Sunday 9 July 2023

Farewell David de Gea: 12 years a Red and forever a legend

And so football's worst-kept secret is officially official: David de Gea departs Manchester United after more than a decade between the sticks.

De Gea signed from Atletico Madrid as a rangy, nervous 20-year-old with the task of replacing United's best since Peter Schmeichel, Edwin van der Sar (all the very best to him, by the way). A giant of a man in every sense, van der Sar quite literally left big boots to fill and, initially at least, it looked as if Sir Alex Ferguson had dropped a rare clanger in bringing this relatively unknown rookie as his next in line.

Such a wiry, raw and youthful was always going to be an easy target for the drama-hungry English media and so it proved, In truth, some media outlets have never truly left de Gea alone even in the intervening years. 

Yet he leaves Old Trafford with his place in club history assured. Certainly as van der Sar's equal, maybe even his superior. Despite criticism of his distribution and a supposed weakness in commanding his box, de Gea was - and always will be - one of the finest shot stoppers the English game has even seen. 
de Gea has been unfortunate in the fact his United career has run parallel to some of the club's most barren years. With one Premier League, a Europa League, an FA Cup and two League Cups, as well as two runners up medals, five trophies in twelve years isn't so bad. But a keeper the quality of de Gea deserved to be playing in a team existing in the throes of challenging for the biggest prizes in the game. 

For that alone, he deserves a place among United's pantheon of greats. As the last great bastion of Ferguson's title-winning alumni, his departure also marks the passing of one generation to the next. 

The turning point of de Gea's United career came at Stamford Bridge in those fledgling early days. Ironically a save from compatriot and soon-to-be team-mate Juan Mata as a flying flash of green to paw away Mata's dipping free-kick left incredulous jaws in many a collective lap.

From then on, he was the manager's favourite and our undisputed no.1. That save was voted our greatest ever of the Premier League era and it earned de Gea a spot in that season's Team of the Year.

That would pave the way for what was to follow. At times, de Gea was a one-man showreel, a man who made the seemingly impossible look easy and almost single-handedly kept a floundering United side afloat. Times were bad enough with him there - you just shudder to think how bad things would have been without him. 

With United in a seemingly permanent state of flux following the retirement of Sir Alex, de Gea was the one constant, the one shining light, the man with four Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year awards in five seasons. That simply tells us everything we need to know about how influential, how utterly vital, he was even through some of United's darkest moments. 

Some of his showings defied logic. Think of the now famous game at Arsenal in late 2017 when a record-equalling 14 saves will go down in history as the finest ever by a United keeper. Even as recently as this season, De Gea was keeping opposition forces at bay in remarkable fashion. His simply sensational save when he changed direction in mid-air to tip away Kelechi Iheanacho's point-blank header was voted the best of the season by his peers. Another similar save in the same game, this one from Harvey Barnes, again showcased the very zenith of the man from Madrid.

There will be mixed reactions to the news, including from me. It's always sad to see a legend leave. Especially a man who has done so much for the club and stayed loyal when it would have been easy to jump ship. But, ultimately, the time is right. De Gea's style is simply not compatible with modern day top level football now. Even his biggest assets - his superhuman reflexes, anticipation and fleet of foot - have started to dwindle. Saves which were once routine have now become difficult. His bread and butter is now as sticky as treacle. 

But despite all that, he still won the 2022-23 Golden Glove for the most shutouts in the season. No overseas player has made more appearances than his 545 in all of the long and storied history of this magnificent sporting institution. 

He is seventh on the overall all-time list and has kept more clean sheets (190) than any other United stopper that has come before him - van der Sar, Schmeichel and Stepney et al. The fact he will forever be discussed as among only the most exalted of company is testament indeed to how that callow young keeper we signed in 2011 turned out. 

Thank you for everything, David de Gea. For your service, humility, brilliance, personality and that amazing agility. Some of the saves have to be seen to be believed. It has been an honour. 

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