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‘JAAP STAM WAS THE ONE. Without a question, I made a mistake there.’ The words of Sir Alex Ferguson ring true, years after selling star defender Jaap Stam to the surprise of many in 2001 following a hugely successful but all-too-brief period at Old Trafford. Some suggest Ferguson was apparently upset at the revelations in Stam’s autobiography which revealed details and inner secrets of the defender’s move to Manchester from PSV Eindhoven, where he claimed the Scot tapped him up.

Sir Alex, however, felt the money on offer from Lazio for the player who had had a serious injury was just too much to resist. ‘He’d been out for months and, when he came back, Steve McClaren and I thought he had lost a yard of pace. We played Fulham and he didn’t have a good game, and at that moment Lazio come in and offer £16.5m. So then Jaap goes to Lazio and he played fantastic. So it was a bad decision. I should maybe have waited a bit longer.’

Stam, like Ferguson, disputes the book was to blame. He feels it was due to the club’s need to offload a player, and having just signed a new five-year deal, he was a valuable asset. He had just returned from a serious injury and, approaching 30, it was time to cash in. Whichever story you believe, the fact remains that Jaap Stam’s three-year Manchester United career was brought to an end in a meeting with Ferguson in the forecourt of a petrol station in Manchester. It was a sad ending to the United career of a player who earned his place in the history of the club.

The management team should have looked at the bigger picture to see how valuable his experience would have been to youngsters like Wes Brown, John O’Shea and later Rio Ferdinand, who joined from Leeds United a year after Stam’s move to Italy.

Many United fans agree that the departure of the big Dutchman was a mistake by Ferguson. In early 2017, when Stam returned to Old Trafford in the FA Cup as manager of Reading, the Old Trafford faithful arose and gave their former defender the reception he deserved. His song ‘Yip Jaap Stam is a big Dutch man’ rang out at Old Trafford in his honour, as it still does on some match days.

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Stam arrived at Manchester United almost 20 years ago in the summer of 1998. Neither he nor his new fan base could have believed just what was in store for the player in his first campaign in English football, where Sir Alex Ferguson was hoping to regain the Premier League title from new holders Arsenal. At the time, Stam became the most expensive defender in English football to come from the Netherlands thanks to his £10.6 million fee.

He made his debut in a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in the Charity Shield – hardly the best of starts. The towering defender, however, quickly adapted to the English game and became one of the finest defenders to have graced the Premier League thanks to his combination of pace, positioning and leadership.

That debut season was one to remember as Stam and his new teammates defied the odds and claimed the famous treble. The loss to Arsenal in the Charity Shield was only one of five defeats during a season in which Stam cemented his place in the heart of the Manchester United defence and became the rock that had been missing ever since the departure of former captain Steve Bruce.

Stam signed alongside new recruits that summer which included Dwight Yorke and Jesper Blomqvist. It was a case of in with the new and out with the old as Brian McClair and Gary Pallister both saw their United careers ended as Ferguson built a new side capable of winning titles once more. Peter Schmeichel, too, revealed the 1998/99 campaign would be his last in a United jersey.

The club dominated the Premier League from the off and Stam himself contributed his only goal for Manchester United in a 6-2 thrashing of Leicester. Despite their quality, they only won the league by a solitary point following a home win over Tottenham on the final day of the seaso,n meaning part one of the unlikely treble was completed.

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An FA Cup win over Ruud Gullit’s Newcastle United at Wembley was followed by that famous night in Barcelona where United defied the odds and beat a brilliant Bayern Munich with two famous goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Stam had achieved in his debut season with Manchester United what many could only dream of. “I couldn’t have wished for a better first season in England; winning the Premier League, the FA Cup and then the climax to it all. I remember looking at the Camp Nou clock as the minutes counted down. It looked bad but Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored in the best two minutes of my whole career. We had a brilliant party that night to celebrate.”

Stam had ended his first campaign as a Red Devils player in the best way possible. The departing Schmeichel even labelled the Dutchman as the greatest defender he had played with at Old Trafford, this despite the pair only playing the one season together.

The following season, United and Jaap Stam were champions of England once again, winning the league by a record 18 points and scoring a mammoth 97 goals. Stam was once again the rock at the back as Sir Alex Ferguson struggled to fill the huge void left by Schmeichel’s move to Sporting CP. The Dutch defender also added the Intercontinental Cup to his list of honours at the club that year. He was also honoured as the UEFA Club Defender of the Year twice consecutively in 1999 and 2000.

Stam’s final campaign for United saw him once crowned a champion again as Ferguson’s side completed a treble of league titles. This time the gap was 10 points ahead of Arsenal as their Champions League campaign ended at the quarter-final stage. Stam completed a feat not many have or will ever match. He won the league in each of his three seasons at Old Trafford and was named in the PFA Team of the Year on each occasion, arguably performing as the best defender in English football in each of his campaigns.

Considering Ferguson admitted that it was a mistake to offload Stam, the very next season, after three years in a row as champions, United finished third in the Premier League. It was no coincidence. The decision to sell his star defender and replace him with the older, ageing, Laurent Blanc, coupled with his own decision to step down as manager of Manchester United at the end of the campaign, were key factors in their failure to lift any silverware that season.

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While United struggled in Stam’s absence, the defender was forging a new career for himself in Italy with Lazio. The player went on to play at the highest level for another five years. He won the Coppa Italia in Rome after serving a suspension for taking a banned steroid – nandrolone. Stam then moved on to AC Milan in 2004 and was part of that crazy night in Istanbul when Milan were defeated by Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final, giving him the unique perspective of seeing both sides of perhaps the two greatest European finals in the modern era.

The former PSV man later said he still thinks of that unlikeliest of defeats in Turkey more so than his most glorious night in Spain, telling FourFourTwo: “When someone mentions a Champions League final, I always think of this before 1999 – the pain of that defeat stays with you for longer.” Stam later returned to Ajax and retired in 2007, taking up various coaching roles before securing the Reading post in 2016, where he still manages today.

With such a successful career under his belt – inclusive of 67 Netherlands caps – Ferguson’s decision to offload Stam proved a disastrous one for a few years to come. Stam should have been the heartbeat of the United defence for years, helping cement their status as Europe’s dominant force, and at 29 years of age when he departed, he would have been an experienced head at his peak in the dressing room and the back four.

Considering  Ferdinand joined a season after Stam departed, Manchester United fans worldwide were left wondering, what if? Although the Englishman and United were successful in the aftermath of Stam’s departure, Arsenal’s Invincibles and later Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea would dent the Old Trafford club’s stranglehold at the top of the English game. More than that, they wouldn’t win the Champions League again until 2008, by which time Nemanja Vidić had finally come in as the great successor to Stam’s throne.

Regardless of his premature departure, Stam will always hold a special place in the hearts of Manchester United supporters and will forever be part of the club’s most famous season. 

By Damien McEvoy