Peter Schmeichel had just helped United put the cherry on their most successful ever season when he called time on his near-decade-long-stint at Old Trafford in 1999.
Having been a vital component (in a team of twenty-somethings, arguably the vital component) in Alex Ferguson’s Treble-winning side, the then-35-year-old’s decision to quit – particularly when his next team would be Sporting CP – came as something of a shock to most of the footballing world… not least of all Gary Neville.
It was thought that Schmeichel had an eye on the future, sensing that he had a better chance of prolonging his career away from the rough and tumble of Manchester United (something Gianluigi Buffon, fast approaching 40, is currently making a mockery of – but we digress).
Ultimately, though, that’s fair enough. United were coming off the heels of an intense season, with another one on the horizon (Fergie was never one to sit back and admire his success). Schmeichel took a tough decision to leave the club to which he gave eight years of his career – but he made it in good faith. And, to be fair, the lure of sunny Southern Europe, for a fair-haired Dane living in England’s north-west, is easy to sympathise with.
That’s when his career gets a little strange though. Schmeichel returned to England with Villa in 2001, and a year later rocked up at Maine Road – as promoted Manchester City’s new shot-stopper.
Few players have turned out for both United and City (although that’s probably less to do with the rivalry than it is the fact City have spent a large part of their history fielding players like Joey Barton and Ben Thatcher). One of them is Carlos Tevez, who quickly became a figure of contempt for United fans when he signed for their neighbours in 2009.
Yet Schmeichel’s decision to sign for City has not only been forgiven, but almost forgotten too.
Why? Well, the fact that, unlike Tevez, he didn’t once hold up a sign saying “RIP Fergie” probably helps for starters.
Manchester City have apologised to Sir Alex Ferguson after Carlos Tevez held up this banner reading 'RIP Fergie'… pic.twitter.com/TxPuyKLg
— Football__Tweet (@Football__Tweet) May 15, 2012
It goes without saying that Schmeichel is – objectively – more likeable than Tevez, but being a nice bloke didn’t stop Luis Figo getting a fair bit of stick (and by stick we mean pig’s heads) when he jumped ship from Barca to Real.
The difference, one supposes, is that Schmeichel, instead of going directly from United to City, sandwiched in between his Manchester stints a couple of spells at mostly benign and inoffensive Sporting CP and Aston Villa. Plus: City were a long way off challenging their cross-town rivals for major honours.
That Schmeichel doesn’t attract hatred from the Old Trafford rafters – that every tweet he makes isn’t met with a thousand expletive-laden replies likening him to Judas – is actually quite refreshing. It’s a sign football fans can sit back and appreciate that the guy just wanted to play football a while longer and saw Manchester – formerly his home of many years – as a good place for him and his young family to set up shop.
We just wish we could have been there when Fergie found out.