As a foreign player, Peter Schmeichel was something of a rarity in English football when the first Premier League season got underway in August 1992. He was one of just 13 non-British or Irish players who featured on the opening weekend, although by then he was already a superstar.
Schmeichel arrived at Manchester United in the summer of 1991 for a shade over £500,000, a fee described by Sir Alex Ferguson several years later as the ‘bargain of the century’.
The goalkeeper had been a Denmark international since 1987 and had already won four Danish titles with national giants Brondby, yet he was a relative unknown outside his homeland. That had all quickly changed by the time the Premier League era kicked off just a year later.
In his debut season at Old Trafford in 1991/92, Schmeichel was a major reason why United conceded fewer goals than any other First Division side, including champions Leeds. Behind a blossoming partnership between Steve Bruce and PFA Players’ Player of the Year Gary Pallister, he personally was beaten just 32 times in his 40 league appearances.
That summer, Schmeichel was then part of the Denmark team that shocked the whole continent at Euro ’92 when an unfancied side, who were only invited to the tournament when Yugoslavia pulled out, went on to lift the trophy in one of football’s greatest ever fairytale triumphs.
It helped then cement his place as the best goalkeeper in the world.
United already knew this. When Ferguson had learned of a stopper making waves in Denmark, he sent goalkeeping coach Alan Hodgkinson to check this player out. Hodgkinson reported back that Schmeichel was the best in Europe and that United had to have him. The club duly obliged.
By the time he moved to Manchester, Schmeichel was nearly 28, a different prospect to, say, David de Gea, who arrived at just 20 and took time to reach world class status.
Schmeichel was an era-defining talent, who helped re-invent modern goalkeeping and so much more than just a shot-stopper. He excelled at just about everything, even goalscoring – he netted 10 times during the course of his career, and brought a unique style to the role.
Schmeichel was noted for his presence, filling the goal and intimidating any forward that would get through one-on-one with him. His ability to stay upright and delay until forcing the opponent to make the first move was incredible and Ferguson once referred to ‘this big blond Viking flying out at you’ while discussing the player’s phenomenal ‘aura’.
The United legend was noted for his trademark ‘starfish’ save, spreading both arms and legs to make his body as big as possible and limit the ways in which a striker could beat him. It was a technique he lifted from handball, popular in Denmark, and is now repeated by goalkeepers the world over.
Perhaps the most famous single example of this came in a Champions League tie against Inter en-route to completing the 1998/99 treble when he denied Ivan Zamorano a certain goal.
Schmeichel had superb reflexes for a man of his large size and frame, and the agility to make seemingly impossible saves. One particular stop against Austrian side Rapid Vienna in 1996 was likened to Gordon Banks’ iconic save to deny Pele at the 1970 World Cup. In response, British newspapers asked if, in fact, Schmeichel’s was now the ‘greatest save ever?’
He also played a crucial role in United’s counter-attacking style under Ferguson. His distribution and ability to throw the ball to teammates, sometimes as far away as the halfway line, as accurately as a driven pass contributed to countless swift breaks.
With Schmeichel, United won the Premier League title in 1992/93 and 1993/94, completing a domestic double in the latter. He was then just as crucial as the returning Eric Cantona as the team completed another double in 1995/96. His performance to deny Les Ferdinand a string of chances in a game at St James’ Park, in which Cantona went on to score the winner, was a major moment in the Premier League title race that season as United clawed back a 12-point deficit on Newcastle.
It was Schmeichel, not Cantona, who was named Premier League Player of the Season for 1995/96 and he remains the only goalkeeper to date to have won the accolade.
Another Premier League triumph came in 1996/97, but Schmeichel ultimately made the decision that the 1998/99 season would be his last with United, citing fatigue as the major factor. He turned 35 during the campaign and no longer felt able to perform at the required level.
In early 2020, he admitted that pride had played a huge role in that choice to leave and it perhaps counts as a regret because he could have continued had he been prepared to step out of the team and rest for certain games. The reality was, he was still determined to play every single game.
Schmeichel couldn’t have wished for a better end to a glorious eight years with United. The club once more secured the Premier League title, his fifth, and another FA Cup, his third. But the icing came in the form of European glory, with United finally going all the way in the Champions League for the first time since the 1968 European Cup triumph.
Schmeichel’s role was crucial and, in the absence of usual skipper Roy Keane through suspension, he captained the side in what was his last ever game in the final against Bayern Munich.
His part in the famous comeback was significant to say the least. Having scored once in a UEFA Cup tie for United nearly four years earlier, Schmeichel’s presence in the Bayern penalty area for a late corner caused enough panic and disturbance to allow Teddy Sheringham’s scruffy equaliser. Moments later, with Bayern in disarray, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got the winner.
Schmeichel’s cartwheel is an iconic part of the celebration footage that followed.
What further underlined his immense role at United was the difficulty the club had replacing him after 1999. With Schmeichel gone, Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Fabien Barthez, Roy Carroll and Tim Howard all tried and failed to fill his enormous gloves. It was only six years later that Edwin van der Sar eventually joined the club and United found secured another era-defining goalkeeper.
Edited by Tiyani wa ka Mabasa