Peter Schmeichel might be jokingly referred to by his manager as "Grumpy" but Manchester United know well enough that it is a familiar giant, and not one of Snow White's little people, who will confront them in their FA Cup-tie at Villa Park this evening.
Schmeichel, all 6ft 4in of him, played 392 games for United over eight seasons before decamping to Portugal in search of a less demanding life with Sporting Lisbon. But, he decided, easy street was not where he wanted to be and so, at 38, the Dane's unique brand of genius fills a large part of the Aston Villa dressing room as well as occupying much of United's thinking about this highlight of the grand old competition's third round.
Six months down the line, John Gregory has still not stopped congratulating himself on persuading Schmeichel into a year's contract, with a further season's option. "He is a voice," said the Villa manager. "You are very aware he is in the dressing room before games. He is grumpy. He wants everything just so. He changes a couple of times before a game. He will go out and warm up and then change all his gear before the match starts. The kit manager is under pressure to have the right size shorts, the right size underwear, vest, gloves, tie-ups, stockings, boots.
"He is very demanding of everybody, whether you are making him a cup of tea, laying out his kit or trying to close somebody down from having a shot at goal. He just expects the best of everybody all the time. He has been used to it for so many years at Old Trafford that it has become second nature.
"Every game he is much the same person, whether it's a team in the bottom half of the table or whether you're at Old Trafford. Sometimes he can be difficult to talk to because he is so positive about everything. He doesn't want any insight into how the opposition take penalties. Just leave him alone, he doesn't want to be fed information. He has got his own thoughts on what to do at the right time and keeps them to himself." This was demonstrated at Sunderland last week when Schmeichel saved a Kevin Phillips penalty, showing that, like the Peter Shilton of old, goalkeeping is sometimes about making saves with the reputation as well as the hands.
"That performance at Sunderland showed him at his very best," said Gregory. "He still believes he is the best in the world, still believes Denmark are the European champions, that he is the best free-kick taker in the club. At set pieces he thinks he is the best centre-forward. Not in an arrogant way, he just tries to convince himself and everybody else he is the best at everything. If I had seven or eight more players like him we would probably be sat in the top six now, comfortably."
Instead, Villa are sat in the last-chance saloon, as both Gregory and his goalkeeper acknowledge. "I don't think anybody here is naïve enough to think we are going to win the championship," said Schmeichel. "So the FA Cup is the only realistic thing to play for. And we are going to give it a good go. We can't claim we're at the top of our form but we are finding our way out of a bit of a bad spell now, playing better."
Schmeichel insists that, if only on the grounds of familiarity, it is a good draw for Villa. "We have already played them at Villa Park and should have got a win. That should give us some confidence." Signed by United from Brondby for £600,000, Schmeichel's netful of trophies for Manchester includes three FA Cups. So how will it be to face them in the competition? "It's always special against United, even if you haven't played for them as I have. But I was fortunate enough to play against the biggest clubs and the biggest countries. Having done that, you know how to get through games like this. You don't look at who they've got playing for them, you start by assessing your own team. If you start thinking about the people you're playing against, then you have already given them the upper hand.
"I have played a few times against teams I admire. I found it hard against Brondby. These were the people who believed in me when I was young. United beat them 6-2 and 5-0 and that was very difficult, because you knew how much that was going to hurt them. But you have to go out there and forget all about loyalty. Just go about your job and make sure you win the game."
Winning tonight is what Gregory feels his team are capable of. Speaking on Friday at the same time as the Football Association were charging him in London with misconduct following an exchange with referee Andy D'Urso in the Boxing Day game with Liverpool, he said: "We take a lot of confidence from the way we played against United in our opening home match in the league. We had a moral victory, in control for 92 minutes, then we conceded a late own goal. A lot of my lads came of age that day, went out and believed they could compete with Manchester. That same belief will be rammed into their minds on Sunday night."
The straight-talking Gregory – "I could be a good journalist," he teased Friday's media gathering – makes no secret of the frustrations of his job. "On the day we went top of the league, 27 October, I thought it was an ideal time to buy two or three players who would have kept us there. I asked if we could enhance the team. The answer was no. The club policy is that we have to sell before we can add to the squad. I have found that frustrating at times but I have had to get on with it.
"This is a big game because it represents our only chance of some silverware. Buf if the team don't win the manager gets the blame and this manager will always accept the blame. Would I walk away from here? Never, ever. I wouldn't turn my back on the lads. They are a fantastic bunch. We are talking about a team just outside the top six."
Whether Schmeichel will opt to turn his back on Villa at the end of the season is debatable. This son of an immigrant Polish pianist reiterates his gratitude at the opportunity of a second chance in the Premiership. "I am enjoying it. I have got a good manager and a good goalkeeping coach [Eric Steele] who understands I am not 28 and that I need more days off than most of the others.
"Six months ago I didn't think I was going to play any more. I thought I would be retired and doing different things in life. But I found there is still too much competition left in me to leave it at that. No secret, it's harder at 38, especially in winter. If the weather stays like this until March I may decide to leave it at that. I don't think so at the moment, but you never know. I will leave it as late as possible before deciding whether to carry on next season."
So all at Villa Park this evening will be hoping for a swift upturn in temperature. The place wouldn't be the same without Grumpy.Reuse content