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Published: 28 August 2001

'JAAP YAPS AND FERGIE STAMS FIRM'
by "StatMan" Paul Hinson

Jaap Stams sudden transfer to Italian giants for 50 billion Lira (16.35 million) was a shock to Reds all over the world. It was probably as dramatic and unexpected a move since as Eric Cantonas signing back in 1992, but this time with a different emotion.

Was this decision by Sir Alex Ferguson influenced by the plc? Stams 'kick and tell' book? Matters on the field? Or in the Dressing Room? Was it simply good business and part of Fergies master plan, or just a knee-jerk reaction to a less than glowing start to a new campaign?

THE CASE FOR THE DEFENCE

Stam joined United in July 1998. Already an established Dutch International, he had been watched extensively by the club and the 1998 World Cup Finals showed his immense talent, as a strong but skilful Centre Back who had pace and was very hard to shake off the ball. An imposing figure indeed.

Between 1989 and 1996 the Reds had been blessed with the 'Dolly and Daisy' partnership of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, whose understanding had secured a defence that was a cornerstone to the decade of success the Reds enjoyed. With the formidable Peter Schmeichel in goal behind them, United boasted the best defensive record in the Premiership in three of those seasons with Bruce and Pallister in tandem.

Bruce departed in 1996 and Ronny Johnsen was brought in from Besiktas to fill the gap. What Ferguson could not forsee was the increasing back trouble that Pallister was to suffer, that was a factor in Arsenal stealing the Premiership from United by 1 point in the 1997-98 season.

With the lanky defender liable to miss large chunks of a season, the manager quickly offloaded him to Middlesbrough and got Stam to put his name to a contract before he joined the Holland camp for the World Cup Finals in France in 1998.

Fergie wanted a commanding figure at the back, someone to organise and take charge. Stam had a dream start to his Old Trafford career, with United grabbing an amazing treble, culminating in the European Cup being claimed at the Nou Camp in May 1999. Though there was stability at the back, the real key to success in that campaign was a potent attack - in all 128 goals, and an impressive 31 in 13 games in Europe that fired them to the biggest prize.

In his next season Henning Berg was now alongside him as Johnsens knees ruled him out for long spells, the Premiership was retained, but the European Cup was snatched away by Real Madrid, thanks to some naive defending in a bid to attack the Spaniards to submission at Old Trafford.

Stam had joined United with ongoing Achilles problems, but had at times played through the pain. Things came to a head at the start of the 2000-01 season. Chelsea gave the Reds the runaround in the Charity Shield, Hasselbaink and Zola carving huge holes as the Londoners won 2-0.

After 4 appearances, including uncomfortable draws at Ipswich and West Ham, Jaap was forced to succumb to surgery, and Wes Brown got an extended run as United stuttered to a series of defeats away from home in the Champions League. Despite this, qualification was gained to the knockout stages once again, and Jaap returned in January ready to join the push for three trophies once again.

YOU'RE NOT CHAMPIONS ANYMORE

But things did not go to plan. West Hams Paulo Di Canio crushed their FA Cup hopes, and Bayern Munichs Elber and Jancker exposed frailties in defence at the Quarter-Final stage of the European Cup. Fortunately the massive lead in the Premiership enabled United to make it 3-in-a-row as early as April.

The Carling Opta statistics show a decline in Jaaps contribution. In his first season he averaged 13.00 clearances per game, in 1999-2000 it was 8.12, and last season 4.73. In 1998-99 Stam made 4.8 tackles per game and won possession with 74% of his challenges. A season later he was averaging 3 per game and winning 54% of them. Last season it was 2.5 tackles per game but a success rate back to 74% in fewer outings.

SUMMER OF DISCONTENT

I believe that Ferguson had a troubled summer. He already had Ruud Van Nistelrooy in the bag, with just a choice of who to partner him and how to rotate his strikers to keep them all happy. Midfield needed a new dimension, with Giggs and Beckham targeted by foreign coaches as the key men to be snuffed out. United were becoming predictable. The signing of Juan Veron was to change all that. But when Lazio were tying up the loose ends of the deal, I reckon that they enquired about Stam then.

He was not entirely happy with the way his defence had performed last season. Without Stam they had looked exposed in Europe, on his return nothing had changed. Why?

Ferguson went away to brood over the issue, and so the pre-season games unfolded. Celtic came for Ryan Giggs Testimonial and made mugs of the Stam/Gary Neville alliance, Sutton and Larssen seemingly having the freedom of Manchester as the Celts rattled in 4 goals. Then came the Charity Shield and Jaaps untimely slip opened the door for Michael Owen to waltz through and score.

Fulham arrived in town for the opening League game, and had the audacity to twice take the lead, until Van Nistelrooys opportunism turned the tide and gave us a 3-2 win. Louis Sahas pace and control had made Stam appear ponderous at times, and his misjudged challenge on halfway had opened the door to Sahas second goal.

Was this a blip, or had these games confirmed in the managers mind what he had been thinking at the end of last season. Fabien Barthez had played brilliantly in his first season, but was he being exposed too much by his defence? Some supporters saw Gary Neville as the weak link, but did the problem go deeper that just one player?

WAS THIS WHY STAM HAD TO GO?

Never a man to shirk the big decision, I think this is what Ferguson concluded...

1. Great individual player as he was, Stam had not commanded and directed the back four as he had hoped he would do, which was needed badly, particularly since Schmeichel had left the club, Barthez being a different sort of character to the Big Dane.

2. Since his surgery last year Stam had lost a degree of his pace, and had begun to look vulnerable to strikers with mobility and guile.

3. Stam was not commanding the penalty area at either end of the field. His one goal in 119 games was disappointing for a big man going up for corners, compared with the likes of Steve Bruce, a shorter man but someone who 'attacked' the ball with determination. And defensively, United were struggling to defend set pieces.

4. His book had not only made waves in the dressing room, risking the team spirit that he had carefully fostered and considered to be vital, a major asset that Uniteds rivals did not have, something that bonded the side into a unit that would snatch draws and wins on a bad day that made the difference to winning and losing prizes. The book had caused unnecessary bad publicity. He had no idea that that 'revelations' of this nature were about to be aired, and this riled him.

5. Lazio were talking a big fee for a player, who he thought was not playing to his potential. The funds could be used on a replacement who could deliver the discipline that Stam could not. Would Stams value depreciate rapidly this season if he had stayed?

My opinion is that Ferguson would not have played Stam in the Fulham game had Johnsen been 100% fit on the day. He had already decided to wield the axe by then. As soon as the Champions League draw took place later that week United merely reopened the negotiations for Stam that had been instigated some weeks earlier.

SO WHO IS FIT TO WEAR THE SHIRT?

The main problem Ferguson faces is getting a quality replacement in before Fridays European deadline. It would be reckless for him to sell a key defender and not have his successor either tied up or close to becoming a done deal if that were the case. Sabotaging the season on a principle is too much even for the man who has single-mindedly made the club what it is now.

I do not think the sale of Jaap was influenced by the plc, no matter how attractive to some the notion of clawing back 16.35 million from the 47.1 million outlay for Van Nistelrooy and Veron. Weakening the backline would mean the prospect of reduced turnover for the season, especially with an early exit from the Champions League, which may influence Merchandise turnover also.

If Stam was to be sold he would need to have the funds available for a similar standard of player. Names have been banded about with gusto since the news broke. Inter-Milans Laurent Blanc at 35 would merely be a stopgap, and cost maybe a modest 1 million. Is Fergie only considering his last hurrah?

Rumours involving Ivan Campo have been aired. Would Real sell a key defender just before the Champions League begins? It is believed that a deal is already in place for Stams partner in the Holland defence, 22-year-old Kevin Hofland, to leave PSV and move to Old Trafford at the end of the season. Perhaps Fergie may risk the fee rising by asking them would they allow him to go now? Winning his 3rd cap, 15 million-rated Hofland did not look out of place in the recent Friendly against England. Some may say it is a pity the Dutch partnership could not have been recreated at Old Trafford!

Perhaps it is a result of Sir Alex being hands-on more than ever in training that he is acting quickly. Not only could the problems be mirrored in training, it may be that he has detected unrest in the camp, which Steve McClaren or Brian Kidd may have dealt with in a more discreet and conciliatory way. In his final season nobody or nothing will be allowed to get in his way of a glorious send-off.

Whatever does happen in the next few weeks, this dramatic chapter in the history of Manchester United has partly been fashioned by the shameless Daily Mirror tabloid, who bought the rights to serialise, highlight, headline and magnify each nugget of 'scandal' that found its way into Jaap Stams book. If the idea was to help undermine the team, they have helped to chalk up a minor success, though this has been denied.

Jaap was a much-loved player at Old Trafford, and us fans hate to admit that our favourites are not as good as they maybe once were not so long ago. The art of selling players past their best for a good price is a rare one, but Fergie has managed to offload the likes of Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe and Gary Pallister at precisely the right time. Has he done it again?

Wise Reds who have seen many stars come and go over the years, will not criticise the manager for his action now. Ferguson is as big a fan as anyone, the desire to win still as strong, and the judgement that has served us all well for 15 years must be given its chance once again.

Finally, Dutch footballers are notorious for being outspoken and candid, but why did Jaap write his book now? Surely the advance was only worth the equivalent of a few weeks wages on his salary, and was it worth the risk of offending his manager and team-mates? Someone badly miscalculated the media hysteria that was fuelled by this publication. As he sits amidst his new colleagues in Rome, looking back on a whirlwind end to his days at United, maybe he will think that his timing was not what it used to be....


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