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.