The Great Dane
In the aftermath of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s last moment winner in the 1999 Champions League Final there are two images in particular that have stood the test of time in their portrayal of the ultimate joy and despair that football can bring.
One sees Bayern Munich’s Ghanian defender Samuel Kuffour pummeling the turf in anguish at his side’s capitulation after the final whistle was blown. The other, a giant Danish swirl of blonde and neon cartwheeling through the Camp Nou air, of Peter Schmeichel as he celebrated far away from where the drama was unfolding.
In the absence of regular captain Roy Keane, the Irishman missing out after picking up a suspension triggering yellow against Juventus in the semi-finals, it would be The Great Dane that would be handed the captain’s armband, and ultimately hold the trophy aloft, as Manchester United claimed Europe’s most prestigious accolade for the first time in 31 years.
“The bargain of the century”
The flamboyance of his celebrations that night in Barcelona make for a stark contrast when you compare it with the modest arrival of Schmeichel at Old Trafford in 1991, his fee of just over half a million pounds being described as “ the bargain of the century” by his boss Sir Alex Ferguson. A comment made more poignant by the struggles one of the greatest managers of all time had in replacing the Dane once the custodian had decided to take a step back from the rigours of Old Trafford life.
When he arrived, barely heard of 27-year-old from Danish Superliga side Brøndby, he was already well on his way to becoming the complete goalkeeper. His 6”3 frame was intimidating enough on its own merits but his true calling card was the starfish jump. A move, in part, inspired by the techniques of handball keepers in his home country designed to double his size, and imitated to this day.
He also could talk, his placid off field manner transformed into that of a fiercely competitive bellowing behemoth, an approach that could irk opposition and occasionally his team-mates, with vocal criticism of those defending in front of him a frequent occurrence. In his autobiography Roy Keane revealed how he once headbutted his Manchester United team mate whilst touring Asia with the club, a culmination of a long running battle over who should claim alpha status in the United dressing room.
Far more than just bulk and bluster he was blessed with agility and incredible reflexes allowing him to reach balls that many keepers his size couldn’t and a search through the archives presents a smørrebrød of examples to salivate over.
There was the triple save in the 1993 Coca Cola Cup Quarter Final against Everton. First parrying a Simon Barlow strike into the air before punching the rebound clear from the head of Tony Cottee. His work wasn’t over as his charge forward continued and by the time he was on top of Graham Stuart the striker must have felt the pressure of all the Dane’s size as one of many flailing limbs bore down on him before ultimately getting the ball clear.
In that 1998/99 season Schmeichel produced two key moments as the Reds secured an historic treble. In the first leg of their Champions League Quarter Final against Inter Milan another star-shaped stop denied Ivan Zamorano the chance of a crucial away goal, the ball from the Chilean’s diving header magnetically attracted to the Danes giant forearm.
In an FA Cup Semi Final that has gone down in history more as much for Ryan Giggs hairy chested celebration as it did for being one of the defining moments of that season the Welshman though wouldn’t have been able to score that extra time winner if it hadn’t been for the efforts of his stopper in injury time.
With the score tied at 1-1 Arsenal were awarded a penalty after midfielder Ray Parlour was brought down in the area.. The hyper-gifted Dennis Bergkamp stepped up only to see his effort denied by Schmeichel as he leaped to his left hand side, using all of his height to push the ball to safety. The rest as they say is history.
Like all good keepers Schemeichel also possessed an eccentric streak, and whilst the likes of Jose Luis Chilavert and Rogerio Ceni honed their crafts as goalkeepers with wicked dead ball accuracy, the sight of Schmeichel galloping up the pitch as his side chased a goal became equally iconic. Sometimes it worked, as was the case at home to Rotor Volgrodad in a 1995 UEFA Cup tie, his last minute foray forward rewarded with an equaliser in a tie that United would ultimately lose on away goals and he would also score a penalty for his national side in a Euro 2000 warm up match against Belgium but sometimes it didn’t.
The most iconic of these happened in Danish colours during Euro 96 as having harried up the pitch with the Danes looking to claw back a two goal deficit against Croatia a backpedaling Schmeichel was lobbed exquisitely by Davor Suker, the deftness of touch from the Croat ensuring his effort sailed way beyond the keeper’s fingertips.
It would eliminate the then defending champions, their triumph in 1992 a fairytale story all of its own and one in which Schmeichel would play his part during a dogged 2-0 victory over West Germany in the final.
In discussions about the best ever his name is often spoken in the same breath as those of Lev Yashin and Gordon Banks. At United it took the acquisition of Dutchman Edwin Van Der Sar to eventually fill the mammoth hole left in Fergie’s rearguard as World Cup winners and seasoned internationals failed to live up to the task as Schmeichel wound down his career in Portugal and further down the Premier League ladder ending it in 2003 at local rivals Manchester City.
He may not have been captain for the majority of his time at Old Trafford but there was no doubting his near irreplaceable presence. Fiercely competitive the name Schmeichel still frequents the Premier League honours board as in 2016 his son Kaspar, also a goalkeeper, would be crowned an unlikely champion with Leicester City.
He is a pundit these days, offering that unique insight that only a goalie can, but for that one night in Barcelona, when the lights shone brightest, it would be he that would receive United’s second European trophy from UEFA president Lennart Johnannsen. A player that arrived in Manchester unheralded and left never to be forgotten.