With the goalkeeping position at Manchester United a matter of much speculation, there is simply nobody better qualified to give an expert opinion than a goalkeeper who won a European Cup playing for the club – a player whose contribution was so vital that without him there may well have been no victory in 1968. Signed in a transfer fee that was a world record fee for a goalkeeper, the “final piece of the jigsaw” as Sir Matt Busby sought to conquer Europe is a man who understands the pressure of being a United goalkeeper as much as anyone.
We asked Alex Stepney to give us his thoughts about the current goalkeeping situation exclusively to 7Cantonas.com. He discussed memories of his time at Manchester United, too.
Who for you should be our starting keeper?
Well, at the moment Lindegaard is the one who’s got the place and is playing well. So he’s the one who I would play at the moment.
Not a fan of De Gea?
I’m a fan of De Gea, I like him a lot… but you’re never going to get another Schmeichel, another van der Sar.
When you played for Millwall, under the tutelage of Billy Gray, he was responsible for giving you advice about distribution and employing yourself as an extra player rather than just the last line of defence. How do you feel that your contribution changed the role of goalkeepers in the British game?
As a goalkeeper you want to give the ball to basically anybody on the pitch. And if there’s one thing that Billy Gray taught me, it was the game is all about possession. In those days, to learn from an outfield player was fantastic as we didn’t have specialised goalkeeping coaches. It’s a great basic, to not to give the ball away every time you kick the ball up to the halfway line it’s a 60-40 ball to the opposition, so you’ve got to organise before you even go out, to ensure the players have got space and you will tell them they have space.. it’s as simple as that.
I noticed last season that Van der Sar tended to pass to Evra and Vidic more frequently… When you moved to United, you talked about passing to Paddy or Nobby, rather than Bobby for example…
The fact is you get to know your players. I was playing with international footballers, World Cup winners. To give Bobby the ball around the box might be dangerous because he would turn around, whereas Paddy wasn’t quick, don’t get me wrong.. he wouldn’t stop running for 90 minutes! But he got space, like Paul Scholes, he would always come deep to get the ball… Bobby would be facing me, but Paddy would find the right angles on the box. You could throw Bobby the ball if he was in the centre circle!
Would you have liked to have played when there was the no pass back rules?
Well the game has changed so much and every change is affecting the goalkeeper. There was the 6 seconds, then that got changed, then the 6 steps… the bouncing. They’ve done it to get goals, the only thing that I would say if I was playing behind the current centre backs… if you’ve got the ball, I don’t want it. Turn and pass the ball forward. How many times do you see keepers mis-kick the ball?
Any noticeable differences between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex?
Well I never played under Alex, but he had a CV when he came didn’t he? We all learn in all life… He had Sir Matt around at the same time and that helped a lot. There’s a good story about when we played Notts Forest in the Cup and the papers and press had been laying into Alex. His office was next to Sir Matt’s at the time, and they came out of the office the same time on a Friday, and Alex’s head was down, and he didn’t really want to look at Matt, he felt embarrassed. Matt asked him what was wrong and Alex said he didn’t think he’d be here much longer. Matt was a brilliant man, and a clever man… he just said “A bit of advice. Don’t buy the newspapers. Just get on with your job.”
Do you think Fergie has maintained that family atmosphere?
Well as I say I didn’t play under Alex. But between them… Sir Matt created that family atmosphere, that was how we were brought up with respect, and everything we did was for the club, to honour the club as best as we could. We didn’t have that for a few years, and obviously Alex has brought that back. Even today, if sadly ex-players die, the players are there with their blazers, Alex is there too…
You were the world record signing for a goalkeeper before, and then when United signed you months later you were again. What was the pressure like, you were succeeding Harry Gregg as well as joining a team that were quite clearly focused on conquering Europe…
It was quite… different. The pressure of course was a different world. I didn’t start until I was late, I didn’t turn pro until I was 21… you could only do it when you were 15, and most of the 92 league clubs would pick the players who had played international football at schoolboy level. So I played amateur level, but within three years I was playing for Manchester United! Pressure… I remember signing for Millwall, and in those days you weren’t… players weren’t supposed to get anything. I was given an envelope and told to go home, inside was £50 in £1 notes… I went to Tossa De Mar!!
Finally, who was the best you played with?
Well, it’s difficult because I played with three European Footballers of the Year and a World Cup winner… but yeah, George Best for me. He’d score all kinds of goals… I’ll tell you a story, I think from when Wilf was manager.
He was clever. George used to think of things, weigh things up about the team we were playing, and if he could think of something different, he’d practice it, and if it came off, he knew he would get all the plaudits. We were playing Liverpool at Anfield on the Saturday. After training at the Cliff on the Friday he came to Pat Crerand and I and said “I want to try something. Give Paddy the ball, Paddy go in the old right half position and turn, with your second touch, spread the ball about 20 yards into the left wing position. If the right ball is played at the right time, I’ve got pace, and I can beat them… So we tried it, and Paddy hit the ball, and George came down at me at the angle, the ball never more than 6 inches from his toe. I tried to push him away, I couldn’t. As I went to go, he toepoked the ball, it bounced off my shin and he put it in the empty net. He said “You didn’t expect that did you Alex?”. I said no, and he said “that’ll do me”.
We went to Anfield the next day, I’d forgotten all about it. Then I gave the ball to Nobby in that position and realised it was on. George got between Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes, and did exactly what he’d done to me. The bloody Kop was silent! I said to him after “I bet you’re pleased that one came off, George”. He said “Yeah, but the best thing was that Tommy had a right go at me as I was running back, and called me a lucky b*stard!”
We will be running a fantastic competition involving Alex shortly. Keep an eye on our Twitter account.