The relationship between father and son is a complicated one. It usually begins with Dad as omniscient demi-God, morphing into Dad as embarrassment and jailer as we rebel in our teens and ideally reaching a stage where you can love and respect him without feeling obliged to agree with him. In Dad’s house the religion was Manchester United and the deity was Alex Ferguson. How Dad laughed at my outrage at the departure of Incey, and I remember his scornful response to my objection at the sale of Sharpe. Alex knew best and who were we mere mortals to disagree? All that changed as the summer of 2001 faded to a close and I heard the words I never thought would come from his mouth ‘What the f*** is Fergie thinking?’ To hear Dad swear was unusual but to hear him openly question our Govan Buddha was a first. So what was the cataclysmic event that had sparked this outburst of blasphemy? Manchester United had agreed to sell Jaap Stam.
To gauge Stam’s impact you need to contextualise his purchase. The 1990s saw the top tier of English football drunk on money and change was certainly afoot, yet in some areas things remained relatively unchanged. Central defensive partnerships were based on height, strength and aggression. Dolly and Daisy had patrolled the area in front of Schmeichel for years enjoying great success. It would be unfair to dismiss Bruce and Pallister as lacking technical ability; Pallister certainly was more skilful than his frame would suggest. However what was apparent from our experiences in continental competition was that against the highest calibre of strikers brawn would always lose out to craft. Ferguson recognised that his team required a centre half capable of not only ‘mixing it’ in the bustle of the Premier League but possessing the mobility and distribution to excel on the European stage. It is unusual to think of a defensive purchase as targeted towards Europe but Stam was precisely that. It would be an unfortunate irony that in many ways the boss’s obsession with European success would play a lead role in Stam’s departure just three years later.
‘Manchester United sign world’s most expensive defender’ ran the headlines. I couldn’t wait to see Alex stood next to a beaming Cannavaro, Maldini or Hierro. It turned out to be a player I had never heard ever, pushing the ‘trust Alex’ mantra to the limit. It can be hard to believe in today’s blog soaked world but in 1998 knowledge of foreign football was generally restricted to opponents of British clubs in Europe, International tournaments and Football Italia. Stam lacked the CV to command instant approval. Initial doubts about the then most expensive Dutch footballer in history lingered as he was made to look cumbersome and off the pace by not only the brilliant Nicolas Anelka but Leicester’s Tony Cottee. In Stam’s defence, he was the newcomer to a central defence that lacked a leader. Berg was timid and Johnsen lackadaisical whereas Schmeichel’s rollickings were unlikely to inspire an already nervous foreigner feeling out of his depth. Ferguson took the wise step of bringing the vocal Neville in from fullback to help Stam through this dicey period and it wasn’t long before Stam was establishing himself as the finest defender in the league.
Stam fast became a favourite of mine and like many fans I just felt he ‘got it.’ ‘It’ being that indefinable sense of what Manchester United is about and what wearing the shirt means. Once upon a time I would lazily question foreign footballers’ ability to recognise the importance of this great club but given this season’s off-field shenanigans it would appear that English players are no less removed from the reality of what Manchester United means. Perhaps it is something inherently Dutch as Ruud van Nistelrooy is the only other acquisition of the last decade I feel has gained that affinity with real fans (and I don’t mean the Rooney worshipping megastore customers who dominate OT today). Stam would never let you down. He defended with a poise that gave you total confidence that he would handle any opponent. If they tried to match him for strength he would win, if they tried to beat him with pace he would get there first, if they tried to use trickery he would read their intentions. The enduring image of Stam is Ivan Zamorano backing into the Dutchman and finding him to be an immovable object. Stam was a pure footballer who could carry out every task expected of a central defender with the utmost ease and economy of fuss. In many ways he reminded me of Paul McGrath. I cannot remember Stam being out played from October onwards of his debut season and this remember is without the luxury of two holding midfielders that so many defenders enjoy today. It is a myth that Keane was a holding midfielder – watching footage of the Stam years it is incredible how regularly Keane can be seen to be is bursting into the box. Despite being shorn of a protector Stam was able to hold together a mean defence that would ship no more than 19 goals in each of the league campaigns he played in.
The departure of Stam was indicative of the turmoil that was playing out behind the scenes of a club which appeared on the surface to be cruising. Ferguson’s quest to emulate Sir Matt had been achieved in ’99; yet his desire to dominate Europe in the manner of Real Madrid in the sixties was painfully unfulfilled. At the start of a process that would lead to the multi-faceted, rotated squad we see today Ferguson made many choices which on reflection he would regret. The official line on Stam is that a six million profit on a 29 year old with an Achilles problem was considered good business. This falls apart when you realise that Lazio lacked the funds to pay and United knew this. They gave up the option of a lucrative auction in favour of a quick, unsatisfactory sale. This lends further weight to the unofficial and accepted view that Stam’s departure was a consequence of the infamous Mirror serialisation of his book including such bombshells as the Neville brothers being a bit anal and David Beckham being a bit thick. Neither of these revelations would surprise or lead to major ramifications. It would be gross hypocrisy of the manager who had made a handsome figure from his own autobiography; which included the unnecessary denigration of Brian Kidd, a club legend. The cardinal sin Stam committed was the public exposure of Ferguson’s predilection for ‘encouraging’ players owned by other clubs to seek pastures new at Old Trafford. Stam was foolish and naïve; but to be cast out by a club you served so well for communicating a known truth would make many men bitter and twisted. It is always a nice surprise when your heroes behave as you would hope, and the fact Stam chose not to fight his corner through the media ala Beckham, Heinze and Tevez justified my respect for him.
It is natural when reflecting on such a great yet brief United career to consider what might have been. Stam was 29 in 2001 and could feasibly have continued playing in the first team for a further four years. We might have been spared the terrifying Silvestre – Blanc era. We could have feasted on Stam partnering and guiding a freshly acquired Rio Ferdinand. Oh what might have been. Nemanja Vidic is my favourite current United player yet I do not hesitate to say I believe Stam to have been even better. The mark of any player’s legacy is the chanting of their name long after their departure so it is with great pride that ‘Yip Yap Stam’ still reverberates around the ground from which he should never have been torn away from.
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