Georgina Turner
Friday January 28th, 2011

Reflecting on the game after he'd retired, Brian Clough, the outspoken former player and manager, said: "I've never fathomed why top keepers don't cost as much as top strikers." A man who felt Peter Shilton "was the deciding factor" when his Nottingham Forest team won the title in 1978, Clough surely would have shared a chuckle at rival Alex Ferguson's fortune in bagging Edwin van der Sar for just $3 million in 2005. Since then, Manchester United has added three league titles, three league Cups and one Champions League trophy (along with a couple of less highly regarded trophies) to its impressive array of silverware. The goalkeeper's role in their procurement can hardly be overstated.

Van der Sar confirmed his retirement this week, saying that, at age 40, he wanted to spend more time with his family. "I thought about stopping maybe a year ago," he said. "It is a difficult process. After a defeat, I thought differently than after playing a few good games in a row. And then the decision came suddenly." The two-time European goalkeeper of the year is an obvious candidate for a coaching post, but he insists that will have to wait for now: "I will try to have 18 months or two years for myself."

Perhaps it's too soon to reflect on Van der Sar's career, but if United holds on to its lead in the Premier League, any eulogies may be lost among the reams of paper devoted to the club's record-breaking 19th championship. His achievements during nine years with Ajax already seem a distant memory. The 1995 Champions League title came after an unbeaten run in which Ajax conceded only two goals. The final against AC Milan was won by a late goal from 18-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert, but Van der Sar had to turn a Marco Simone volley around the post and save a shot from Paolo Maldini with his feet.

Van der Sar made his international debut that year and has since become the most capped player in the Netherlands' history. The Oranje haven't tasted tournament success in that time, but the goalkeeper has contributed his fair share of special moments (the save against Cameroon's Pierre Webo shows off Van der Sar's lightning reflexes). His penalty save from Olof Mellberg in sudden death at Euro 2004 is a popular pick from his highlights reel, but it was as captain during Euro 2008 that he was perhaps most impressive in a Netherlands shirt. During a 3-0 win over Italy, he made successive saves from Fabio Grosso and Andrea Pirlo to launch his side up the pitch for a decisive second score.

Ferguson has described him as being "right up there with my best signings," but he and the player have both admitted regretting that it didn't come sooner. After a two-year stay at Juventus that ended with the arrival of Gianluigi Buffon, Van der Sar signed with Fulham, which he said reminded him of Ajax. After four uneventful seasons at Craven Cottage, he arrived at Old Trafford in 2005 already a veteran. Ferguson needed a dependable pair of hands after a string of keepers -- Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Raimond van der Gouw, Fabien Barthez, Roy Carroll and Ricardo -- had all tried and failed to emulate Peter Schmeichel's remarkable tenure.

United offered Tim Howard a contract extension the same year, and hoped that Van der Sar could help to develop him. Instead, Howard was moved on within a year. Now Ferguson faces another struggle to find a reliable steward after six years of service from Van der Sar. Current understudy Tomasz Kuszczak has said he will leave United if he fails to land the No. 1 spot. "It would not frighten me to take over. ... I think I am good enough," Kuszczak said. "If Sir Alex decides I am not, then I will look for another club."

Though Kuszczak is one of only two keepers with a better shots saved percentage than Van der Sar (82 to 77), Ferguson has reportedly decided already that neither he nor the recently signed Anders Lindegaard is yet an adequate replacement. Instead, his short list features Schalke's German international Manuel Neuer and Ajax's Maarten Stekelenburg ahead of young Atletico Madrid stopper David de Gea.

Ferguson will not want the search to take so long this time around (there were six seasons between Schmeichel's departure and Van der Sar's arrival), but the Dutchman will be just as difficult to replace after 245 appearances. YouTube is awash with collections of his saves. Indeed, Van der Sar is an excellent shot stopper, but part of his brilliance is that he rarely has to make flashy saves. He controls his penalty area and the defense patrolling in front of him to prevent opposing strikers from making life too difficult. His sense of when to leave his line is uncannily reliable.

Manchester United's knack for grinding out results predates Van der Sar, but he has helped to sustain it. When United won the 2008-09 title despite Liverpool's late charge, it was thanks to the goalkeeper's record-breaking run of clean sheets. By the time Newcastle United capitalized on a rare error, he had not been beaten in more than 1,300 minutes of play and United had garnered 24 points from 1-0 victories.

Of course, he's dropped the odd clanger -- like trying to outsmart Jose Antonio Reyes with the ball at his feet -- but generally his judgment has been spot on. His comfort with the ball at his feet has frequently been to the team's advantage. "Some goalkeepers are so scared of making a mistake they will just whack it, but not Edwin," Michael Owen said. Dimitar Berbatov's third goal against Birmingham City last week came from Van der Sar's well-placed ball to Wayne Rooney.

While Van der Sar's impending departure will leave many memories, his career will probably be defined by one moment: the stop that won United the '08 Champions League trophy. Although he was part of a sterling defensive effort to make it past Barcelona in the semis (he didn't have too much to do, but Thierry Henry almost surprised him from the left in the first leg), holding Nicolas Anelka's spot kick was something else.

"That penalty save in Moscow has elevated Edwin alongside Peter," the club's goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele, said.

"I have made better saves but it was so decisive," Van der Sar said. "The joy I experienced afterward with the guys was so intense that I will never forget."

Judging by the reaction this week's announcement has prompted, there are few who will. His name is inked indelibly in to the annals of the club and the sport.

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