Jaap Stam arrived at Manchester United 22-years-ago, in the summer of 1998. Sir Alex Ferguson was putting the pieces in place to wrestle back the Premier League title from new holders – Arsenal.
That window also seen Dwight Yorke and Jesper Blomqvist join the club, but the signing of Stam was significant, due to him becoming the most expensive defender in English football, thanks to his £10.6 million fee.
He made his debut in a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in the Charity Shield – hardly the best of starts, a young Nicolas Anelka proved to be too quick for Jaap. The towering defender, however, soon adapted to the Premier League and became one of the finest defenders to have graced Old Trafford, thanks to his combination of pace, positioning and leadership.
Having met Jaap, I can confirm that he has an intimidating presence. Standing at 6ft 3, it’s easy to see how he dominated other players in the air. What surprised me was how softly spoken he was, considering his on the pitch demeanour. Snarling at the opposition and taking no prisoners with his tackling.
As Liverpool have proven over the last few weeks, winning the treble is by no means an easy accomplishment. But that’s exactly what the 1998/99 team managed.
The club dominated the Premier League from the off. Yorke and Cole forming one of if not the best striking partnerships in history, Schmeichel making crucial saves and Roy Keane bursting from box to box. Despite their quality, the league was won by a solitary point following a home win over Tottenham, on the final day of the season. Part one of the unlikely treble was complete…
An FA Cup win over Newcastle United at Wembley was followed by that famous night in Barcelona where United defied the odds and beat a brilliant Bayern Munich with two famous goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Stam had achieved in his debut season with Manchester United what many could only dream of. “I couldn’t have wished for a better first season in England; winning the Premier League, the FA Cup and then the climax to it all. I remember looking at the Camp Nou clock as the minutes counted down. It looked bad but Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored in the best two minutes of my whole career. We had a brilliant party that night to celebrate.” (via Four Four Two)
Stam had ended his first campaign as a Red Devils player in the best way possible. The departing Schmeichel even labelled the Dutchman as the greatest defender he had played with at Old Trafford, this despite the pair only playing the one season together.
The following season, United and Jaap Stam were champions of England once again, winning the league by a record 18 points and scoring an incredible 97 goals. Stam was once again the rock at the back, confirmed when he was also awarded UEFA Club Defender of the Year consecutively in 1999 and 2000.
Early in the 2001–02 season, Stam was controversially sold to Lazio. Ferguson was reportedly furious with allegations Jaap had made in his autobiography ‘Head to Head’ about himself and the club. Stam made numerous statements in the book about his views on opposing players, and notoriously alleged that Ferguson’s approach to buy him was done without the permission of PSV.
Despite Laurent Blanc being brought in, selling our big Dutch defender left a gaping hole in the defence. Sir Alex had let others go over the years and not shown an ounce of regret, this was different and years later, he admitted it.
In his book ‘Leading’, Fergie admits Stam’s departure was a tough decision to make. The Scot revealed that he told Stam of his fate while at a petrol station and says it was not an easy conversation for either man.
He wrote: “I felt terrible telling Stam of the decision because I could see he was devastated.In retrospect, his sale was premature.” But Ferguson goes on to insist that selling Stam was best action for the club at the time, even though the player went on to enjoy great success in Italy. What is certain, Jaap Stam is truly one of the greatest defenders of the modern era. It’s scary to think what his price tag would be today, who knows but maybe with Jaap at the back in 2001/02, we might just have made the Champions League final and overcome Bayer Leverkusen in the semi finals…