When plain Alex Ferguson reluctantly decided that Jim Leighton, the first goalkeeper he ever signed for Manchester United, had lost confidence after a series of errors, he dropped him for an FA Cup final replay and never picked him again.
Twenty-one years and almost as many new goalkeepers down the line, there are no indications that Sir Alex feels the same way about the most recent of them, David de Gea. But assuming the young Spaniard keeps his place at home to Tottenham tomorrow night, attention – as well as the TV cameras – will focus more closely on him than either man would like.
Appearing in front of huge crowds on tour in the United States, then in Paul Scholes's testimonial at Old Trafford and the Community Shield derby with Manchester City may have been useful in accustoming De Gea to the vast interest there is in United. But mistakes for at least one of City's goals, then another in the opening Premier League game at West Bromwich Albion last weekend heaped more pressure on those young shoulders than was desirable at such an early stage of his association with the club.
Ahead of Spurs' visit, Ferguson is trying to lift some of that pressure, claiming the 20-year-old is not concerned by the verbal or physical battering he has received. "Maybe he has read what was said, although not all players read the papers anyway," he said. "If you want the truth, read a book. He's fine, he's done his training – there's no problem."
Tottenham's manager, Harry Redknapp, is shrewd enough to have observed how unsettled De Gea became when West Bromwich went for him in the air last Sunday; a tactic for which high balls to Peter Crouch are well suited. "He coped with the crosses with no problem, he just didn't get any protection," Ferguson argued, claiming it will be different at Old Trafford. "You saw the challenges – an elbow in the face, a boy went under him and he didn't get the free-kick.
"It's disappointing when you don't get the protection but he's at home against Spurs and it won't be a problem. It's just away from home where he might get subjected to that."
De Gea was destined to leave Atletico Madrid for United even before playing a starring role for the Spanish Under-21 side that won the European Championship in the summer, earning him a place in the official team of the tournament.
Yet at 20, he is not only among the youngest of the many keepers Ferguson has signed, and by far the most expensive at £18.3m, but he is unusual in being thrust straight into the first team. That can be read either as a sign of the manager's faith in him or as a lack of confidence in his rivals,Tomasz Kuszczak, Anders Lindegaard and Ben Amos.
History shows that none of Ferguson's younger keepers have been able to establish themselves in the first team for long. Some have come close. Tim Howard, brought in from Major League Soccer as a 24-year-old, was No 1 for his first season. Roy Carroll, at a similar age, shared duties with him the following season but once Edwin van der Sar arrived from Fulham in the summer of 2005, nobody else was going to be allowed to have much of a look-in.
Ben Foster (signed at 22) and Kuszczak (25) each did well enough for other Premier League clubs in Watford and West Bromwich Albion, without convincing Ferguson they were the very highest class. Van der Sar was, and made the step up from Fulham to Champions' League level, playing his last match for the club in the Wembley final against Barcelona last May. He was the oldest keeper Ferguson has signed, at 34, and it is a source of regret to the manager that he did not secure him much earlier.
Like Schmeichel (27) and Fabien Barthez (29 and a World Cup winner) he was pretty much proven before joining, with the additional virtue of having experienced the physical nature of British goalkeeping, which appears to have taken De Gea by surprise, as it did even Schmeichel.
Ferguson recalled one uncomfortable day for the great Dane in the inhospitable surroundings of Selhurst Park, South London: "He went to Wimbledon and screamed like a pig. He had Vinnie Jones, [Alan] Cork and [John] Fashanu piling on top of him, battering lumps out of him." Schmeichel learnt from the experience and became, in the judgement of Sir Bobby Charlton and many others, United's greatest keeper.
Yet seniority is no guide to success. Consider the age and experience of three of those who followed the 30-year-old Leighton; the Spaniard Ricardo signed at the age of 30; Raimond van der Gouw (33) was never more than a deputy to Schmeichel; and Massimo Taibi (29) would be in most selections of Ferguson's Worst XI.
De Gea has far greater potential than any of that trio; yet plenty to prove as well, starting tomorrow night.
Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur is on Sky Sports 1 tomorrow, kick-off 8pm
Playing for keeps
In situ at Old Trafford in 1986:
Chris Turner, Gary Walsh, Gary Bailey
Bought by Sir Alex Ferguson:
Jim Leighton (1988-91)
Mark Bosnich (1989-91, 1999-2001)
Les Sealey (1990-91)
Peter Schmeichel (1991-99)
Tony Coton (1996)
Raimond van der Gouw (1996-2000)
Massimo Taibi (1999)
Fabien Barthez (2000-04)
Andy Goram (2001)
Roy Carroll (2001-05)
Tim Howard (2003-07)
Edwin van der Sar (2005-11)
Ben Foster (2005-10)
Tomasz Kuszczak (2007-)
Ben Amos (2008-)
Anders Lindegaard (2010-)
David de Gea (2011-)Reuse content