First Night: Jaap Stam - Jaap Stam the Man U man

Nick Townsend watches the European debut of the answer to Alex Ferguson's defensive prayers
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Where Manchester is concerned, there has not been a more eagerly awaited arrival from Holland this summer. Except possibly the return of Hayley, the trans-sexual in Coronation Street after that operation to render her "a complete woman".

The complete defender is what the red-blooded side of the city were anticipating since the news broke that Alex Ferguson had convinced his board that pounds 10.5m was a perfectly acceptable sum to splurge on what we used to call a stopper, the Dutch international Jaap Stam.

Sceptics may suggest that, when he did so, the United manager was perhaps under the influence of the opiates Ron Atkinson has insisted are so prevalent. The more cynical may prefer the view that it was simply a matter of the chairman Martin Edwards - when agreeing to an eight-year contract with the player - deciding that any Super League Club is bound to require its Supermen...

Stam has many prejudices to overcome before such hyperbole becomes anywhere near approaching reality. From time immemorial, certainly well before the Sun pinned ears on Tony "Donkey" Adams, the centre-back has been ripe for ridicule - as often as not by their own fans. And here, as he made his entrance on to Old Trafford's pristine turf for his new club's Champions' League qualifying tie, was a hulking brute of a man, and a baldy to boot, a real stereotypical colossus of a defender.

As the world's most expensive defender strode out wearing a mean mask of defiance next to the relatively diminutive Paul Scholes, the pair were reminiscent of Pip first encountering the convict. And from the 50,906 crowd there were Great Expectations indeed. In truth, Stam did not look like a man likely to be weighed down by the absurd magnitude of his transfer fee, even though, given the profundity of criticism which followed his debut in the Charity Shield, it might have been imagined that he had been carrying the loose change from the deal in his shorts.

"Alex in Blunderland?" posed one headline because of his deemed culpability when Holland conceded goals against Mexico, Croatia and Yugoslavia not to mention the small matter of being AWOL when Arsenal rattled in theirs in the 3-0 eclipse. Where the faithful had expected a tower of strength, they discovered he was rather too comparable to the one at Pisa, displaying a dearth of pace when faced with Nicolas Anelka, who admittedly possesses the sprint kick of a Linford Christie.

Still, managerial support still counts for much - despite Glenn Hoddle's efforts this week - and Ferguson can never be accused of not supplying an RSJ, not to mention a little TLC when his men are under media assault. It ill-behoves the innocent to question Ferguson's purchases. Any reservations after Sunday were most definitely ours, not his. As for stick, the manager was to assure us: "He didn't get any from me. It doesn't matter what you people write. It doesn't get through to me, you know."

Three days on from that indifferent matinee rehearsal - sorry Alex, but there it is - Stam dutifully returned the approval of the Stretford End, an ovation which on an Old Trafford clapometer would have registered behind returning captain Roy Keane, the enigmatic David Beckham, and Ryan Giggs.

To say that Stam, 26, has developed gradually from humble stock is putting it kindly. From his home town club of DOS Kampen, where his mother works at the chip shop, to FC Zwolle, where he became professional at 19. Then on to Cambuur Leeuwarden and Willem II Tilburg, until his burgeoning reputation reached the ears of PSV Eindhoven. Now to the zenith of his career, Old Trafford, where it might be said, he is out of the frying pan and into the deep fat fryer; where those immersed are apt to turn out golden or seriously burnt.

Stam jig-jogged impatiently as he awaited the kick-off. Here was a man anxious immediately to persuade his detractors that it was not a case of money grotesquely misspent. After France 98, being confronted by the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Batistuta, the relative comfort of United at home to the Polish side LKS Lodz must have been a relief. So it was to prove. For much of the facile 2-0 victory Stam and his present sidekick Ronny Johnsen were not so much marking men as time, and space.

The pair are no ersatz Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, a beloved part of Old Trafford folklore. Certainly not a Paul McGrath and Kevin Moran. Their influence is more subtle, less blood-curdlingly persuasive, although the Dutchman can bite into a challenge when the occasion demands and there is an athleticism and mobility for a man of 6ft 3in and 14st.

During infrequent forays from the Poles, Stam coped with Tomasz Wieszcycki and Dzidoslaw Zuberek almost with disdain, directing play around him in the fashion of a world-weary traffic policeman. When Peter Schmeichel had the temerity to scold him, he merely stared at the Dane imperiously, the same when an opponent caught him with a crude lunge. An effort cleared off the line and a free-kick struck with venom but without the necessary accuracy, illustrated that he can be a useful attacking auxiliary when required. In total, the performance bore authority, and despite the poverty of the opposition, it was a vindication of Ferguson's judgement.

When the latter wants to say "Yah boo sucks" he lays it on thicker than Dame Barbara Cartland's foundation cream "Stam was assured, determined and he was confident," Ferguson revelled in his task. "His recovery and defending were absolutely marvellous. When the big No 3 broke through in the second half the determination to get back was absolutely outstanding. It's good news for me that. He's a brilliant lad. The right type to play here, no doubt about that."

Under the circumstances, it didn't appear too prudent to search for an admission of deficiencies. Anyway, Ferguson was already in full flow. "Most importantly, Stam and Johnsen together were first-class. When a new player comes in you always hope he settles quickly, in order to give us a partnership which will give us consistency. Hopefully that partnership will now develop, because it is going to be really important to us."

Stam will probably never enjoy the celebrity of a Giggs or Beckham, or gain approval like Keane for ferocity bordering occasionally on savagery. In years to come, the young girls may not scream their undying love as he leaves the ground, but you suspect he might gain the thanks of a legion of United followers for a quiet effectiveness which brings yet further honours.

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