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The transfer that stunned football in a season Manchester United's history changed forever

After Cristiano Ronaldo’s stunning return to Old Trafford was confirmed on Friday, The42 looks at how Jaap Stam’s dramatic exit 20 years ago this weekend was a defining moment for Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.

Alex Ferguson with Jaap Stam at his unveiling in 1998.
Alex Ferguson with Jaap Stam at his unveiling in 1998.

THERE IS SOMETHING apt about Manchester United shocking the football world with a transfer this weekend.

The return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford was a bolt out of the blue, confirmed just hours after interest in the player became known on Friday.

Not that such a deal is new territory for United.

While supporters – not to mention Alex Ferguson who played a key role in convincing Ronaldo not to head across to the blue half of Manchester – are rejoicing, it was a completely different story 20 years ago.

Again, they were stunned, but there was a feeling of disbelief and a sense of disarray as Jaap Stam, the best defender in the Premier League, was sold to Lazio for £16.5 million.

Fergie informed the 29-year-old Dutch powerhouse in a hastily arranged meeting on the forecourt of a petrol station that he was no longer required.

Despite signing a new five-year contract seven months earlier, and with fitters literally in his Cheshire home at the time to install a new kitchen, Stam instead drove back to his wife Ellis to inform her they were moving to Rome.

ferguson-stamsigns-up Ferguson and Stam after the Dutchman arrived at Old Trafford. Source: PA

There were no YouTube fan cam channels to react.

Social media didn’t exist.

And Sky Sports News was only three years old.

Instead, Piers Morgan, the disgraced former newspaper editor turned tantrum-loving television host, was at the heart of the story.

Then in charge of the Daily Mirror, he bought the serialisation rights to Stam’s autobiography, Head To Head, just prior to the 2001/02 Premier League season.

Stam, despite being named in the Premier League team of the season for each of his three campaigns and twice being voted best club defender by UEFA, was not tabloid fodder.

The now defunct News of the World passed on the rights to the book but Morgan, sensing his opportunity, snapped it up for the paltry sum of £15,000.

So began a week-long campaign, with one headline, “SIR ALEX ACCUSED”, particularly causing a stir as it revealed Stam was tapped up.

mutv-launch Stam (third right) at the launch of MUTV with teammates, and Ferguson, in 1998. Source: PA

“I hate Sir Alex Ferguson,” Piers wrote in his Daily Mail column some years later. “I don’t just mean I mildly dislike the man; I mean I completely and utterly detest him. And I say that with all the calm, dispassionate authority of an Arsenal season-ticket holder.

“Nobody else was interested in a rather boring Dutch centre half’s memoirs, only to discover it was a veritable treasure trove of claims likely to upset The Boss.

Stam claimed Sir Alex had illegally tapped him up and ordered United players to dive in European games, called the Neville brothers a ‘pair of busy little c***s’, and branded David Beckham so thick he’d never go on Mastermind. Within a week Stam had been sold to Lazio, despite being the best defender in the world at the time, a decision that probably cost United the league that season.”

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

As incredible as it seems now, when you consider the sustained success Ferguson oversaw from 2006 until his retirement in 2013, the 2001/02 season was supposed to be his swansong.

The Scot, not yet 60, announced he was to retire in May ’01. It was set up for the perfect goodbye with United seemingly destined to continue their Premier League domination with a fourth title in a row, and the Champions League final to be held in Glasgow’s Hampden Park, barely 10 minutes from where he grew up in Govan.

Stam had been instrumental in United’s stranglehold on the domestic game at the turn of the century. A £10.75 million signing from PSV Eindhoven in the summer of 1998, he was the figurehead in defence as Fergie secured the historic Treble at the end of his first season.

The following campaign saw United romp home by 18 points, the year after it was 10, stretching 15 clear at one point with 12 remaining.

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-manchester-united-v-liverpool Source: EMPICS Sport

But, having conquered Europe so dramatically in ’99, they were knocked out at the quarter final stage in the next two seasons by Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, respectively.

Captain Roy Keane voiced his belief that an overhaul was needed with new blood urgently required. But Stam, who missed the first four months of the 2000/01 season with an Achilles injury, was not one deemed in danger, especially after returning for the last 18 games in which they conceded just 12 goals.

“I remember being on the pre-season tour with United in the summer of 2001,” Oliver Kay, now senior football writer for The Athletic but who was in just his second season covering England’s North West for The Times, begins.

There was never any talk or question about Stam going. It was known Ferguson wanted defenders in and that signings would be made because they seemed to be at the absolute peak of their powers in terms of being able to attract players. They were trying to do a lot that summer. They looked at Lillian Thuram, [Bixente] Lizarazu at Bayern Munich, Patrick Vieria, too.

“There was a sense of really trying to go from being dominant in the Premier League and a club who had won the Champions League to a side who would compete every year for the Champions League. And there was no doubt they were backing Ferguson with the money to do it because they hadn’t really spent big since 1998 when they brought in Stam and Dwight Yorke.”

Despite Ferguson planning his retirement, United, by now a PLC worth £1.1bn and who no longer had the words “Football Club” on the badge after chief executive Peter Kenyon had them removed, were in a serious position of strength.

Their wage bill was estimated to be £40m annually. A £30m-a-year shirt sponsorship deal with Vodafone was followed by a £302m partnership with Nike over the next 13 seasons.

Stam got his new five-year contract at the start of 2001, Roy Keane had signed a deal to be the highest paid player on £52,000 per-week (with the clause that his salary would be bumped should any new arrival earn more).

Old Trafford, then a capacity of 67,500, raked in £1.2m per game, almost twice that of anyone else in the English top flight, while Sky Sports’ TV deal tipped the scales beyond £1bn.

PA-315437 Stam (left) with current United manager Ole Gunnar Solskajer on the open top bus after United won The Treble. Source: EMPICS Sport

Just some of the reasons Bobby Charlton and Denis Law flew to Manhattan in February 2001 to sip champagne with executives from the New York Yankees following the announcement of another lucrative marketing tie-up between the two global brands.

Naturally, there were fears the self-sufficient behemoth of Stretford might outgrow their domestic rivals.

Paddy Harverson, United’s director of communications at the time, attempted to allay such misgivings. “Manchester United are fully committed to the Premier League and domestic English football. There is no suggestion whatsoever that we are looking to leave the English game and join any kind of breakaway league.”

They were 20 years too early.

But when Ferguson signed Ruud van Nistelrooy for £19.5m from PSV and then added Argentine superstar Juan Veron from Lazio for £28m, United seemed light years ahead of the rest.

And as Kay pointed out, United did seem to be flexing their financial muscle like never before. “I’m chasing six players with the hope of getting three,” Ferguson said in the summer of 2001.

France World Cup-winning left back Lizarazu expressed his desire to join. “I want to go to Manchester United,” he declared that July. “I hope Bayern find a way to make it possible.”

That didn’t materialise.

And earlier that summer, at the end of May, an even more audacious transfer seemed on the cards while Ferguson was on a week-long tour of Ireland, first spending two days with the United supporters’ club in Longford before heading north to Sion Mills in Strabane to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their branch.

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-arsenal-v-manchester-united Stam gets to grips with former Arsenal captain, and United target, Patrick Vieira. Source: EMPICS Sport

In between it became clear Vieira was trying to get out of Arsenal, with Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid also interested. “It is true these clubs contacted my agent and that I was thinking about it,” he was quoted at the time.

“There were talks although I never met anyone from United, but my agent did. That’s his job… Why not Manchester United? In football anything is possible. When it’s a big club like Manchester United or Real Madrid you have to be interested.”

The Frenchman ultimately stayed, Ferguson swiftly attempting to prise his former midfielder partner at Highbury, Emmanuel Petit, away from Barcelona, a transfer wrangle that also involved Chelsea after he had already signed a pre-contract agreement. That too, failed.

So, Ferguson went after six, was looking for three, and ended up with two in Van Nistlerooy and Veron.

It was deemed more than enough to deliver a sensational swansong.

And the backbone of the team started with Stam.

Then the season actually started.

The book came out.

Everything changed within a month and, it’s not unreasonable to say, the course of Manchester United’s history was altered.

Sam Pilger can still remember his first meeting with Jaap Stam.

And he still laughs about it, too.

It was the beginning of a professional working relationship that would last the next three years, with no English journalist maintaining closer links as they spoke weekly.

Then 25-years-old and working for United’s club magazine, he was despatched to Eindhoven with a photographer to interview the new record £10.75m signing.

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-manchester-united-v-aston-villa Source: EMPICS Sport

“Like a lot of footballers, he was really, really confident but not arrogant with it,” he tells The42. “I liked how he spoke, he was so honest and very direct.”

As Pilger laid out in his book, Best United XI.

“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.”

Pilger takes up the story: “So yeah, I thought Jaap would be good for a column in the club magazine. We did that for a while and then the Daily Telegraph liked it so they took the idea and thankfully took me with him to ghost write it. Although I was never asked to write the famous book, someone else got that!”

Ferguson, despite the legendary lengths to which he controlled matters at Old Trafford – United didn’t have a Twitter account until after he eventually retired in 2013 – seemed rather blasé about things.

He didn’t check it, even when it was the club magazine,” Pilger explains. “We sometimes got in trouble with the club as we had a fair bit of freedom. But Ferguson didn’t check and he clearly didn’t check the book either before it came out!”

The serialisation ran over the course of a week just after United had been beaten 2-1 by Liverpool in the Charity Shield.

Oddly, an international friendly between England and Holland was sandwiched between the usual curtain raiser and United’s first Premier League game at home to Fulham.

It was not a good fortnight at all for Stam, as he succinctly – solemnly – put it when his departure was confirmed. “I had three great seasons and two bad weeks.”

First, he slipped on his backside and watched as Michael Owen nipped in to slot home a neat left-foot finish.

Then, on the eve of the England game, the following extract relating to Owen appeared in the Mirror. “In this country everyone believes that the Boy Wonder can do no wrong. I find the hype a little over the top.

“There’s no doubt he is a fantastic striker. I am not saying he is a bad player, but his first touch isn’t the greatest. As a defender, you will know a player’s particular weakness, and with Owen you try to get him out on his left side.”

showbiz-weddingjaap Stam leaving the Clarence Hotel in Dublin on his way to the wedding of teammate David Beckham Source: PA

Things didn’t get any better, with the following passages serving up days of anguish.

On his first meeting with Ferguson: “While the meeting may have been technically against the rules, it happens all the time and has become an accepted part of the game, but I had to keep everything under wraps so that PSV didn’t find out about the unofficial approach.

On Fergie’s advice on diving: “It has got to the stage where Ferguson has even told us: ‘Don’t try and stay on your feet if you are in the box and get a slight kick’. He wants us to copy other sides we face in European competitions and go down to win a penalty.”

On Gary and Phil Neville: “They’re always the first to arrive… and moaning about it. The pair of them never stop whinging. ‘Busy c***s’, we call them, for their endless grumbling about everything in general and nothing in particular. Gary isn’t happy unless he can have a good grip.”

On Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt: “Once Gary has finished eating and got his head stuck in a newspaper to find something else to moan about, it’s the turn of the ‘Terrible Twins’ to start their pranks. Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt are the Peter Pan of our dressing room, always wanting to play the kind of jokes most people forget about after leaving school.”

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On David Beckham: “He has to shrug off suggestions that he’s thick. I’ll admit that David will not be asked to take a turn in the black chair of Mastermind.”

man-united-v-fiorentina Stam tackles Fiorentina's Gabriel Batistuta. Source: PA

These headlines didn’t stop Ferguson starting Stam in the season opener at home to newly-promoted Fulham, who twice took the lead with the sharp Louis Saha causing all sorts of problems for the Dutchman.

Van Nistelrooy ensured United won 3-2, but it turned out to be the last time Stam played for the club.

The official launch of his book, scheduled to take place in one of the VIP lounges at Old Trafford the next day, was cancelled, with a spokesperson for the publisher saying this was due to enough publicity having already been received.

Stam was dropped for the first time in his United career for the next game away to Blackburn Rovers.

I had a chat with Jaap about not being in the side and there was no problem. The book is a thing of the past. We have put all that behind us,” Ferguson insisted after the Fulham win.

“Jaap and Gary [Neville] had a disappointing game. They know that, we all know that. That’s wasn’t all down to the two players. But there was a lot of casualness and slackness. However, four games from now hopefully we will get it right.”

By the third one of United’s season Stam was gone.

On the last Sunday of August, the same as today, Stam was left out of a 1-1 draw away to Aston Villa with a move to Lazio confirmed that night.

“I remember the street I was walking down when I heard,” Pilger, who was by now deputy editor of FourFourTwo magazine, says. “For younger kids, the best way of describing Stam at that time would be like saying he was Virgil Van Dijk and Ruben Dias rolled into one. He was everything as a defender.

“Off the pitch he was very gentle and humble, a quiet guy who believed in his ability and was not a money-grabber. He was a competitor. He was a white line fever kind of guy, like Mark Hughes. Once he crossed that white line he transformed into something like the Hulk.”

damien-duff-and-jaap-stam Stam in action for Holland against Damien Duff in his first game after his United transfer was confirmed. Source: INPHO

The football world was reeling from Stam’s exit. “It was taboo for so long to even mention it to Ferguson,” Oliver Kay adds. “I also don’t think he was expecting the reaction he got, with so many people questioning the decision.”

Stam was also shell-shocked. “I cannot believe what has happened,” he said at his official unveiling at Lazio.

“I never saw this coming. I love Manchester United, I love Manchester and I did not want to leave. The manager told me they had accepted a bid for me. I was surprised and am still trying to take it all in.”

So was everyone else.

Ferguson, though, was adamant the book was not the deciding factor. “Believe me, trust me, it was absolutely a football decision and is nothing to do with that [book] nonsense. I said that to Jaap. I would never allow such an issue to colour my decision.

“An offer from Lazio came in for Stam at the same time we had more or less fixed up another player. We have to change the way we play; hopefully this boy’s qualities are suited to us.”

The boy was 35-year-old Laurent Blanc from Inter Milan, and as people continued to digest the news Matt Lawton broke a story the following week.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph on 30 August, he revealed:

Manchester United confirmed last night that Jaap Stam’s controversial £16.4 million transfer to Lazio proved lucrative not only for the English champions but for Sir Alex Ferguson’s son, Jason.

The Manchester United manager’s son is a director of Elite Sports Group Limited, a recently established Manchester-based company who also name Francis Martin, a FIFA-registered agent, and David Gardner, a close friend of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, on their board.

Elite work closely with the Monaco-based agent Mike Morris, and together they were involved in arranging Stam’s move to Rome earlier this week. During Stam’s press conference at Lazio the Italian club personally thanked Morris for his role in the transfer, and Elite stand to make a healthy commission from a deal that surprised everyone, not least the player himself.”

As the furore eventually settled down, Stam’s compatriot Van Nistelrooy was struggling to come to terms with what happened.

“I remember interviewing him that autumn and he was absolutely gutted,” Pilger explains. “Jaap was his chaperone, he brought him to training and helped him out with so much. Ruud would ring Jaap and ask what supermarket to go, I remember Ruud asking him what orange juice he should buy. Jaap had started to settle and that was then yanked away.”

So, too, was Ferguson’s perfect swansong.

While he had agreed a five-year consultancy contract with the club to stay on in that capacity, finishing 10 points behind Arsenal in the league and not winning a trophy was no way for the Scot to bow out.

soccer-uefa-champions-league-group-d-lazio-v-nantes Stam in one of his first games for Lazio. Source: EMPICS Sport

He confirmed during the season that he was to remain in charge. Sven Goran Eriksson, then England manager, had reportedly agreed a deal to replace him. Celtic’s Martin O’Neill and Leeds United’s David O’Leary were two others on the radar.

A semi-final defeat to Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League was particularly painful as it also crushed any dream of a celebration at home in Glasgow.

Instead, this was the season that changed the course of United’s history.

It began in infamy with Stam’s incredible exit and ended with Ferguson starting on the long road to build his next great team, continuing the dynasty until 2013.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the jewel in that crown as United won three Premier League titles on the spin from 2007-09 and added the club’s third European Cup triumph in Moscow in ’08.

This weekend things have come full circle with his return. There was no such romanticism for Stam.

manchester-united-v-reading-emirates-fa-cup-third-round-old-trafford Stam did return to Old Trafford as a manager with Reading in 2017. Source: Martin Rickett

Although it’s a quirk of circumstance that Stam’s first game after leaving United was against the Republic of Ireland for Holland in the historic World Cup qualifier at Lansdowne Road.

Ronaldo’s will also be against the Boys in Green for Portugal in a World Cup qualifier on Wednesday.

It was only as the years passed that reflections – and admissions – about that mad month in August trickled through.

“I received a phone call in my car from Fergie’s secretary,” Stam later explained. “She said that he wanted to speak to me. He came on the phone straightaway. Ferguson said, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘Close to my house, at a petrol station.’ Ferguson said, ‘Wait there!’ He jumped in his car and came straight to me.

soccer-uefa-champions-league-round-of-16-second-leg-ac-milan-v-manchester-united-giuseppe-meazza As well as Lazio, Stam also played for AC Milan in Italy, here tackling Roy Keane in a Champions League tie. Source: PA

“At the petrol station he parked his car and got in with me. He told me that I had to be transferred. Then he said, ‘Will you please move to Lazio quickly?’ I agreed to do it. Right there and then. One quick conversation in my car at a petrol station in Manchester was enough for me to leave that big club. When I think about it now, and I have never talked about it before, I find it unbelievable I let that, as a player, happen to me.”

Ferguson, too, held regrets about his handling of the situation. “When I think of disappointments, obviously Jaap Stam was always a disappointment to me, I made a bad decision there. He’d been out for months and, when he came back, Steve McClaren (then assistant) 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 with an offer. So then Jaap goes to Lazio and he played fantastic. So it was a bad decision. I should maybe have waited a bit longer.”

But time moved quickly.

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