Former Manchester United goalkeeping coach Eric Steele, who played a monumental role in David de Gea joining the club in 2011, has backed the under fire Spaniard to return to his former best and potentially even stay at Old Trafford for another 10 years.
De Gea has experienced a dip in form over the last couple of seasons, resulting in a number of high profile errors. The most recent of those came against Tottenham in the first game of the Premier League restart, although a flying save against Brighton on Tuesday night was him at his best.
De Gea’s performance was savagely torn apart on live television by ex-United captain Roy Keane, but Steele has defended his former protégé.
“Keane was terrific for Sky TV, but I would have handled that totally differently. David de Gea did not need Roy Keane to go on a rant for him to know that he made an error,” Steele, a former Brighton goalkeeper during his own playing days told Football, the Albion and Me (@footyalbionme).
“He’s now coming up to 400 games for Manchester United and I think if he plays the next game, he’s level with Peter Schmeichel, and will make 400 in the next couple of weeks.
“You don’t play 400 game for one of the biggest clubs in the world and not be a very, very good goalkeeper. Yes, he’s had his dips, but he’s been at a club for nine years.”
Steele highlighted the fact that Schmeichel was already an established professional at 28 when he joined United in 1991 and still struggled at times, particularly very early on. De Gea now is only marginally older than Schmeichel was and will soon surpass the Dane’s appearances.
“[De Gea] came to Manchester United as a winner. He’d won the Europa League, he’d won the Under-21 European Championship with Spain and since won that again, he’d won the Super Cup and the Euro Under-17s when they beat England.
“He came in as a winner at 20 years of age. He’s now since gone on to win the Premier League, Europa League, FA Cup and is then up to nearly 400 games.
“He’s had a bit of a rough ride over the last eight or nine months, but then you consider it’s his ninth year at the football club. The pressures, he’s played under five different managers and has had to work with four or five different goalkeeping coaches.
“Ultimately, David will rise again and part of that demeanour is his character will come through. And they’ve gone 15 games unbeaten, he’s conceded three goals and only missed two games because they were both cup ties. His record is there.
“Every club I’ve been at, first I’d put on the wall, laminated, ‘Goalkeeper law number one: When you do it right, no one remembers. When you do it wrong, no one forgets.’ Unfortunately, as a goalkeeper, you are going to live by that. He will rise and he will come again.
“Potentially, he could be there for another 10 years. Ultimately, we don’t know what will happen because he’s got the competition from Dean Henderson, but what an asset he has been to that football club. £17m he cost in 2011. That’s not a bad investment in terms of a return.”
Steele’s role in taking De Gea to Old Trafford and helping him settle at such a young age, to the point where he even learned Spanish so the pair could more easily communicate on the training pitch, has often been spoken about over the years.
Many saw it as a gamble at the time for United to put such faith in a 20-year-old, who was being tasked with replacing retiring legend Edwin van der Sar, among the greatest of his generation.
But by the time De Gea arrived in Manchester from Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2011, Steele had already had his eye on the player for four years. That was before even was at United as he was still coaching at Manchester City when he first saw a teenage De Gea in action.
“What I go back to is I saw him play in the final of the Under-17 European Championship [in 2007]. The jersey he had was too big for him then, but I just saw this calmness. I saw things in his game and I didn’t need a goalkeeper then because I was at Manchester City and we had Joe Hart, Kasper Schmeichel and Andreas Isaksson under Sven Goran Eriksson,” Steele explained.
From then on, De Gea was always on his radar and he was keen to follow the player’s development.
Steele's role as goalkeeping coach at United involved extending Van der Sar’s career for as long as possible, but also planning for a future without the ice-cold Dutchman. Part of that was assessing the quality of players already at the club - Tomasz Kuszczak, Ben Foster, Tom Heaton, Ben Amos and Sam Johnstone – or deciding where to look if someone new needed to be found.
“In my first year [at United] in 2008, I wasn’t big time looking at that, but I started the research then,” Steele revealed as the process to replace Van der Sar began.
“The first thing you do as a goalkeeping coach, if you’re being asked about recruitment, you’ve got to ask your head coach for what type of goalkeeper they need. And [finding a young Van der Sar] was the brief. That’s when I began the process, so two years down the line when we got to 2010 I knew that decisions had to be made.
“It’s well recorded, I saw David 17 times live. He played massive games against Barcelona, Valencia, Real Madrid. That was my preparation to say, ‘Let’s go and get him’.
“When he came in, we knew he would have a problem and wouldn’t play the full quota of games…and that’s why we could bring him out when we felt it might be getting too much.
“He had to improve his physical strength and power. He then also had to learn a language, learn to drive, find a house, and his first game in England was at Wembley against Manchester City. But we knew what we had, we were buying potential and that’s really what we’ve seen right through the last nine years.”