The ink had barely dried on David De Gea’s signed contract in 2011 when the detractors and cynics came a-calling. They became a little louder by the time Edin Dzeko smashed in a long-range strike in the Community Shield on De Gea’s debut for Manchester United, a shot any Championship keeper would have been disappointed not to save. He did not help his cause by making his second error in as many games for his new club, resulting in a West Brom goal on the opening day of the ’11/12 season. The critics said he lacked the physical strength of the Premier League. He did. They argued dealing with crosses and set-pieces was a massive struggle for the new United No.1. It was.
United had fielded no less than 10 different keepers between the time the legendary Peter Schmeichel retired and Edwin van der Sar took his place. They looked set for another few seasons in the goalkeeping wilderness. Were they wrong to spend the British record transfer fee for a goalkeeper on the young Spaniard? Could he cut it at Manchester United? These were legitimate questions, and the historical example of the turbulent Schmeichel-Van der Sar transition was foreboding.
Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal might be three very different people with philosophies bordering on tactical antipodes, but they have two things in common. Firstly, they have (of course) managed Manchester United for varying lengths of time (to put it at its mildest), and secondly, they would not hear talk of De Gea not being good enough to stand between the sticks at Old Trafford. The Manchester United fans, to their credit, heaped adulation on him through thick and thin. They applauded his each save like they cheered a Wayne Rooney goal. There was encouragement even when he made errors unbefitting of a keeper that Iker Casillas thought would ‘retire us all’. They don’t praise keepers like that in Spain unless you’re something truly special. It is a country that had Casillas, Reina and Valdes at the same time.
There is a fair bit of glib drivel floating around in the wake of this tiresome transfer saga that Real Madrid inevitably get themselves involved in every few years that David De Gea doesn’t owe Manchester United anything. Who, exactly, does he owe nothing to? Sir Alex Ferguson, who invested his money and faith in him and stood, like a colossus, between the then 20-year-old boy and his screeching detractors? The fans whose club he was allowed to learn from his mistakes at, buoyed by their uncritical support when cautious appraisal might have been wiser? Or the football club whose assistance made him the best keeper in the world’s best football league? Who, then, is he free of debt from?
To his immense credit, De Gea has handled himself with great dignity and grace, particularly so for a man who obviously wants to leave. He said not a word in public about his contract during the season, and did not let the intense speculation hamper his performances on the pitch in the slightest. He seemed, indeed, to get better as the League drew to a close (cynics, again, may well say he was interviewing for another job), with the team often riding on his coattails over the finish line. It has not gone unnoticed; he has been the Fans’ Player of the Season at United for the last two seasons running.
He has it all at Manchester United, the world in his hands. It is precisely for this reason that the desire to leave for Real Madrid is so utterly flummoxing. It is not a club known for being forgiving towards a player’s mistakes. He will be booed, taunted and jeered at times by the Madrid faithful in a way he hasn’t experienced in the rainy stands of Manchester. They even booed Casillas multiple times last season for making a string of errors during a rough patch; 20 years of faithful service is apparently not enough to insulate a player from the ire of the Bernabeu fans. Hell, Bale had his car kicked in when he didn’t pass to Ronaldo as often as the crowd thought he should. It can be an isolating place for an out-of-form player. They don’t let you learn on the job too much.
On top of all that, De Gea is a former Athletico Madrid player, one who left on good terms with the club, and must surely have it close to his heart. It is there that he first began to make a name as the next promising young goalkeeper. If he was a boyhood Real Madrid fan, like supposedly Cristiano Ronaldo was, it would be much easier to understand the pull towards the great club. However, given his first go in the big leagues as he was by Real Madrid’s fierce derby rivals, it is unlikely too many from that section of the capital will be thrilled about the kit he dons upon his return to their city.
Ultimately, in a way, it isn’t in De Gea’s hands other than, of course, if he pledges his future to United. It is about how proud his current employers are. Madrid’s current offer of £13 million for United’s star pupil is, to borrow from Everton, an ‘insulting and derisory’ bid. This is a keeper who would be worth around £40 million if it wasn’t for his contract nearing an end, and worth at least £25 million even now. Real Madrid do not lack the funds, of course, but securing him for a paltry sum would be a moral victory over one of the few clubs that financially competes with theirs as a brand in the global market. If De Gea is in anything like the form he showed last season, it is almost a certainty he would save enough points for United worth more than £13 million anyway. Moreover, the humiliation suffered at the hands of a big rival if De Gea is let go for less than at least twice that amount would be the off-field equivalent of a 6-1 home loss to Manchester City.
David De Gea was playing in that game. Manchester United would be well-advised to take him out of this one.