Football: The Dane who has earned greatness

Guy Hodgson looks back on the Old Trafford career of one of the world's outstanding goalkeepers
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IT IS debatable how many Manchester United players would feel confident enough to say it, but Brian McClair was willing to tease. "It must be wonderful to have the power to make so many people delirious with mirth," he said to Peter Schmeichel, who was mulling over a grotesque miskick that had allowed Barnsley an FA Cup goal last season. The goalkeeper's reply is not printable.

But McClair was right. If the nation - or the Manchester United-hating part of it - had been given a vote on the most glorious football moment last year, then the great Dane's lapse last February would only have been topped by Michael Owen's goal against Argentina.

To put it succinctly, Schmeichel, who yesterday announced he will leave Old Trafford at the end of the season, is despised. Not because he appears arrogant, not because he has the gall to rant at his own players, but because he is so very good. From the moment he walks on to the pitch, hoofing the ball into space and brandishing a towel over his shoulder like a matador's cape, he seems the embodiment of a perceived United superiority complex.

That is fine in a player prone to temperamental lapses like Eric Cantona - you have something to gloat about - but there were whole seasons when Schmeichel never seemed to make a mistake. In 1994-95, for example, when he conceded only 18 goals in the League and United still finished runners- up, or the following year when he, even more than Le Roi, was responsible for Alex Ferguson's team overhauling Newcastle.

The title "A Rage For Perfection" has already been used for a book about John McEnroe, but it could easily have fitted the Dane, whose volcanic eruptions became a trademark as much as his saves. He expected exemplary performances from his defenders as much as he demanded them from himself and, like Cantona, when he could not guarantee them, he chose to leave United.

While Cantona left football completely, Schmeichel, who will be 35 next Wednesday, has chosen to move abroad, where the physical demands are less. "I am enjoying the game as much as ever," he said yesterday, "but it is getting harder to keep pace. I need to train more than I have ever had to in order to prepare myself properly. I need more time between games than I can get in England."

His going will virtually complete the dismantling of Ferguson's first great side which won United their first championship in 26 years in 1992- 93 and the Double the following season. Only Denis Irwin and Ryan Giggs (astonishingly, still only 24) remain of the side which the manager describes as his best.

No one could downplay Schmeichel's role in ending that drought. Most Danes have "great" appended as a description if they show any aptitude but he justified it more than anybody. From the moment he strode confidently into Old Trafford in August 1991 for the laughably small fee of pounds 550,000, his immense presence was apparent. Within games he was being called the best United goalkeeper since Alex Stepney; within months that compliment was exposed as far too lacking in substance.

When he first met Wimbledon's "in the mixer" long-ball tactics he was knocked back both physically and mentally. "This is not football," he kept appealing to the referee, but when the official ignored him he persisted in coming for and winning the ball.

Having learned that lesson, he became the most physically imposing goalkeeper in the Premiership, commanding his area in a way that even David Seaman could not match. His sling-shot arms also had attacking potential and many United raids were launched by his javelin throws to the wing.

His honours - four championships, two FA Cups, 107 caps and leading Denmark to the European Championship in 1992 - makes picking one performance invidious, but most United supporters would plump for St James' Park on March 4, 1996. For 45 minutes Kevin Keegan's Newcastle, fast and furious, ripped United's defence to shreds and yet they could not score because Schmeichel loomed, colossus-like, between the posts. Cantona got the goal that night, but it was the goalkeeper who won the points.

Even genius cannot sustain such levels for long and this season Schmeichel, who has been plagued with persistent back problems, has looked diminished.

His handling has been unsure and his mistake against Bayern Munich cost United two Champions' League points. He is still a good goalkeeper, but greatness might have passed him by and the chance to recapture that surely influenced yesterday's decision.

The chance to bow out of Old Trafford by winning the European Cup remains, however, and in January he will be among the nominated candidates when the European goalkeeper of the century is announced. It is a measure of his ability that, if he wins, there will not be howls of protest.