Jaap Stam: Sir Alex Ferguson’s Biggest Mistake

20 years on from the Dutchman’s arrival at Man United, the defender is still adored to this day. But what made the Rock of Kampen one of the best defenders in the club’s history?

Reading’s recent visit to Old Trafford in 2017 for their FA Cup tie was a homecoming for the Dutch defender. As he made his way to the dugout, chants of ‘Yip Jaap Stam is a big Dutchman’ rang out for a man who made such an impression on the club despite only staying at the club for 3 years.

To this day the controversial decision to let Stam leave in the summer of 2001 is remembered as one of Ferguson’s very few but costly mistakes. The shock amongst United fans was palpable, the dismay at losing the man who was at the time the best defender in the world was sorely felt and even now fans and pundits alike wonder what could have been had Ferguson chosen to keep the defender.

The decision to sell him though was not as simple in hindsight. Stam had joined the club in 1998 from PSV Eindhoven for a record sum of £10.6 million. It did not take long for the man to settle in the heart of the defence and with Stam as the heart he would help the club achieve the unprecedented treble of 1999 along with another two Premier League titles and an Intercontinental trophy.

The sale of the defender to Lazio came as a shock not only to the man himself but the whole club. United had completed their hat-trick of titles but rumblings of financial struggles had begun to form at the club and Ferguson was informed that the club would have to offload an asset to appease the burden. Stam had suffered an Achilles injury and was the recipient of a new five year contract and the recipe of those factors helped back the managers decision that the defender could be let go for the right price.

As it was Lazio won the race for his signature, paying in the region of £16 million, a profit on what the club had shelled out to PSV, where he had tasted his first real success winning the Eredivisie and the Johan Cruyff Shield.

The centre-back was famously told of the decision by the manager on the forecourt of a petrol station after an International friendly held at White Hart Lane against England and when the conversation ended the two giants went their separate ways changing the course of history.

Jaap Stam was at the height of his powers when he joined United. A physically imposing defender, Stam was all that could be desired in a defender and very few players have come close to replicating what the Dutchman brought to his various teams.

Blessed with an excellent understanding of the game as well as technique Stam honed his technique in Holland spending six years at four different clubs (FC Zwolle, SC Cambuur, Willemstad II and PSV Eindhoven)

Hitting the ground running and joining an already elite defence at Manchester United that included Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, Gary Neville and Ronny Johnsen, ably replacing the old guard of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister who had served the club so well, Stam would taste victory early. Manchester United claimed the Premier League title (by a point on the final day of the season), the FA Cup against Newcastle and the stunning comeback against Bayern on that famous night in Barcelona.

To match his club achievements, Stam was chosen in each of the PFA Team of the Year as well as receiving the UEFA club best defender of the year in 1998-99 and 1999-2000 leading Peter Schmeichel to label him the best defender he played with. “He is the best defender I’ve ever come across in my life.”

The moment it was announced that Stam was sold, a din fell over the club and a large void had been created that Ferguson would struggle to fill. Laurent Blanc was signed as his replacement but the years had crept up on the World Cup winning French defender and he struggled as part of a United team that would only finish in 3rd place. This gaping hole led Ferguson to break the transfer record to secure the signature of Rio Ferdinand.

At Lazio, Stam would go straight into the heart of the teams defence and perform at the highest level securing the Copa Italia for a side that would also have it’s fair share of financial issues and player bans for doping (of which Stam was one of the players banned during this time for having been found with the substance Nandrolone in his system).

Watching the Dutch defender still performing at the highest level with his stereotypical class led Ferguson to dub his decision to sell him one of his graver footballing judgements.  “It was one of the mistakes  (selling Jaap Stam) I made – hopefully I haven’t made too many – but that was one.” 

Sir Alex would later go on to re-establish United as a European powerhouse built on the defensive partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic but even now fans of the club still wonder what could have been had the club held on to their big Dutchman.