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Published: 31 May 2000

BARTHEZ BREEZES IN

by MUTV MasterFan Paul Hinson

When Manchester United sign their third Goalkeeper in the space of 12 months it tells its own story.

Fabien Barthez breezes into Old Trafford, the 7.8 Million signing from Monaco, looking confident and assured. The underlying feeling I have, is that the ambition still burns brightly in Sir Alex Ferguson. The ruthless and single-minded approach that has brought a stream of trophies to Manchester remains.

Why has he bought another keeper? Ferguson knows that stagnation is a close relative of decline. The goals against column last season did not lie. 45 conceded in 38 Premiership games, including five at Chelsea and threes against Southampton, Tottenham, Newcastle, and Middlesbrough. Note that all of the last grouping finished in the bottom half of the table. 45 is only 3 less than the amount we leaked when we were relegated in 1974!

Another lingering memory was the loss of the European Cup. The blame for that cannot be laid at the goalkeepers door alone, but images of Van der Gouws fumble in Bordeaux, and the ease with which Real Madrid, in the form of Raul, netted with arrogance in the Quarter-Final, have not left the managers mind.

The keepers duties were shared around 4 men last term, including a cameo appearance by Nick Culkin at Highbury in August. A distinctly unhealthy number for such a vital position.

Mark Bosnich began as the first choice, and ended it injured, a problem he had for much of the season. This was his golden chance, to come back to his former club, make the shirt his own and win a fistful of medals. He knew Aston Villa were simply not in United's league. Unfortunately, his manager quickly despaired of a man who could not be relied upon to stay fit. Add to that an appalling inability to kick the ball any distance, and a failure to gain the confidence of his defenders. Would United ever get a full season out of Aussie Bozzie?

Raimond Van der Gouw was an able deputy for the brilliant Peter Schmeichel, and was more than capable of filling in due to injuries. But despite his confident handling and shot-stopping, Fergie knew time was running out on the Dutchmans career. At 37, his best days have gone, and to stick with him for another campaign was a gamble he was not prepared to take. A likeable man, United supporters were delighted that he gained a Premiership medal at last.

When Van der Gouw joined Bosnich on the casualty table back in August, Fergie knew he had to act quickly, with Champions League games around the corner. Thwarted in his efforts to sign Barthez a few weeks prior, he sifted through his scouting reports and plunged for Massimo Taibi. Another experienced goalie, who has vast experience of Serie A, and who had been signed by AC Milan as cover earlier in his career.

Taibi's credentials looked good, and he was thrown in at Anfield, a real acid test for the new man. A misjudgement from a free kick apart, we wondered was he the long-term answer? Four games later the Italians dreams were shattered. A schoolboy howler against Southampton and a nightmare at Stamford Bridge consigned him to a loan deal at the soccer outpost of Reggina. His confidence in ruins, I think the decision was made very swiftly that his chance had gone.

So we turn to the latest man to try and follow in the footsteps of the Great Dane, an impossible act to follow, we thought, not realising the scale of the problem. How do you replace the best in the world?

Barthez does not lack confidence. In fact, he oozes it. From a promising baptism at Toulouse in 1988, he moved to Marseille in 1992, and within a year his club were European Cup winners, boasting such talents as Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps.

But controversy goes hand in hand with the French. Marseille were found guilty of match-fixing and stripped of their crown, and were to be demoted by the French authorities as a result.

By now recognised for his agility as well as his flamboyance, Fabien left for Monaco in 1995. Capped by his country, his rise to the top was again checked, when he was caught taking marijuana and banned for four months. He bounced back, and featured in Monaco's League title triumphs in 1997 and also this season.

No doubt his performances against United in the Champions League in 1998 left a firm impression in United minds, especially as the Reds were ousted on away goals. He came through a bombardment at Old Trafford, beaten only by a solitary Ole Gunnar Solskjaer strike.

Ironically his place in the National side was reclaimed when Bernard Lama was similarly convicted for drug taking, which paved the way for Barthez to win 32 caps so far, and share in France's magical World Cup success in 1998.

His reputation suggests a hard-working and demanding attitude, which is not unlike his new boss. Renowned for his confidence with the ball at his feet, Ferguson feels that the 28-year-old can shout at and organise his defence in front of him, as Schmeichel did in his glorious reign.

Nothing gets bigger than a World Cup Final against Brazil. Temperament will not be a problem. Let us hope that niggling injury which caused Barthez to miss games for Monaco last season is behind him. A settled goalkeeper is vital to United regaining top spot in Europe.

Presence. That is what the manager has aimed to get. Bosnich and Van der Gouw did not have the personality to take charge. Now Barthez will get his chance to take to the most glamorous stage in club football.

www.red11.org StatMan Paul Hinson


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