Category Archives: Football Memories

Jaap Stam at Manchester United: Briefly glorious but disastrously cut short

Throughout his time at Manchester United, one of the things that Sir Alex Ferguson built his legacy on was impeccable judgement of players. This manifested itself with quality signings like Cantona, Schmeichel, Ronaldo, Keane and Van Nistelrooy and just as importantly, with his ability to blood youngsters at the right time and when they were of the right quality as shown by the famous crop of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and the Neville brothers. He was always quick to spot weaknesses in his team and make correct decisions on whether to go to the market or to look internally to correct them. This was added to by his incredible ability to sell players at the right time. Using the same judgement skills as with incoming players, the likes of Keane, van Nistelrooy, Beckham, Yorke and Cole were all cast aside with a ready replacement in mind and the club didn’t miss a step. The one instance where these skills seemed to hit the rocks was with the now infamous sale of defensive rock Jaap Stam in 2001. The Dutchman’s departure saw United go from three league titles in his three years at the club, to just one title in the next five years when United finally found a replacement worthy of Stam in Nemanja Vidic and immediately won the league. So what were the circumstances of Stam’s departure and why did it have such a catastrophic result on an otherwise fabulously talented United side?

Jaap Stam arrived at Manchester United in the summer of 1998, having just starred for a Holland side which only just missed out on the World Cup final. Stam was absolutely outstanding on that Dutch run and attracted the attention of every major European club. In the 1997/98 season Man United had the tightest defence in the league but 33 year old Gary Pallister and 29 year old Henning Berg were showing signs of vulnerability. Despite only conceding 26 goals in the league there were worrying signs against better opposition. The pace and movement of Overmars and Anelka at Arsenal beat United in both league encounters and ultimately cost them the title. In Europe, it was a young combination of Henry and Trezeguet at Monaco that put United out which came after Juventus’ Inzaghi, Del Piero and Zidane had scored 3 times against them in the Group Phase. Sir Alex wanted to upgrade his central defence, both for the long term and in the immediate future in the Champions League. A talented attacking unit needed a reliable defence and Stam was to be the final piece in the jigsaw, giving United the intelligence, speed, strength, toughness and leadership at the back which took the defence from good to elite in one swoop.

The impact was instantaneous. Stam’s first season at the club, 1998/99 was the famous treble season. After costing a then club record, and world record for a defender of £10.75m. Stam had a wobbly first few months, but as he settled in he helped United on their way to an extraordinary season as they overcame a Champions League group which included Bayern and Barcelona, before knocking off Ronaldo’s Inter and Zidane’s Juventus on their way to winning the competition. In his three years the club Stam was twice voted the best defender in Europe and United made it three titles in a row in the Premier League with victory in 1999/2000 and 2000/01. But then it all went wrong with Stam, and United went through their leanest period of the last 20 years.

Stam only played 15 games in 2000/01 after suffering with an achilles problem that wouldn’t leave him alone. Despite his absence the club still won the league, and of the bright points, which proved to be a mixed blessing, was the development of a young Wes Brown. Brown played 25 games and seemed to be on his way to becoming a key part of United’s future. Also at this time, Ferguson was very keen on his young Irish central defender John O’Shea who he wanted to ease in to the team. He also had his eye on 36 year old Laurent Blanc who was available for free. Blanc did OK at United, but was retired when Stam was playing on for three more years at a high level. This confidence in the options available coincided horribly from United’s point in retrospect, with the publication of Stam’s controversial autobiography. After he said some unfortunate things about other players and how he was recruited, Ferguson was furious. Now, contrary to what is normally reported, this is not what caused him to force Stam out of the club alone. Also in the mix was United’s big money pursuit of Juan Sebastian Veron of Lazio and Ferguson’s concern over whether or not Stam was viable as a long term option after injury.

When Lazio’s offer of £16m came in, Sir Alex thought that it was too much to refuse given that he was 29 and recovering from injury. Of course, this may have been added to because he was furious with Stam over the autobiography. The critical factor though, was his belief in his ability to replace Stam. His belief in Brown and O’Shea and signing of Blanc, gave him an artificial confidence in the talent available. Given the club also needed to recoup something towards the £28m laid out on Veron they allowed him to leave. But it was a disastrous decision.

The loss of Stam took away the world class middle of the United defence, and the only reliable player in the back five other than Gary Neville. The erratic Barthez, slowing Blanc and young homegrown options couldn’t offer enough resistance to win anything. The attack plundered goals, but the defence conceded 45 in the league. Ferguson realised his error and spent £28m on Rio Ferdinand in 2002 which brought the title back, but when he struggled with injury in 2003/04 they finished behind Arsenal’s Invincibles and the newly monied Chelsea.

It showed that Ferguson’s faith in Brown and O’Shea to become elite performers had been misplaced as they continued to accrue game time in a defence which was always the club’s weakness. Despite boasting one of the best attacks in Europe between 2001 and 2006 they won the Premier League once and didn’t make any significant impression in Europe. Even with perhaps the club’s best ever midfield and a series of strikers getting over 20 goals, the vacuum created by the sale of Stam set the club back massively. The presence of a Stam type defender in Nemanja Vidic from 2006 has not coincidentally brought about a return to the trophy laden years.

Although the likes of Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson and Bebe always get mentioned as Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest errors in the market as United boss, these had no impact on the progress of the team. United paid a club record to get Stam and he was a catalyst in winning the club’s first Champions League title for 31 years and three league titles in three years. After he left, because of a strange conflation of circumstances, United suffered their only real dip in Sir Alex’s reign. It was his only major blip in an otherwise glorious tenure.

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Pavel Nedved: the man Juventus chose to replace Zinedine Zidane

Pavel Nedved was one of the best players of his generation but is often lost in the wash of some of his more famous counterparts. Perhaps this is because of his understated style both on and off the pitch. He didn’t seek the limelight and he didn’t get embroiled in controversy. He just played hard, played exceptionally well and won trophies, long blonde hair bouncing around all the while. Between 1996 and 2006 I would argue that only Zidane and Ronaldo surpassed him. Others came and went, but for sheer consistent excellence Nedved is behind only those two all time greats during this time period.

Winner of 5 Serie A titles, 2 Coppa Italia titles and a Cup Winners Cup as well as a Champions League runner up, the biggest honour of Nedved’s career came in 2003 when, at the peak of his powers, he won the prestigious Balon D’Or ahead of Theirry Henry and Paolo Maldini. Nedved also won 91 international caps and scored 18 goals during the Czech Republic’s golden period. No coincidence that the Czechs were the force they were with Nedved as their long time captain. So, what made him so special on the field?

To put it simply, Nedved was the complete package as a midfielder. A player with no weaknesses. He was even equally capable with both feet, that rarest of players who was genuinely equally capable with both his left and right foot. So much so that it was impossible to know which, if either, he preferred. His primary asset was his drive and determination and his ability to ring out every little bit of his talent every game. He was relentlessly consistent because of his fitness and intelligence. He was the driving force for Lazio and Juventus and one of Serie A’s leading players during a period when the world’s greatest were either in Serie A or at Real Madrid’s galacticos. That he stood out above such talent is testament to his ability and the respect he had of his fellow professionals.

He was a hustling runner, shuffling around the field from one of the various midfield deployments he was given. He was often shifted out wide or deep to facilitate some new signing and did so without complaining, simply moving across and playing superbly. He was the definition of all action, buzzing around to receive the ball and move it on to a teammate or robbing the opposition of it with a well timed tackle or an excellently positioned interception. He popped up with all kinds of goals, late arrivals in to the box, tap ins and long range spectaculars.

Nedved emerged as one of the finest young talents in Europe whilst winning the Czech league with Sparta Prague but really came to prominence at Euro 96. In a team with the likes of Berger and Poborsky who got moves to the Premier League off their performances it was Nedved that was the key man. The phrase ‘driving force’ comes to mind again. An unfancied and young Czech side made it all the way to the final with Nedved’s industry and quality shining out. Europe’s big clubs took notice.

A move to big spending Lazio in Italy signaled the start of period of sustained personal excellence. Lazio hadn’t won a Seria A title for 25 years but a Nedved inspired side won the 1999-2000 title. For all the glittering array of stars like Veron and Crespo in the side, it was Nedved who was the key man. He brought the grit and will to win to compliment the attacking flair of the other stars.

Nedved’s 2001 move to Juventus highlighted his importance in a few ways. Sold for near enough £30m, as soon as he departed Lazio began to decline and plunge down the league to mid table insignificance. Juventus on the other hand immediately won Serie A despite having sold Zidane. The biggest compliment that can ever be paid to Nedved is that Juventus felt that he was a worthy replacement for one of the greatest players of all time, and after signing him he took them to the league title. That impact summed up Nedved perfectly.

Euro 2004 was almost Nedved’s finest hour. The captain of the Czech team which was comfortably the best in the tournament he should have lifted the trophy to solidify his place in history. The semi final against Greece was a game that will go down as an aesthetic injustice. Nedved departed early to a knee injury and thereafter the Czechs struggled to overcome a resilient Greek team. Without the leadership and will to win of Nedved on the field they just couldn’t overcome the back ten and crashed out. Again, a sign of his immense influence.

Pavel Nedved symbolised what all footballers should desire to be. Incredibly sucessful and accomplished on the field as well as being a leader and role model off it. One of the best players of the modern era without a doubt

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