The capture of former Barcelona stopper Victor Valdes as the new number two at Old Trafford has caused quite a sensation among reds and pundits alike. A fantastic signing for the reds, his 18 month deal has of course ignited the rumour mill about the future of David De Gea too, with dialogue and opinion on the two keepers’ and what happens next for them over the coming months spreading like wild fire.
The debate opens because there’s no doubting the class of the new lad from L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, Catalonia. At all. The fact he’s come to Old Trafford as number two raises eyebrows of course, because he’s very much a top quality man between the sticks who’d be a worthy holder of the number one jersey at pretty much any football club in the world.
But it wouldn’t be the first time that United courted attention because of an understudy goalkeeper. In fact, it’d be no surprise if the club commissioned a documentary about our second choice shot stoppers over the years, as there’s a nostalgic and rich sentiment attached to them.
United’s understudies have either been heroes or villains in recent years. We’ve got Raimond Van Der Gouw who set the benchmark for the quality back up keeper. Loved by the fans, he ably deputised first for Peter Schmeichel, and then Mark Bosnich before ousting the un-reliable Australian to make the number one jersey his own for a short time.
Then there was the drama of the 1990 FA Cup Final Replay, where the out-of-form Jim Leighton was sensationally dropped in favour of on-loan Les Sealey, who performed heroics at Wembley to help United clinch the cup. He made himself the first choice for the reds the following season, where the crazy cockney would instil himself as a favourite in the hearts of United fans.
Massimo Taibi was a surprise singing in 1999 and thrown in to be United’s number one – however five games later and with a string of errors behind him (including THAT goal that crept under his crouched body against Southampton), he became so far down the pecking order that we never saw him again. He was dubbed “The blind venetian” by one newspaper at the time.
Jump back again, and the first “Fergie Fledgling” to come to prominence was 18 year old reserve goalkeeper Gary Walsh. He became the first player to be given a United debut under Alex Ferguson after an injury to Chris Turner.
The youngster made his bow in December 1986 at Villa Park and despite conceding three in a 3-3 draw, he played so well he retained his place for the remainder of the season. Whilst Turner struggled to force his way back in to the side, only serious injury to Walsh would see him slip from first team affairs. Who knows how good he would have become had it not have been for the bad luck that blighted Walsh?
And who could forget Paddy Roche? He was often called upon in the 1970s when Alex Stepney was injured but didn’t endear himself to the Stretford End and was considered something of a calamity keeper.
Another of Stepney’s understudies was Jimmy Rimmer. He only played 34 games for the reds, but was the only named sub on the bench for the 1968 European Cup Final (you only had one substitute back then). Eyebrows were raised at this, but Matt Busby must have seen something in his feet as well as his hands to call him up for what was then clubs most important ever match.
But there’s one back-up goalkeeper whose story is head and shoulders above all the others. You’ll have to read the history books about it, and many United fans will be familiar with player in question. David Gaskell.
He played many times for United. He was never really a first choice, but nevertheless the manner in which he made his debut for the reds goes down in history and is a true reflection on the traditions and the heritage of Manchester United.
On 24th October 1956, Gaskell was a 16 year old trainee at United and had returned home from Old Trafford that evening having finished his jobs of sweeping the terraces and cleaning Liam Whelan and Duncan Edwards’ boots. Those guys were also his senior housemates. He’d eaten a large dinner and was contemplating whether to get a couple of buses across town from Stretford to Maine Road, to watch United play City in the Charity Shield, or just watch it at home on the TV.
As a loyal red, he decided to go to the game and took his place in the Paddock shortly before kick off.
Minutes later, regular keeper Ray Wood got injured as Duncan Edwards went in goal to deputise. Whilst this was happening, United coach Bert Whalley; who must have spotted Gaskell in the crowd, suddenly appeared at his shoulder and dragged him from the terraces in to the dressing room. “You’re going on” Whalley said to the young kid, who probably didn’t have time to think of a reply.
Dressed in borrowed boots and other pieces of kit that had been cobbled together, Gaskell took to the field and became the youngest player ever to represent United at just 16 years and 19 days old.
“What the f*** are you doing here?” Edwards reportedly yelled at Gaskell as he entered the field.
“Looks like I’m playing, Mr Edwards” Gaskell replied.
The youngsters dream had come true; but not only had he made his debut for the club he loved, he’d also kept a clean sheet helping the reds seal a 1-0 victory. Gaskell was the star of the show too, with a string of fine saves that any keeper would have been immensely proud of – with supporters and journalists raving about his performance.
Cruelly for Gaskell, many of those in the foggy and badly lit Maine Road thought Ray Wood had returned to the fray and it was he who was mistakenly earning the plaudits! But what a compliment that is to the youngster that he had given a performance fitting of a well established international keeper, not a rookie.
Years later Gaskell admitted how shy he felt of his achievement at the time, and daren’t tell anyone that he’d not just gone to watch the game, but he’d actually played. He didn’t mention who he was to fans in the bus queue as he returned home, and didn’t mention his achievement to his landlord when he got in.
Instead he just went straight to bed, and it was only when Whelan and Edwards returned home that they got him out of bed and made him tell the landlord the real story.
The following day, Gaskell was back at Old Trafford, sweeping the terraces and cleaning the boots. Jimmy Murphy found him, and summoned him to Matt Busby’s office. Busby promoted him from the position of fourth choice keeper to second choice, and David Gaskell went on to play 119 times for Manchester United over the next 13 years, winning the FA Cup at Wembley in 1963.
So, the arrival of Victor Valdes might have caused an exciting stir, but the ‘number two goalkeeper’ story isn’t a new one at Old Trafford. It is, however; a rich, beautiful tale that’s grown and grown over the course of time, and it’ll be interesting to see what the ‘Valdes chapter” is going to be like as his career in Manchester begins.