Football: Grumpy guardian who is United's Danish beacon

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The Independent Online
He is big, loud, very good - and has a habit of upsetting Ian Wright. Arsenal versus Manchester United tomorrow might go either way but, win or lose, Peter Schmeichel will give his defenders a hard time at Highbury.

Guy Hodgson meets the keeper you cannot ignore.

"Again". A booming voice repeated the word, making it echo round the icy air in the De Kuip Stadium, Rotterdam. Manchester United's players were having shooting practice against Peter Schmeichel, and he wanted more. Just two got past the giant goalkeeper, who looked like he had heard news of the world's end in their aftermath.

Perfectionism could be Schmeichel's middle name, and don't the United players know it. "Henny, he got a shot," Henning Berg was accused in a Scandinavian-cum-Scouse accent. "Why?"

Another lapse elsewhere and the Dane goes ballistic. Gary Neville has heard it all before and does not want another dose. "I know," he shouts. Just let it rest will you, his sloping shoulders add silently.

The goal Schmeichel was defending was important only because it was at the same end that Mark Hughes got the winning goal in the 1991 European Cup-Winners' Cup final. He was getting het up in a two-touch practice kick-about, bibs against tracksuits, the night before the Champions' League match against Feyenoord. The man probably foghorns his grandmother if she plays the wrong domino.

It must be awesome to face Schmeichel and occasionally awful, in all senses of the word, to play with him. "I change next to him in the dressing- room, and he's the perfect gentleman," Gary Neville said, "but on the pitch he hands out some stick. You take it because he's the best goalkeeper in the world."

Gary Pallister, who has had the wild man of saving screaming abuse at him longer than anyone, concurs with the sentiment and Neville's ranking. "He can talk a bit, can Peter," he said with a smile. "It doesn't matter who's skipper or how old you are, he'll scream at you. He's a one off. Sheffield Wednesday could have scored three goals last week in United's 6-1 victory but he pulled off some unbelievable saves. That's the measure of the man.

"It's all about strong personalities in this club and you don't get any stronger than Peter. We wouldn't swap him for anyone, there's no one to touch him. For someone so big to have that agility and dominance is freakish."

Opposition supporters had measured him up years ago and, with Roy Keane out of the team, he is the principal object of scorn. They hate him because he is arrogant, that he has the gall to shout so much, that he is successful, that he is a Manchester United player. Most of all, they hate him because he is good.

When he emerges from the players' tunnel tomorrow, his towel draped over a shoulder like the toga on a Roman Emperor, Highbury will know that he, above all, is the barrier Arsenal will need to breach if they are to hurt United. He makes mistakes, all goalkeepers do, but rarely do they come in the high intensity, winner-takes-all matches.

Two seasons ago he made two stops of such quality against Les Ferdinand that St James' Park could barely comprehend what it had seen. United took that match that night, courtesy of Eric Cantona's goal, but Schmeichel was the rock on which that win had been built.

Another goalkeeper, less able or even less lucky, and Newcastle would have been 12 points ahead at the top of the Premiership with games in hand. Many things combined to get Kevin Keegan out of St James' Park, but Schmeichel first pointed the way to the exit.

The Arsenal supporters would have hurled antagonism at him anyway, but there will be greater invective at Highbury tomorrow because of Schmeichel's confrontation with Ian Wright at Old Trafford last season which led to the goalkeeper being accused of racist abuse. He did not talk about the incident then, letting a solicitor speak on his behalf, and he will not broach the subject now, although he has always protested his innocence.

Only the two men involved know the truth, although you could imagine a central plank in the defence case would be that Ferguson, a socialist, would be unlikely to appoint someone prone to racism as captain.

That decision, taken when Keane suffered the cruciate ligament injury that will keep him out for the season, is a particular point of honour with Schmeichel. "I'm not too happy in the manner I became captain, but it makes me very proud," he said. "You see the scale of interest in Manchester United when you travel. I know from my native country that the team I play for now is much bigger than anything they have there. To actually be captain of that team is special.

"There are responsibilities but I don't think that is just down to the captain. At this club the experienced players have always been consulted and I've been a part of that for the last few years."

Schmeichel joined United for a laughably cheap pounds 550,000 from Brondby in the summer of 1991, since when he has conceded just 197 League goals in 239 appearances at an average of 0.82. When he has not played, they have gone in at a rate of 1.19 per match, which works out at an extra goal conceded every three games. You can tell many tales with figures, but that is as good a way as any to quantify his difference.

This year United's defence has been particularly parsimonious in the Premiership, despite a number of injuries which have meant Pallister has played with three different partners in the core. "The funny thing about this team at the moment," Schmeichel said, "is that whoever comes in has been able to cope up to the standard of the missing player. A goalkeeper can be as good as he likes, but if he doesn't get the protection he's going to let in goals."

This he attributes to the camaraderie which he describes as being better than anywhere else he has played. "One of the reasons why we can cope with the pressures is the spirit between the players," he said. "I think it's evident in the way we play - this is a group of guys who actually like to be with each other."

Spirit? When there is a huge Dane throwing his 16st and 6ft 4in about behind them? "I've been asked about this so many times but I'm not sure anybody can hear what I say, actually. Shouting helps me to stay in the game. It's no more than that."

As to whether United can switch seamlessly between European and domestic demands, Schmeichel replies they simply have to. "If we don't win the Champions' League, we know we've got to take the Premiership this year or at least become runners-up to qualify for it next year. It doesn't matter who we play against, Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday, Liverpool or Arsenal, we have to focus on that.

"I think we're still the best team in the country but the chasing pack has got stronger. It's going to be more and more difficult for us to retain the trophy but I think our biggest opponents are ourselves. We can only let ourselves down."

His reception tomorrow will be hostile but, as Schmeichel says, it usually is. "People always want United's scalp, it can't get more intense than it is. To be honest, I enjoy that side of things, and I think our side responds better to it as well. It brings out the best in them."

And, if it does not, Schmeichel will be asking less than tactful questions. Again.