“Edwin van der Sar? To Fulham? Are you f****** sure?’ The immortal words of the sports editor at a major British tabloid as they considered changing their back page splash having taken a call from Italy claiming that the Dutch international goalkeeper was about to leave Juventus for Craven Cottage have always stuck with me. It was a huge surprise, but it showed that Fulham meant business, as Jean Tigana’s newly-promoted side moved swiftly to beat Ajax, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund to sign one of the world’s best keepers for just £7m.
Mohamed Al-Fayed took advantage of van der Sar’s disenchantment in Italy after the Turin giants assured him of his future as their number one in private discussions only a week before making Gianluigi Buffon the world’s most expensive goalkeeper. The deal – nearly scuppered by a classic Al-Fayed prank at the end of negotiations with the Juventus board – came with the blessing of then Dutch national coach Louis van Gaal and van der Sar, who had been demoted to training with the youth team at Juventus, was desperate to both play football and make his mark in the Premier League.
He certainly did. van der Sar – astonishingly good with the ball at his feet, something which is seen as a pre-requisite nowadays, quickly settled in as a reassuring presence in the Fulham goal, conceding just 41 times in 37 matches as he kept fifteen clean sheets in the club’s first Premier League season. More than that, he was part of the side that reached the FA Cup semi-finals. Perhaps his biggest contribution was his professionalism at Motspur Park. Sean Davis recalled that the big Dutchman arrived an hour before training, going through his own individual set of routines, and worked with the club’s young keepers afterwards. ‘He was clearly a superstar, but very motivated and focused. He raised the level – and immediately made us tougher to beat,’ Davis told Danny Fullbrook and Harry Harris in their diary of Fulham’s first Premiership campaign.
Al-Fayed had sold van der Sar on European football if he made the move to England and, although the Intertoto Cup might not have been what the former Ajax goalkeeper had in mind, Fulham qualified for the UEFA Cup through the summer competition after a fine win over Bologna. van der Sar kept five clean sheets in ten games as the Whites reached the third round and conceded just nineteen times in 24 league games before his season was abruptly ended by a knee injury at St. James’ Park.
Tigana’s abrupt departure in April 2003 was a blow after the French coach’s prominent role in persuading van der Sar of his ambition but the big Dutchman’s displays under Chris Coleman in 2003/04 were arguably the best of his Fulham career. The one that always comes to mind is his extraordinary series of saves as the Whites hung on for an unlikely point at Highbury against Arsenal’s invincibles, but the goalkeeper also played his part in famous wins at Tottenham and Manchester United as Fulham shook off the mid-season loss of Louis Saha to finish ninth.
van der Sar’s commitment to the club that gave him his first chance in English football was such that he signed a contract extension to ensure Fulham received a transfer fee when Sir Alex Ferguson’s long courtship culminated in a transfer to Old Trafford. Before that became a reality in the summer, van der Sar memorably saved two penalties in the same game from Juan Pablo Angel as Fulham fought back to claim a point against Aston Villa at Old Trafford. He kept a remarkable 49 clean sheets in 150 appearances for the Whites – and was probably the biggest reason why Fulham established themselves again in England’s top flight.
Al-Fayed did eventually take Fulham to a major European final, of course, and the eccentric Egyptian’s ambitions for the oldest club in London wouldn’t have been realised without the immense contribution of the best goalkeeper I’ve seen in a Fulham shirt. He began the club’s proud unbeaten home record in continental competition – which still stands – and will always have a place in Craven Cottage folklore.