The position between the sticks at Old Trafford has always been daunting, with many brilliant goalkeepers unable to withstand the test of time. That being said, we have also had the best of the best over the years, with Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar becoming iconic custodians.When Edwin hung up his gloves, it felt like a huge loss. We feared that history might repeat itself. After all, replacing Schmeichel had been a thankless task (just ask Fabien Barthez!).
But Sir Alex Ferguson decided to gamble on you, a 20-year-old Spaniard in 2011, giving you a baptism of fire. It felt like David replacing Goliath, but little did we know that you would supersede all Goliath-like expectations and become United’s GOAT instead.
Like anyone coming to the Premier League, you struggled in your first season. Doubters constantly popped up, just like the ball out of your hands. They made their thoughts known, often brutally, as the kid from Madrid made a few blunders. Apparently you were not big enough or strong enough or loud enough.
However, as a United fan, my blind faith in Fergie transcended into unwavering faith in you as well. There must have been something special in you for him to miss a United game in order to see you play in Spain.
In the days of little to no silverware, you were our silver lining
De Gea was United’s best player between 2013 and 2018
The first couple of years were a rough learning curve, but you proved you were tough. Since the day in August 2011 when you saved a few goal-bound efforts in the 8-2 win over Arsenal, including a Robin van Persie penalty, I knew you were the right choice. Outings and aerial balls were your bane, but your shot-stopping was something that left me in awe. It was a sign of things to come.
By 2013, Sir Alex had left us in your great hands, the same pair that had just touched the Premier League title for the first time. Usually, that would have been followed by at least a couple of more triumphs, but destiny had some dark times in store for us. In the days of little to no silverware, you were our silver lining.
On days when we waited for a sliver to feed on, you sent shivers down our spines with saves that could have brought people back from the dead. As far as United went, you were the one keeping us alive. Without you standing tall at the Stretford End, we might have been sinking down to mid-table. And yet, you kept us afloat, just like a fan once said: “David de Gea could save the Titanic.”
That period in United history, between 2013 and 2018, might as well go down as the de Gea era. Match upon match, season upon season, you showed your class. For the first time in my life, saves, and not goals, were embedded in my mind. Just like you embedded yourself in Manchester United’s history, winning three Player of the Year awards in a row between 2014 and 2016, before adding another in 2018.
Before our very eyes, you became the best goalkeeper in the world, surpassing Manuel Neuer, who had once been tipped to be in your place. It was a time when we felt for you, week in and week out. You did not deserve to be the firefighter saving people from a burning building. You deserved to be saving shots in UEFA Champions League finals and winning titles galore. We did not deserve you.
That unsurpassable dominance that you built over the years seemed to have gone
De Gea’s form took a nosedive during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, something he could never quite recover from
Inevitably, Real Madrid came calling in 2015, and it felt all too familiar. That sinking feeling came back to haunt us. Just like it had when David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy left, and do not even get me started on Cristiano Ronaldo. I remember feeling sick to the bone when they came in for Wayne Rooney, and the same thing happened when your name was put into the conversation.
As a matter of fact, you were too good for us, so we were prepared to let you go. But fate threw you a curveball and the “Matter of Fax” (a dysfunctional fax machine!) saved us from losing you. Your staying with us was bigger than winning any trophy.
As you did from day one, you put the disappointment and controversy aside and pulled yourself up, making match-winning performances and carrying the team with you once more. The 2018 FIFA World Cup was where something changed, though. I felt like Ronaldo’s shot (for his second goal in Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Spain) altered the frequency of things and your frequently freakish performances started to dwindle. That unsurpassable dominance that you built over the years seemed to have gone. It only proved that you are human. But you kept pushing hard and even fended off Sergio Romero and Dean Henderson for the top spot at United.
I wanted to believe that you would stay forever, but with Erik ten Hag’s philosophy starting to take flight, I feared that you would be flying into the sunset yourself. In spite of another sublime season of saves, a few mistakes were enough to deny you a contract extension. It breaks my heart to see you leave our beloved club. We did not even get a chance to say a proper goodbye. But I am glad we at least got to see you win your second Premier League Golden Glove last season.
For more than a decade, you were the main reason Manchester stayed United
Even though Erik ten Hag’s style did not suit De Gea, he ended last season as the Premier League’s best goalkeeper
So many of your breathtaking saves will remain dear to me. To name a few: the Luis Suarez save in 2013, your denial of Juan Mata’s free-kick, the heroics versus Chelsea, Everton and Liverpool in 2014-15, the record-breaking 14-save performance against Arsenal in 2017, that supershow versus Spurs in 2019, Mark Noble’s penalty stop and the ridiculous saves versus Roma last year and yet more de GOAT stuff against Leicester earlier this year.
Seeing you blossom from a feeble boy to a United legend has been a deeply emotional and rewarding journey. For more than a decade, you were the main reason Manchester stayed United.
For a bagful of trophies and no less than 190 clean sheets, not to mention an abundance of memories along the way, I would like to say: Thank You David de GOAT. You will forever be a legend. It was, and still is, my dream to see you win the Champions League. Something tells me that it will come true one day, even if it is not for the club where you and I would have wanted it.
Your biggest fan,
(The author is a professional footballer and commentator based in Kolkata)