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The Truth About Selling Jaap Stam and How He Wanted To Stay Forever

EINDHOVEN MIGHT BE Holland’s fifth largest city, but they still had to find the keys to unlock the airport when I arrived there with a photographer in the spring of 1998. We had flown there to meet Jaap Stam just a week after he had joined Manchester United from PSV Eindhoven for £10.75 million, then the largest transfer fee ever paid for a defender. It seemed an extraordinary amount, almost rash, to invest in a relatively unknown defender who had only won a handful of international caps and just three years earlier was still playing for Cambuur Leeuwarden in the Dutch Second Division.

“You are here to see Jaap, yah?” said our taxi driver when we asked to be taken to the PSV Eindhoven training ground. “Of course, 35 million gilders is crazy, but he is Holland’s best player. Don’t worry, he will be brilliant for United.”

Set in an idyllic forest, De Herdgang is where PSV train each day in a relaxed atmosphere, reminiscent more of a pensioner’s social club than an elite football club. A welcome change to the fortress-like English training grounds, the public are free to come and watch the players, and I see a group of men cycle in, lean their bikes by the pitch, and joke with Stam when soon after he nearly decapitates them with a miss-hit shot.

This was in the era before YouTube, Sky Sports News, and MUTV, so few United fans had actually seen any clips of Stam in action, let alone a full game, so I was curious to learn more.

Stam met me in the player’s canteen, mingling easily with fans, and was clearly excited about joining United as I asked him what English football could expect from him the following season.

“Which other defenders would you compare yourself to? I’ve heard some even compare you to the legendary Franco Baresi?”

“No, I’m quite a bit quicker.”

“How about Frank Rijkaard?”

“Yes, we are similar, but I’m faster.”

“Are you a hard man?”

“A player recently came at me with a head-butt, so I grabbed him and put him in a head-lock… he looked a bit blue when I let him go.”

“Arsenal have just won the Premier League title, how will you stop Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars?”

“I have my ways… I can stop them.”

“How did you deal with Ronaldo when you played against him?”

“He didn’t give me any problems.”

It soon became clear Stam wouldn’t be lacking in confidence. And over the course of the next three seasons, he would more than back it up, becoming recognised as the best defender in the Premier League, the best in the whole of Europe, and quickly earning a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s own all-time United XI.

In those three seasons, with Stam at the heart of their defence Manchester United were always Premier League champions, while he also helped turn them into European Champions for the first time in 31 years, as United won the Treble in his very first season.

When Stam had to hurriedly pack his bags after just three years, he left with winner’s medals for three Premier League titles, a Champions League, an FA Cup and an Intercontinental Cup, as well as two UEFA Defender of the Year trophies from 1999 and 2000.

During this time, when Premier League managers were polled about which player they would most like to buy if given a blank cheque, it wasn’t Thierry Henry, Michael Owen or David Beckham. It was Stam.

Veteran BBC football commentator Mike Ingham, said simply, “Without Jaap Stam, Sir Alex would still be Alex.”

For those three success-drenched years, as Old Trafford resounded to the chants of ‘Yip, Jaap Stam’, he provided the foundation for all of United’s cavalier and attacking football. They could flood forward knowing the big Dutchman, even without the security of a regular partner, had locked the back door and wouldn’t let anyone in.

In the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Inter Milan in 1999 the Chilean striker Ivan Zamorano was stepping backwards when he bounced off the stationary Stam. He turned around, expecting to be given more space, but he bounced off him again as the Dutchman refused to give ground. The message was clear: ‘You
will not get past me’. He never did.

Stam was the complete defender; 6ft 3in tall and powerfully built, no one matched his strength, though he was very quick too. I never saw him lose a sprint to the ball. His instinctive reading of the game would help him get there first anyway.

“Once Jaap’s pace took him into the channel ahead of an attacking player they had no chance,” Ryan Giggs recalled. “He was so strong it was a mismatch. He would not be beaten.”

At the final whistle he usually left the pitch with a clean pair of shorts for he rarely had to dive in with last-ditch tackles. He would simply use his pace to draw level with an opponent before whipping the ball away from their feet and giving it back to a teammate.

I once asked Peter Schmeichel, who played behind a succession of defenders during his two decades in the game, who was the best? “Jaap Stam,” he replied. “He was a tower of strength. He was so quick and strong. In the Treble-winning season, he proved himself as one of the best ever defenders. He was awesome.”

During his three years at Old Trafford I was Jaap Stam’s voice. After that first meeting in Eindhoven I realised his honesty and directness could offer an interesting perspective on English football, and offered him a monthly column in Manchester United magazine. A year later The Daily Telegraph, appreciating his frankness, also signed him up as a columnist, and I went with him as his ghost writer, producing fortnightly columns during the 1999-2000 season. I also helped launch his website through icons.com during the dotcom boom at the turn of the millennium, and would speak to him about twice a week for updates. As a result I got to know Stam well. He was always a pleasure to work with; a reliable, engaging and gentle character, he had no ego. He was a family man, who rarely ventured in to town, just a regular guy who to begin with had trained to be an electrician in a small Dutch village, but instead became the world’s leading defender.

“Yeah, for sure, it’s always nice…” became his endearing and amusing catchphrase, whether he was talking about winning another trophy, cutting an umbilical cord or on one occasion, hearing Last Christmas by Wham.

He was remarkably laid back. I once phoned him three days after Holland, the hosts of Euro 2000, had been knocked out of the tournament in the semi-finals by Italy when Stam had blazed a penalty high over the goal in the shoot-out. I thought he would be distraught, so I offered my sympathies. “For what?” he replied. The semifinal defeat. “Oh, that? No, it doesn’t trouble me.”

In the summer of 2001, Stam’s candour would get him in trouble when his autobiography, Head to Head, ghosted by another writer, was published. It detailed his journey from Holland to United and included stories about how Sir Alex Ferguson had allegedly tapped him up at PSV Eindhoven and was now encouraging his players to go down for penalties. He even went so far as to call the Neville brothers “busy c****”, though Gary admitted they knew it was said with affection.

The News of the World had passed on serialising the book after reading it, but The Daily Mirror picked it up for a relatively cheap £15,000 and ran it for four uncomfortable days, featuring the headline ‘SIR ALEX ACCUSED’, and hyping up each snippet.

After featuring in the opening day 3-2 win over Fulham, Stam was dropped and not even given a place on the bench for the next game, a trip to Blackburn Rovers. It was assumed this was punishment for the revelations in his book. But earlier that summer Ferguson has actually informed the United board he wished to sell Stam, believing that since returning from a four-month absence with an achilles
injury he had lost pace and was no longer the same player. He initially wished to replace him with the French defender Lilian Thuram from Parma.

Stam always wanted to play out the rest of his career at Old Trafford. He had signed a new five-year contract earlier that year, and his wife had even ordered a new kitchen for their Cheshire house that week. So he was stunned to be called in to Ferguson’s office and told he was no longer wanted. In fact, he was told, United had already accepted an offer from the Italian side Lazio.

Gary Neville can recall seeing a shell-shocked Stam stumbling out of Ferguson’s office shaking his head, and saying, “I’m out of here. I’m flying to Rome to sign for Lazio tonight.”

Neville told him he had to stay, while as the news spread to the rest of his mystified teammates most of them phoned him pleading with him not to leave, but he had no real choice – he had effectively been told to leave. Twenty fours later he was a Lazio player.

I spoke to Stam a couple of days later. “I didn’t want to leave, but the manager said there was no longer a place for me,” he said. He felt a mixture of shock, embarrassment, anger and sadness at leaving United. He didn’t regret writing the book, only how it had been serialised, and Ferguson had never given him any sense he was unhappy with his form. He couldn’t understand any of it.

“[It was] absolutely a footballing decision,” Ferguson explained, and he has never publicly said the book had anything to do with it. Asked if the Dutchman was not as effective after his injury, he said, “That’s possible, you make decisions based on the evidence. I was not surprised by the uproar caused, Jaap was very popular.”

The disbelief of United’s players and fans was only exacerbated by Stam’s replacement, the former French international Laurent Blanc, who at nearly 36 was on the wane and patently inferior to Stam.

Stam had always said he had no interest in playing in Italy but learned to enjoy it over the next five years, despite having to serve a four-month ban for testing positive for nandrolone, though he always denied ever knowingly taking an illegal substance.

After two years in Rome, Stam joined the reigning European champions AC Milan, for so long the home of Europe’s greatest defenders, to take his place in an all-star cast alongside Cafu, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta. He played two seasons for the Rossoneri, including the 2005 Champions League final defeat to Liverpool. Stam would return to Holland to play for Ajax for two years before retiring from football in 2007.

Ahead of his return to Old Trafford with Milan for a Champions League tie in early 2004, I spoke to him for The Guardian. “I don’t hold grudges, Manchester United know they made a mistake in selling me. I haven’t done too badly since I left, have I?”

This has since been acknowledged by Sir Alex Ferguson, who in a rare moment of repentance, admitted selling Stam in 2001 had been possibly his greatest “mistake” of his quarter century as manager at Old Trafford, a decision which had manifestly “backfired.”

“At the time he had just come back from an achilles injury and we thought he had just lost a little bit. We got the offer from Lazio, £16.5m for a centre-back who was 29. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. But in playing terms it was a mistake.”

The pair have since made their peace, and in the autumn of 2011, Stam, now a coach at Ajax, was happy to attend Ferguson’s dinner to celebrate his 25 years as United’s manager, for, as he has said, “Old Trafford will always hold the happiest memories
for me.”

————
This is an extract taken from Sam Pilger‘s excellent book on Best United XI. At £3.99 it’s an absolute steal. Read the chapter on Ryan Giggs.


 

18 Comments

  1. Gregg says:

    legend

  2. Costas says:

    Well seeing how Rio Ferdinand is still a prominent member of our team after all the injuries he’s had (and the loss of pace to go along), it’s safe to say the Stam thing wasn’t a footballing decision. What a sad way for the relationship to end. And what a shambolic season that was defensively. Thankfully Rio arrived a year later.

    Thanks for the fascinating read.

  3. belfast red. says:

    Great read! Has to be my favorite defender. Yipjaap jaap stam! A proper legend but just 1 in a long line. Thats what makes us the greatest.

  4. FletchTHEMAN says:

    Loved Stam to bits! What a beast!

    My view, Footballers should never ever write memoires, or have twitter accounts until after they have left the game. Except, possibly, when they are sanctioned by the club like Rooney’s obviously was.

    It’s hard enough for the club to keep them on the pitch without these shenanigans.
    Pitiful really that one of our greatest defenders had to leave for what amounted to a £15,000 bonus that he probably only got a couple thousand of. You just want to open a door and scream!

    Thanks Sam for a very entertaining, if uncomfortable, read. Think I will buy the book.

    “….though he always denied ever knowingly taking an illegal substance.” :lol:
    Would really like to hear Sam’s 2 pence on that issue in football.

  5. Bobby Charlton's combover says:

    Totally agree with Fletch. I don’t understand why they can’t wait until their career is over before telling their story.

  6. AlphaRS says:

    Zamorano bouncing off Stam. Imagine Stam and Vidic in defence…!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lscjtHiFVAI

  7. meatnpotato says:

    vida is our modern-day stam, get well soon vidic!!! Heres hoping for many more injry free years from the big man when he gets back!!

  8. FletchTHEMAN says:

    Rumor kickin about that Kags might be fit for the bench. Where is that coming from?

  9. United Till I Die says:

    Good read. Stam was indeed a world class defender, but I wouldn’t credit him with all our success during his short time at the Club. Forgot about him testing positive however, must have been the lack of uproar and black marks against his name? Rio was the better player anyway, but Stam wasn’t far behind.

  10. Goat Peticoat says:

    From a footballing stand point where money has no meaning selling Stam was a bit foolish. If I was Sir Alex, knowing what I know now, been offered 16.5 million for a 29 year old defender in 2001, I would have done exactly the same. That was an unbelievable bit of business, it had to be snapped up. The same could be said if someone came in with a 15million offer for Vidic, he would be right out the door.

    the book was foolish but who on gods earth turns to a footballer for words of wisdom. We only buy the books so we can get a better understanding (a fly on the wall approach) to life behind the closed doors of OT. When I read these books I couldnt care less about new kitchens, child on the way, success on the pitch (I guage that for myself). Im interested in team mate interaction, interaction with legends, european game preparation etc etc.

    His drugs test. Did Sir Alex suspect? Who knows.

    I will always look back with fondness for Jaap Stam, in an ideal world he would have been at OT for years to come but no one could ever fault him for lack of effort or lack of passion. For such a brief stint he is a legend.

  11. YorYor says:

    Perhaps it was the sale of Stam that led to SAF keeping faith with players who returns from injury, like Rio at the moment…

  12. alfREDo says:

    Yip Jaap Stam is a big Dutch man!!
    Can vividly remember waking up one Sunday morning and reading in the NOTW that we had flogged him to Lazio – was absolutely stunned in the newsagents and didnt believe it at first!!

  13. LoneStarRed says:

    Wow, excellent post. I started following United in earnest in the early 2000′s when Fox Soccer launched in the US. Staam was already gone but he was spoken of in awed tones.

    I totally agree that tell all books can really screw up a team. Wait until after your career unless your intention IS to get back at a club or individual. The spinmeisters who hyped Staam’s innocuous words are a perfect example of unintended consequences. Their motives are clear: SELL MORE PAPERS OR GET MORE VIEWERS. They will twist your words in whatever way to achieve that aim.

  14. Hans says:

    Great player, but what on earth forced him to write the book I will never understand. He should have known that Fergie would never forgive him, as no one normal would, for such a breach of confidentiality and trust!

    Only a fool would risk his United career for a few bob more, and unfortunately, Stam was extremely foolish!

  15. Ice Cube says:

    This is one of them moments like when Best left. You know straight away you’ve lost someone special. I’m convinced we would have done alot better in Europe if he had stayed.

  16. homez213 says:

    I loved Jaap Stam, he was a ‘man-mountain’. What made it more annoying was the subsequent delays by Lazio in paying United. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Football%3A+SHOW+US+THE+MONEY%3B+United+warn+Lazio%3A+Pay+up+for+Stam+or…-a094112109

  17. Gee says:

    For me the greatest defender, not only to play for us but of all time when at his peak!! The only person who comes closest to him is Vidic IMO.

  18. ethiored says:

    For such a big defender, he was also quite good on the ball and in my opinion better that Vidic. I always laugh when I watch the treble season review DVD, the way he celebrated his first goal…:)

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