Peter Schmeichel on football's changing of the guard
Peter Schmeichel never really had time for anything except being number one.
“I'll just go with one,” he says when asked to name the world’s three top goalkeepers today. “[Manuel] Neuer is the best, and has been for a very long time.”
For an even longer time, that title belonged to Schmeichel himself. In eight trophy-laden years, he was Manchester United’s number one; the world’s number one; the Premier League’s greatest ever.
Speaking in Dubai as an ambassador for Manchester United and sponsors Tag Heuer, when asked, the former Denmark captain says he has no time for rating his best career saves either. Manchester United fans, though, can take their pick.
The Gordon Banks-like save in the 1996-97 Champions League group stage match away to Rapid Vienna. A last-minute penalty save in the 1998-99 FA Cup semi-final from Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp. And the star-shaped leap to stop Ivan Zamorano’s header as Manchester United dispatched Inter Milan on the way to Champions League, and Treble, glory the same season.
In the fabled 1999 final against Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou, Schmeichel captained Manchester United in his last match for the club as Alex Ferguson’s under-strength team produced one of the most dramatic comebacks of all time to win 2-1 in injury time.
His last act as a United player was cart-wheeling in celebration (pictured above) after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s late, late winner.
Football’s changing environment
Schmeichel retired from football in 2003, after playing two seasons at in Portugal for Sporting Lisbon and one each back in England for Aston Villa and, controversially, United’s local rivals Manchester City. A lot has changed since then, some for better, some for worse, he believes
“Football has changed. I think the standard is good, I think the standard in the Premier League is very good,” says Schmeichel. “But football is evolving and changing all the time. Marco van Basten came out with 10 suggestions about changing football even more radically. The powers in charge they want to change football, for a long time now, into something more clinical, more predictable. They want referees to have technology and technical help. Bit by bit we are changing players as well and that includes goalkeepers.”
The game itself has seen some major tactical developments in recent years, like the 'high press' that English Premier League managers Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino tend to employ. But perhaps no individual role has evolved more than that of the goalkeeper, who is now expected to be as much a skilled footballer as a shot-stopper.
The afore-mentioned Neuer might be the finest exponent of the modern day sweeper-keeper, but Schmeichel was part of the first generation that had to adapt to this evolution.
“The back pass rule was changed in 1992-93, it was right in my prime and was something I had to change into,” he says. “I didn’t have a problem because I always played a lot of outfield in training throughout my career. I always considered that to be an important thing. I always considered it important that my teammates, especially the defenders, trusted me so they can play high up the pitch and I can be behind them.”
Edwin van der Sar, one of Schmeichel’s successors at Manchester United was another that adapted with ease, and it’s no surprise that both came from football cultures, Dutch and Danish respectively, where goalkeepers were raised to be technically proficient with their footwork. Many other keepers were not so lucky.
“It was important for me to have training sessions where I could only use my feet,” says Schmeichel. “So in a way it was soft rule change for me but for a lot of other guys they got caught out and couldn’t make the transition. But that was a really good rule change I have to say because it changed football, it made it quicker.”
No More Characters
Schmeichel won an astonishing 15 trophies during his time at Manchester United and an against-the-odds Euro 1992 with Denmark. Alongside the vocal goalkeeper, his manager Alex Ferguson could call on several trusted lieutenants on the field. Club stalwarts like Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce and Jaap Stam in defence, and the legendary midfield of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and David Beckham. All leaders, all winners.
“You don’t see those kind of guys any more,” says Schmeichel. “It’s very much a game where everyone wants to make football the same, and all the players are going to be the same, be able to play in the same way.”
He believes characters are being driven out of football, victims of the conformity that dominates the modern game
“It’s like football has become scared of characters and we’ve got a great example in Chelsea's Diego Costa who is an absolutely fantastic player,” he says. “Yes he rubs people the wrong way sometimes, but he’s producing fantastically and scoring goals, and he’s character that we talk about. Someone who makes us think about football in different way than the bland middle of the road [players]. So yes, characters aren’t really there anymore, and those guys that try to be characters, they don’t have the football to back it up.”
While that is partly down to managers, the Dane says they can hardly be blamed considering the pressures they face to produce instant results from their club’s board, supporters and the media.
“Managers have changed as well,” Schmeichel says. “Managers don’t get the opportunities that Fergie did anymore. The average time a manger gets at club is little more than 12 months, so why would he care about something like creating characters?”
The days when managers like Ferguson could nurture the likes of the “Class of 92” are getting scarcer by the season.
"Character is something you create through the academy system,” Schmeichel added. “You teach kids how to play, you identify who’s got the ability, you emphasise to them that they have to become leaders and you teach them and you nurture them. Why would managers spend time developing a football club when they know that in all probability they won’t be there in 12 months?”
Premier League Legacy
Fourteen years after retiring, Schmeichel is still idolised by Manchester United fans. In Dubai he was mobbed by young and old eager to get a prized autograph or selfie with the goalkeeping legend.
The now 53-year-old travels around the world five or six times a year as representative of Manchester United, but admits that he is no expert of Middle East or Asian football.
“I do a lot of punditry, and these day you have to be specialised in a certain league,” he says. “My background is the Premier League and now it’s played on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. How am I going to find time to watch Spanish football or German football? Never mind football from this region and Chinese football, which is really going forward at the moment.”
Watching his son win the Premier League with Leicester City last season would have tested Peter Schmeichel’s neutrality as a pundit to the limits.
A new generation of football fans may now know a Schmeichel, Kasper, as a champion. But Peter will always be number one.