Throughout his time at Manchester United, one of the things that Sir Alex Ferguson built his legacy on was impeccable judgement of players. This manifested itself with quality signings like Cantona, Schmeichel, Ronaldo, Keane and Van Nistelrooy and just as importantly, with his ability to blood youngsters at the right time and when they were of the right quality as shown by the famous crop of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and the Neville brothers.
He was always quick to spot weaknesses in his team and make correct decisions on whether to go to the market or to look internally to correct them. This was added to by his incredible ability to sell players at the right time. Using the same judgement skills as with incoming players, the likes of Keane, van Nistelrooy, Beckham, Yorke and Cole were all cast aside with a ready replacement in mind and the club didn’t miss a step.
The one instance where these skills seemed to hit the rocks was with the now infamous sale of defensive rock Jaap Stam in 2001. The Dutchman’s departure saw United go from three league titles in his three years at the club, to just one title in the next five years. When United finally found a replacement worthy of Stam in Nemanja Vidic, they immediately won the league. So what were the circumstances of Stam’s departure and why did it have such a catastrophic result on an otherwise fabulously talented United side?
Jaap Stam arrived at Manchester United in the summer of 1998, having just starred for a Holland side which only just missed out on the World Cup final. Stam was absolutely outstanding on that Dutch run and attracted the attention of every major European club.
In the 1997/98 season Man United had the tightest defence in the league but 33-year-old Gary Pallister and 29-year-old Henning Berg were showing signs of vulnerability. Despite only conceding 26 goals in the league there were worrying signs against better opposition. The pace and movement of Overmars and Anelka at Arsenal beat United in both league encounters and ultimately cost them the title.
In Europe, it was a young combination of Henry and Trezeguet at Monaco that put United out which came after Juventus’ Inzaghi, Del Piero and Zidane had scored 3 times against them in the group phase. Sir Alex wanted to upgrade his central defence, both for the long term and in the immediate future in the Champions League. A talented attacking unit needed a reliable defence and Stam was to be the final piece in the jigsaw, giving United the intelligence, speed, strength, toughness and leadership at the back which took the defence from good to elite in one swoop.
The impact was instantaneous. Stam’s first season at the club, 1998/99 was the famous treble season. After costing a then club record, and world record for a defender of £10.75m. Stam had a wobbly first few months, but as he settled in he helped United on their way to an extraordinary season as they overcame a Champions League group which included Bayern and Barcelona, before knocking off Ronaldo’s Inter and Zidane’s Juventus on their way to winning the competition.
In his three years the club Stam was twice voted the best defender in Europe and United made it three titles in a row in the Premier League with victory in 1999/2000 and 2000/01. But then it all went wrong with Stam, and United went through their leanest period of the last 20 years.
Stam only played 15 games in 2000/01 after suffering with an achilles problem that wouldn’t leave him alone. Despite his absence the club still won the league, and of the bright points, which proved to be a mixed blessing, was the development of a young Wes Brown. Brown played 25 games and seemed to be on his way to becoming a key part of United’s future.
Also at this time, Ferguson was very keen on his young Irish central defender John O’Shea who he wanted to ease in to the team. He also had his eye on 36-year-old Laurent Blanc who was available for free. Blanc did OK at United, but was retired when Stam was playing on for three more years at a high level. This confidence in the options available coincided horribly from United’s point in retrospect, with the publication of Stam’s controversial autobiography.
After he said some unfortunate things about other players and how he was recruited, Ferguson was furious. Now, contrary to what is normally reported, this is not what caused him to force Stam out of the club alone. Also in the mix was United’s big money pursuit of Juan Sebastian Veron of Lazio and Ferguson’s concern over whether or not Stam was viable as a long term option after injury.
When Lazio’s offer of £16m came in, Sir Alex thought that it was too much to refuse given that he was 29 and recovering from injury. Of course, this may have been added to because he was furious with Stam over the autobiography. The critical factor though, was his belief in his ability to replace Stam.
His belief in Brown and O’Shea and signing of Blanc, gave him an artificial confidence in the talent available. Given the club also needed to recoup something towards the £28m laid out on Veron they allowed him to leave. But it was a disastrous decision.
The loss of Stam took away the world class middle of the United defence, and the only reliable player in the back five other than Gary Neville. The erratic Barthez, slowing Blanc and young homegrown options couldn’t offer enough resistance to win anything. The attack plundered goals, but the defence conceded 45 in the league. Ferguson realised his error and spent £28m on Rio Ferdinand in 2002 which brought the title back, but when he struggled with injury in 2003/04 they finished behind Arsenal’s Invincibles and the newly monied Chelsea.
It showed that Ferguson’s faith in Brown and O’Shea to become elite performers had been misplaced as they continued to accrue game time in a defence which was always the club’s weakness. Despite boasting one of the best attacks in Europe between 2001 and 2006 they won the Premier League once and didn’t make any significant impression in Europe.
Even with perhaps the club’s best ever midfield and a series of strikers getting over 20 goals, the vacuum created by the sale of Stam set the club back massively. The presence of a Stam type defender in Nemanja Vidic from 2006 has not coincidentally brought about a return to the trophy laden years.
Although the likes of Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson and Bebe always get mentioned as Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest errors in the market as United boss, these had no impact on the progress of the team. United paid a club record to get Stam and he was a catalyst in winning the club’s first Champions League title for 31 years and three league titles in three years.
After he left, because of a strange conflation of circumstances, United suffered their only real dip in Sir Alex’s reign. It was his only major blip in an otherwise glorious tenure.