The Denmark team that won the 1992 European Championship was one of a kind. Featuring a host of names that had made a significant impact all across the game over the years, this was a group coming together at the right time, and possibly having the last chance at doing something great. They won the tournament in impressive fashion, despite a slow start, and their most important player was arguably goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, without whom their surprise triumph would not have been possible.
His performances in the group stages against England and France, across which he stopped two fiery attacking outfits, was important to see them progress to the next round. In the semi-final, against the Netherlands, his save in the shoot-out from Marco van Basten’s penalty booked a place in the final, while in the ultimate match against Germany, he was flawless.
It was a tournament of dreams, and the giant goalkeeper would go on to have a magnificent career from there on out. Although he was still a relatively unknown quantity, having spent most of his short career in Denmark and just a single season at Manchester United thus far, he would see the continental success spur him onwards. It wouldn’t be astonishing to claim that from the Danish squad that became heroes in Sweden, he had the best career of all, and throughout the Nineties became known as the master of the goalkeeping scene.
Much of Schmeichel’s 1980s were spent building his status in Denmark, playing for the likes of Hvidovre and Brøndby, so when Alex Ferguson brought him, in 1991, there wasn’t much fanfare. At the time, Ferguson was a man who still had much to deliver. In his five years at the club, he had an FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup to show for, but there was still a lot more expected. Little did he and the Manchester United faithful know that the immense Dane would play such a crucial role in adding the Scot’s name into legend.
For the goalkeeper, this was a dream. As a boy, Schmeichel passionately supported the club and he now had the chance to help them recover their place at the top. The first season showed great signs of progress as the Dane gradually settled into English football, providing stellar performances. That wasn’t enough to secure the league title though, as Leeds United would pip their rivals to the title. The Red Devils did win the League Cup, however, and the foundations were laid for a decade of dominance on the English football scene.
After his first season came the successful summer at the Euros and the creation of the Premier League, the brand-new lucrative competition that would go on to become the world’s most popular. Compiled with other competitive signings, including that of championship-winning Eric Cantona, United were a formidable outfit, winning the league and ending their 26-year wait for a top division title. Schmeichel was a unique, fearless figure in goal, with his willingness to surge forward being a predominant attribute.
United started the season slowly, with draws and losses featuring several times, but they ended strongly, winning their last seven and having the best defence in the league, conceding just 31 times in a 42-game season. The following year, they would retain their league title, this time in more dominant fashion, and would add the FA Cup to their gleaming honours cabinet. Schmeichel, once again, was an ever-present feature in the first team. In March 1994, he broke the great Alex Stepney’s record of 92 consecutive starts for the club, adding further meaning to his importance at the club. There was, however, a little drama along the way.
After a 3-3 draw against Liverpool, wherein United blew a 3-0 lead, it was reported that Schmeichel and Ferguson had a falling out, where abuse was aplenty. The Scot manager then “sacked” the goalkeeper, only to reinstate him a few days later for the betterment of the team. That was, indeed, the right call seeing as United were so dominant on the domestic scene.
It’s worth remembering a few key moments from the time he joined the club. The first came against Liverpool in the 1992/93 season, where United found themselves locked in a title race with Aston Villa and Norwich City and every point was crucial. Here, at Anfield, Schmeichel produced a stunning save from Don Hutchinson’s shot after the midfielder was left free to go for goal from Steve McManaman’s corner. The save was important, as United went on to win 2-1 on their way to ending their championship drought.
Another great moment came against Coventry City, the following campaign. With United not playing particularly well in that portion of the season, ground-out 1-0 wins were seen as successes, and Schmeichel was imperative to them. Having been busy all night, he was called into action in stoppage time as an advancing Chris Marsden, with just the goalkeeper to beat, was thwarted by the great Dane. His close-range effort was punched onto the bar and out, as United pocketed another huge three points on their way to the title.
The next season was a rather frustrating one for club and player. Injury kept Schmeichel out for a portion of the season, and United struggled without him. They lost their stranglehold on the title, to Blackburn, while there was more pain in the FA Cup, where they lost the final. This was a difficult season, but it provided an indication that a rebuild was needed. United and Ferguson were intent on being the best in the country, and for that, great risks needed to be taken.
The risk taken was to involve more youth, as the Class of ‘92 — featuring the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, and Paul Scholes — were to be given greater opportunities in the first team. For Schmeichel, though, the aim was to regain prime fitness and be the player that made many regard him as the best goalkeeper in the world. He started off strongly, although, not in his own box.
In a UEFA Cup game, at home to Russian side Rotor Volgograd, in September 1995, Schmeichel scored a late goal to equalize. Although it wasn’t enough to prevent elimination, this, along with his frequent surges into the opposition box for set-pieces, was proof of his tenacity. After starting the season with a defeat to Aston Villa – a result fondly remembered for Alan Hansen’s famous post-match comments – United went on a run that would see them strongly challenge for the title as well as the FA Cup.
United’s grip wouldn’t weaken the following season, as Schmeichel’s talents were put to good use. His quick reactions and smart work with his feet were integral to their counter-attacking style. Very often, he would start moves that would lead to goals, proving that he was influential on both sides of the pitch.
That season, while they were relatively comfortable at home, they shifted their focus to succeeding in Europe. Here, another great Schmeichel moment, arguably his best, was added onto his personal highlight reel of excellent saves. In an away game against Rapid Wien, with qualification to the quarter-final on the line, he produced, what he regards, his greatest save. Coming from a set-piece, Rene Wagner’s header seemed destined for goal, but a stunning reflex action saw the goalkeeper get down low in lightning-quick speed and preserve United’s lead.
The Red Devils would reach the semi-finals but would fall to eventual winners Borussia Dortmund, and it was clear that they needed an extra spark. The following year saw the arrival Arsène Wenger and his Arsenal teams would provide a stern challenge to Ferguson’s Manchester United. They took the league title off them in 1998 and that forced Ferguson’s hand, as he went in big in the transfer window, bringing in the likes of Jaap Stam, Dwight Yorke, and Jesper Blomqvist.
The 1998/99 season would prove to be mammoth. First, in November 1998, amidst some pressure, Schmeichel announced that he would be leaving English football at the end of the season, and with United still inconsistent at the time, this would cause a headache for the manager. Still, they focused on the task in hand, which was to have a positive, trophy-laden season and still, Schmeichel would be at his decisive best.
In a home Champions League match against Inter Milan, he was significant once again, producing a stunning reflex save from Iván Zamorano’s close-range header. Coming into the game on the back of a few injuries and inconsistent form, this was a turning point, as the Dane would be at his usual best from this point until the end of the season. As Ferguson’s team picked up form, and progressed well across all competitions, talk of winning an extraordinary treble continued to grow.
In Europe, they would overcome the best of the best, beating the likes of Barcelona and Internazionale, while Juventus were overcome in the semi-final courtesy of a Roy Keane-inspired attack. In the FA Cup, competition was just as high, as it was Liverpool and Chelsea who fell to this excellent, well-drilled team while, in the league, United’s last loss came in December 1998. It was in the FA Cup semi-final, though, that Schmeichel’s true status was recognized.
With the match against Arsenal tied at 1-1, heading toward an extra 30 minutes of the replay at Villa Park, a penalty was awarded to the Gunners, which was wonderfully saved by Schmeichel. Dennis Bergkamp, the penalty-taker, was heartbroken but this was as crucial a save, not only for the match, but in the grander context of the end of that season. Ryan Giggs’ wondergoal would put United in the FA Cup final while, just a week later, they would beat the Bianconeri to earn their ticket to Barcelona for the Champions League final, where Bayern Munich were waiting.
What was even greater was that for a keeper of Schmeichel’s reputation, he was fairly average in penalty situations, so when the time came, he would produce, arguably, his most remarkable save. United would seal the league title, the first part of a historic treble, by beating Tottenham Hotspur at home, while in the FA Cup final, they were untroubled, beating Newcastle United with ease at Wembley. Four days later, at Camp Nou, the holy grail awaited.
With United 1-0 down going into stoppage time, Schmeichel would charge forward with all his usual tenacity to assist his team in causing havoc in the Bayern Munich box as they rallied in search of an equalizer. Teddy Sheringham eventually got there and, just a few moments later, Ole Gunnar Solskjær would score the most dramatic of winners. The treble was complete as Schmeichel could be spotted cartwheeling in his box in jubilation.
This was to be the Great Dane’s last game for the club, capping off a decade of being the best goalkeeper in the world with a win in Europe’s biggest club cup competition. His later years would be compounded with injuries, as spells at Sporting Clube de Portugal, Aston Villa and, controversially, Manchester City, would hardly garner anything to rival the old days.
Schmeichel was a pioneer, a goalkeeper for the principal moments, one who could define a game, win trophies, and be critical on both ends of the pitch. It’s no coincidence that after his departure, Manchester United and Alex Ferguson would struggle to replace him for some six years until Edwin van der Sar turned up. Peter Schmeichel remains a legend in Manchester, believed by many to be the greatest goalkeeper ever to have protected the Old Trafford nets.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26