And now the end is near. But what a stage on which to face the final curtain. Next Saturday night, Edwin van der Sar hopes to wave goodbye to Wembley and Manchester United as a European champion again after a game against Barcelona that has the potential to be a classic(o).
Regrets? He has a few, and the one shared by everyone at Old Trafford is that United did not recruit him earlier. The departure in 1999 of Peter Schmeichel, the goalkeeper to whom he is most often compared when two or three Reds are gathered together, was the obvious time. At that point, Van der Sar had been between the posts for Ajax for seven years, was established as Holland's No 1 and fancied broadening his horizons. United bought Mark Bosnich and then the easily forgotten Massimo Taibi instead, and the 6ft 5in Dutchman moved to Juventus. "There's no doubt about it, it was a mistake," Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted, claiming that his chairman Martin Edwards had already done the deal for Bosnich.
When Van der Sar then declined to play second fiddle to Juve's new signing Gianluigi Buffon two years later, Jean Tigana lured him to Fulham, where he stayed for four years. "You need someone to give you a chance, a break," he explained. "It's OK your friends or your family telling you you are the best goalkeeper but you need someone in the profession to have the same feeling and want you at a certain place. Maybe it took a little bit longer than I had hoped for before United came in but nevertheless it was still quite nice when it came. I think the boss maybe regrets not getting me sooner." He certainly does, not least because United had gone through 10 goalkeepers since Schmeichel left.
Even before leaving Holland, Van der Sar was a Champions' League winner, Ajax having overcome Milan in 1995, a little to his surprise: "For us Dutch people they were such a big name with Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten who all played there, won so many trophies and played that football. But it wasn't a nice game. I did not have that much to do. They were stronger but we scored in the 87th minute and suddenly you have this incredible feeling when you think: 'is this going to happen?' The thing that you have dreamed of since a little boy – even though you didn't know you'd make it as a football player – to have that big trophy and get it in your hands, made the last five or six minutes of that game just electrifying. You could not believe what was happening to beat Milan... wow. The moment the whistle goes was an amazing moment for a 23-year-old like me."
The following season, Ajax made it again, only to lose to Juventus on penalties, and the side began to break up. "Holland is a great start to your career, you get a good education, good training, the technical part is OK," said Van der Sar. "After a while you have to prove yourself, you have to play in big games every week."
Fulham, for all the ambitions of Tigana and Mohamed Al Fayed, always seemed like a stepping stone. It just took longer than expected to make the final step. When he did, in the summer of 2005, he played every League game in his first season, then won three successive Premier League medals. In the Champions' League came two finals with very different outcomes. First, in the driving rain of the Moscow shoot-out, John Terry slipped and then Van der Sar outbluffed Nicolas Anelka, parrying his shot to win that treasured trophy again. "They were putting too many balls to the left and I'd done some research on Anelka and knew the corner he preferred was right-hand. Sometimes it's a mental battle. I thought: 'if I point to the left...'"
His record in shoot-outs is mixed, having lost three for Holland at successive major international championships in 1996 (at Anfield), 1998 and 2000. As it turned out, another would have been welcomed when United met Barcelona in the 2009 Champions' League final but they were not even close. "Then, as now, we knew how good Barcelona are so I don't think we underestimated them. I think the first 10 minutes we were OK but after we conceded it went pear-shaped. Maybe certain things were not right. Normally one or two have a good game and you think, 'OK, I did my bit today'. But there wasn't one player I don't think from the team in 2009 that could say, 'yes, I really gave it everything and had a decent game'. We have to make sure we all turn up and be ready to do what the manager wants us to do."
That first goal was scored by Samuel Eto'o early on. There is a photo of little Lionel Messi heading the second, with Van der Sar the only United player in the frame, mouth wide open as if screaming helplessly. "You have seen what he shows when he plays for Barcelona – he can be electrifying with his pace, movement, control of the ball. He is different to the central strikers you see in the Premier League. Barça don't play like an authentic team [formation]. Everybody is allowed to move, as long as certain positions are filled, and sometimes they can create a five-man midfield, with nobody in the central position."
Coping with that, and Messi in particular, will clearly be the key to United's prospects. Van der Sar says, however, that they do not regard themselves as underdogs and have potential match-winners of their own in Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. "They've been key men for the last six months for us and I hope they can be in this game also. You watch [Barça's] Spanish games and you see that there is sometimes not a lot of attacking threats against them. That comes from the way they press high up the pitch. So we have to make sure we can play through that and get at their defenders. [Hernandez] has been brilliant. He's a player we maybe didn't expect that much from in his first year, but we saw glimpses in the World Cup and then when he came here his work-rate and his attitude have been outstanding. We know what we have to do here. We tasted that success in 2008 and felt that hurt in 2009, so you know exactly which one you want to feel at Wembley."
Then, suddenly, it will be all over. It seems inconceivable that Van der Sar could not play for another season, even at 40. But, as he points out, a decision has to be made at some time and the urge is to do so before standards slip. He will take his coaching badges, write a book and spend more time with his family, his wife Annemarie having recovered from a brain haemorrhage 15 months ago.
"This is the right moment. I think I have already extended my life as a goalkeeper by a couple of years. I only expected to be here two years and luckily I tripled that. I have really enjoyed my six years here. Let's hope it finishes on a high."
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Dani Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Van der Sar; Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Giggs or Park; Hernandez.