Notts County, went down well with the home fans. Not only was his size startling, he appeared to be a man mountain with a huge frame that covered a large part of the goal, but he was pretty unique. For a start, he could launch attacks with huge throws – ideal when lightning-fast wingers Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs were around.This asset had been honed by playing handball in Denmark. Another trait gained in the sport was the ‘star-jumps’ that became one of his trademarks. Anybody who has ever watched handball will appreciate the goalkeepers are on a bit of a hiding to nothing – it’s pretty difficult to block shots that are hurled at you, sometimes from close range.
Yet it gave Schmeichel this aura that he would never accept he was likely to be beaten, almost a psychological edge. I asked former United goalkeeping coach Eric Steele about this and he provided this fascinating insight: “Peter’s grounding was in handball and you see that in his style. It’s very much Scandinavian as they do play a lot of handball. You’re not going to catch it in that sport! If you’re a keeper in handball, there’s no point expecting to take the ball here [gestures to the space in front of his face]. You make yourself as big as you can, which is what Peter did.
”Don’t get me wrong. [Former Everton no.1] Neville Southall was the same. All of a sudden, he’s upon you. Bang! Everybody talks about Peter’s size but Peter in his prime, in his late 20s when he came to United, in the eight years he had here, he was so quick. Southall was the same, as was Pat Jennings. Peter had an unbelievable presence about him.”Only an expert like Steele would pinpoint Schmeichel’s speed as one of his key attributes but it was true – he closed down strikers so quickly. Countless times he was out smartly to save when the Reds' rearguard had been breached. The ‘star-jump’ stops also became commonplace. One which sticks in my mind came at Everton in a 1993 Coca-Cola Cup clash. That was one of the Dane’s unbeatable nights – nothing was getting past him. This stop was the third in succession from an attack that seemed certain to yield a goal for the Toffees as he raced out to block Graham Stuart’s effort.
In that tie, he also made a superb penalty save – diving to his right to deny Tony Cottee. YouTube footage of that fixture includes the commentator saying: “The whole of Goodison Park rises to acclaim what I think I’m justified in saying is world-class goalkeeping. What do you have to do to beat Peter Schmeichel?” Ironically, Southall was at the other end but he was beaten on a couple of occasions as the Reds won 2-0.
The initial signs were Schmeichel was capable of being that good. He did not concede a goal until his fifth game and then, after a 2-1 win at Wimbledon when he was given a proper examination by ‘the Crazy Gang’ and some questioned whether he could handle the rough and tumble of the English game, he then went on a seven-match run of only letting in a solitary goal (to Tottenham’s Gordon Durie).As with any footballer, arguably in particular those who represent a club like United, something else that set Schmeichel apart was his mentality. He would rant and bawl at his defenders, who often joked they would get earache from his verbal attacks. It was shocking as a fan to see the arguments regularly taking place in front of you but there is little doubt it worked. Everybody was on their toes around the Dane.
Gary Neville has recently revealed that his ability was constantly questioned by his keeper when breaking into the team. That might not have made it pleasant to play in front of the blond giant but he was a winner who demanded high standards and he treated any shot allowed on his goal as some kind of personal affront. This character was another part of the mix that made him almost certainly the best goalkeeper in the world and one of the reasons why United would go on to enjoy such unprecedented success.
It all culminated in a memorable last United appearance in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final - what a way to bow out! Not least for the way he went up for a late corner against Bayern Munich and challenged for the ball in the build-up to Teddy Sheringham’s equaliser.
That attacking role came as no surprise to me - after all, Schmeichel had previously scored a European goal against Rotor Volgograd and he would have bagged an acrobatic saving goal in an 1997 FA Cup tie at Wimbledon had it not been for an offside decision. I was there, commentating for ClubCall, and I confess to getting a bit carried away before spotting the linesman's flag. He really was a different breed of keeper.
And of course, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer followed up Sheringham's strike to complete the Treble, we had Schmeichel's cartwheeling celebration and the moment he lifted the trophy as captain in the absence of Roy Keane. Legendary status was guaranteed for the goalkeeper – even if it had, in all honesty, long been confirmed. Peter Schmeichel really was the Great Dane.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
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