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Replacing world-class players is never easy, but that was the task Sir Alex Ferguson faced multiple times throughout his reign at Manchester United. One of the biggest challenges of his managerial career came at the end of the 1998-99 season when the Great Dane goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel left Old Trafford for new pastures.
Ferguson first turned to Aston Villa keeper Mark Bosnich, but the Australian struggled to fill the void between the sticks left by Schmeichel. Cue the entry of World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000 winner, Fabien Barthez, in the summer of 2000. The bald Frenchman had enjoyed plenty of success in his homeland and arrived at Old Trafford with huge hype.
United paid £7.8 million, a British record at the time, for the services of the Monaco man, who was 28 and seemed to be reaching his peak years. Barthez had played in some of the biggest matches and most high-pressure situations and seemed to have a strong mentality to go along with his physical talents.
In short, he appeared to be the best possible signing United could have made at that moment, and he proved that the club’s money had been well spent in his first season as his remarkable reaction saves and fancy footwork helped the club secure the Premier League title for the third season in a row.
The fans loved him, but even though he was a hit in his first season, Barthez had demonstrated one or two causes for concern, most notably in the FA Cup Fourth Round when he tried to psych-out Paolo Di Canio by standing still and feigning an offside call, allowing the diminutive Italian to simply strike the ball past him into the net.
Despite playing as a keeper, Barthez had huge confidence in his outfield abilities and wanted to show off his skills at every opportunity, attempting step-overs, nutmegs, and dribbles to tease and taunt opposition forwards. He played in an unconventional style that was simply unheard of at the time. In his first season, this wasn’t an issue, but in the second, the cracks started to show.
His eccentricity seemed to have increased after such a good first season, but he’d gotten a little too cocky for his own good, and opposition players started to understand the best ways to approach him. The first half of the season saw Barthez take some huge risks and let in some terrible goals, notably against Deportivo and Arsenal.
Barthez’s mental game seemed to be slipping too, with one notable incident seeing him sneakily raising his middle finger at Arsenal fans in anger, but he managed to pick himself up and finish the season in style. United didn’t win any trophies, but Barthez got back to his best. The former Marseille man also developed a reputation for his fantastic penalty-saving abilities, with his lightning reactions and unique mind game techniques proving to be an unbeatable combo.
Barthez’s third and final season with United was in line with the rest of his Old Trafford career, featuring a bunch of ups and downs but culminating in another Premier League win. Unfortunately, as the season progressed, the keeper’s form fell away and his final game for the club came in the Champions League, during which he let in a hat-trick from Ronaldo.
After that, Barthez lost his place in the first eleven and jetted off back to France, moving on loan to Marseille and retiring a few years later. He didn’t quite forge the same sort of legacy in Manchester as Old Trafford legends like Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar, but he made his mark on the Premier League and is held in fond regard by plenty of United fans to this day.