It was the morning after the match before, but that was not why Edwin van der Sar was looking a little tired. He had been training, which on his own admission is harder work than most of Manchester United’s matches these days; certainly more so than the previous evening’s home game with Fulham, who in 90 unadventurous minutes did not manage a shot on target.
So the gangling goalkeeper, who was rested for last night’s game with Blackburn Rovers, has not conceded a goal for 21 hours and 42 minutes. No blowing his Dutch horn, however; Van der Sar is one of those who, in the best Old Trafford tradition, prefers counting medals to personal achievements. Indeed, he seems a little embarrassed by all the fuss.
“I’m proud, of course, but what you start the season for is winning prizes and that’s probably not going to be decided until the last two games or so,” he said. “It’s getting a lot of attention but I’ve never been someone who wanted to be the centre of attention. Sometimes you read a story or the programme notes saying it’s going to be 63 minutes [for a record], then in the second half you have a quick look up [at the scoreboard] to see how many minutes are gone. But I don’t really like it. The main thing is winning the games.”
Clean linen goes a long way towards that, and keeping things so tight at the back contributed to the long winning run that has kept United in contention for a unique quintuplet of prizes. The World Club Championship is already in the trophy room and the disruption it was widely predicted to cause did not materialise. In the next seven days there is a trip to Milan to meet Internazionale in the Champions’ League knockout stage and then the Carling Cup final against a weary Tottenham, whom United have already dismissed from the FA Cup.
The defeat away to Arsenal which left United in fourth place, eight points off the pace, seems longer ago than early November. “It’s all down to focusing and we’ve done it since the loss against Arsenal,” Van der Sar said. “We knew we were trailing by loads of points and knew we couldn’t slip any more to be there at the end of the season. People started to say we’d played three games against the big teams and only got one point. You know you’re in for a tough time if you’re trailing and the other teams are doing well. Chelsea were going well, Liverpool in my time here haven’t had the best of starts and they were right up there. You know you have a job on your hands.”
Rushing halfway round the world to play two games, then returning just in time for the holiday programme hardly seemed likely to improve their prospects. “Before we went to Japan people were saying we could be 12 points behind but Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal all drew games, and we weren’t unhappy.
“None of the squad slept properly in Japan. You’d go to bed at one o’clock, you slept four hours, wake up for two hours and sleep another two hours. But on the way back everybody was straight into their rhythm. We went to the Stoke [away] game, which was quite hard. When you shake their hands before kick-off and see six or seven players the same height as yourself [6ft 5in], you know you’re in for a tough game. There were a lot of balls in the box and I came for a lot of crosses and throw-ins, but we put a little pressure on after their red card and we got the goal.”
If a single match this season comes to be seen as a defining moment, that one on Boxing Day may be it. For now, however, Van der Sar is an old enough head – he will be 39 in October – not to be counting trophies quite yet. “The lead is not that much, other teams have quality players as well. Liverpool are still right up there. For Chelsea, I think it’s a little bit too far and it will be hard for Aston Villa with the Uefa Cup as well. Then we’ll miss another [League] game again on 1 March so we’re not taking anything for granted.”
Next up, the Champions’ League: “I think Inter is one of the hardest teams to play against at this stage. If we want to repeat what we did last year we have to beat strong teams. It will be interesting also with [Jose] Mourinho’s history in England, he probably knows a lot of things about our team and we have to make sure we’re up to the challenge.
“Hopefully Inter doesn’t give us so many surprises, although you know Mourinho, he can always pull one out of the hat in the way he wants to play. They’ve got experienced players who know how the game works. It’s only the last 16 and there’s a long way to go but obviously we want to repeat or even better what we did last year.”
Ah, last year. Midnight in Moscow and all that. After an epic 120 minutes against Chelsea, a penalty shoot-out; and Van der Sar, suddenly alone in the Russian rain, can be forgiven a sinking feeling as his memory inevitably goes back to losing three of them in successive tournaments with Holland from 1996 to 2000 and even a Champions’ League final for Ajax against Juventus, the club he would later join.
What is he thinking as John Terry steps up to score the goal that will cost United the Cup? “I was thinking, ‘I had better save this, otherwise it’s the second Champions’ League final I lose on penalties’. I’d asked the guys about him and they didn’t really know, just said he was a good penalty-taker. But it wasn’t to be for him.” A few minutes later, Van der Sar saves from Nicolas Anelka and United have their third European Cup.
It is said that the goalkeeper has nothing to lose in these situations. Having lost so many possible medals on penalties, he might be expected to differ, though he is typically philosophical. “If you win, everyone asks what’s your secret, when most of the time you did exactly the same in the ones you lost. It’s also down to the quality of the strikes from your own penalty-takers. It’s always nice if you see your team knocking them in at the other end, then you take some courage out of that and think ‘I want to contribute also’.
“It’s about luck, accuracy, mental strength. Walking from the halfway line to the spot, 80,000 people watching and television and all the cameras behind the goal. It’s easier to try to save one than to score one. So a lot of respect to the people who have to take them.”
In between the two Inter games and after Wembley comes the FA Cup and possibly another reunion with Fulham, where he played for four seasons after Juventus. “Craven Cottage is a great stadium, really traditional, going through the rows of houses until a stadium suddenly appears. And it’s nice to see them halfway up the table. It looks a quite stable club, which is good.
“When I went there they said a lot about creating a new big London team,” he recalled. “The first year they invested a lot of money and had plans for a big stadium, then they understood it was going to take more time and decided to take a slower route. So I was a bit disappointed with that because I wanted to play in Europe again and the furthest I came was playing Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final.”
This is a man of ambition, who according to a newspaper interview last week with his former goalkeeping coach at Fulham, Dave Beasant, was forever demanding to know why he was being asked to do something. Van der Sar admits to this almost stereotypically Dutch trait, though he was not pleased with the article. “He took a lot of credit for things I already did. I think he spoke a lot for himself about how he made me better and so on. A goalkeeping coach needs to improve you but I think a lot of things he mentioned I already had in my bag. But yes, I’d want to know why we were doing something and not something else. We [Dutch] like to ask why we are doing what.”
If Fulham were not to become the Manchester United of the south, as the incorrigible Mohamed Al Fayed trumpeted at the time, then Van der Sar felt it necessary to join the real thing, which he duly did in the summer of 2005. “I came here and within two days I felt I’d been here five years. It was the people, the way the team play and the quality of players. Plus I’d been playing for four years in the Premier League so it was easier than when I went to Italy.”
And for how much longer will any Premier League players who manage to negotiate a way past Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic find their path blocked by the man with the cleanest sheets in football? He has a contract until the end of next season. After that? “It’s going well and I’m enjoying it, so I decided in December to do another year, then make a decision.
“I always said I wanted to finish my career back at Ajax but I didn’t think I was going to play for so long at such a high level, so that’s not going to happen now. And it’s quite a step down to go to a smaller club in England when you’ve played with such good players, so I don’t think I’d do that. It’s getting closer and closer to retirement time.”
Life and times
Born: 29 October 1970, Voorhout, Holland.
Height: 6ft 5in.
Clubs: Ajax (226 games, 1 goal); Juventus (66, 0); Fulham (127, 0); Manchester United (123, 0).
Records: Record number of caps (130) for Holland. Won Champions’ League with two different teams (Ajax in 1995, Manchester United in 2008). On 27 January this year, set a new Premier League record for clean sheets, United’s 5–0 win over West Bromwich Albion meaning he had gone 11 games and 1,032 minutes without conceding. Last Wednesday, in the 3-0 victory over Fulham, he extended the record to 1,302 minutes.
Personal life: Married Annemarie van Kesteren in May 2006. They have two children, daughter Lynn and son Joe, who joined his father on the pitch after he saved a penalty in Holland’s win over Sweden at Euro 2004.