As David de Gea is finding out, the No. 1 shirt at Old Trafford is an awkward garment, with uniquely heavy shoulders. We're not just talking about the usual pressures of playing for a big club that wins a lot; those are, I imagine, similar from big club to big club. Nor are we talking about the change in cultures - both footballing and at large - that come with a move from Spain; again, those are hardly reserved for Manchester. The problem with the shirt is the ghosts that came before. Not the greats, but the failures.
For the shirt is dripping with blood, the mortal leakings of those broken men that Alex Ferguson first elevated, then exposed, then ruthlessly knifed. If you hold it to your ear, you can hear Nike's Ground-Breaking Recycled Polyester whispering the roll-call of the damned and the defeated. Leighton. Ricardo. Bosnich. Carroll. Goram & Goram. And most mournful, most lurid, most morbid and strange: Taibi. Taibi. Taibi.
The Blind Venetian was, famously, the Worst Goalkeeper In The History Of All The World Ever, a reputation sealed by the complete refusal of anybody on this tiny island to pay any attention to (a) anything beyond the four games he played for United, and (b) half of those games. Rather inconveniently for the prevailing narrative, he was man of the match in two of them, and went on to perform commendably for Atalanta in Serie A for many seasons. But hey, he wore trousers and let that Le Tissier shot through his legs and completely lost the run of himself during the Chelsea 5-0, so, yeah. Loser.
A fairer assessment of his Old Trafford career might read: decent professional; couple of absolute nightmares; couldn't get back into a winning team; got moved on once Fabien Barthez arrived. Not as funny, obviously, and that hardly makes him "Massimo Taibi: United's Forgotten Legend". But the farcical and hilarious nature of his errors, compounded by the abrupt finality of his dropping, means he takes pride of place at the top of the parade of Ferguson's keeping failures. The cack de la cack, if you like; the go-to dipstick against whom those who follow in his footsteps are measured. And sure enough, a couple of slips from poor young baggy-shirted David de Gea, and back it came, a low and babbling chortle: Taibi. Taibi. Taibi.
Goalkeepers are the still centres of the football universe, passed through managerial generations like an old mahogany sideboard or Great Aunt Margery's collection of garden gnomes, and one consequence of this is that plenty of managers never really have to get to grips with the art of replacing them. José Mourinho, to pluck a conveniently helpful example out of the air, has never had to try to find a new no. 1: from Vítor Baía, through Petr Čech and Júlio César, and onto Iker Casillas, he's taken over at every club with one of the biggest questions already answered. Perhaps this is just as well, given his snaffling of nominative determinism's Hilario.
The market for top-end goalkeepers is sluggish if not moribund: the best hardly ever move, and so the big clubs hardly ever buy. This is perhaps because a goalkeeper can fit into almost any system, and so, more than any other player on the pitch or in the squad, the only question that matters is ‘are they good enough?' And this also means that those managers who gain reputations for repeatedly buying bad goalkeepers at high-end clubs tend to be those managers that who have a certain longevity, because bad buys mean lost jobs. To survive a bad goalkeeping purchase, you need three things in substantial proportions: an outfield team that can compensate as well as possible; money to purchase a replacement; and job security.
In short, you could do with being Alex Ferguson. Almost uniquely, he's outlasted two genuine greats, a few pretty decents, a couple of fairly mediocres and one or two notorious please-God-make-it-stops. The only other Premier League manager with a comparably spotty record in the same department is Arsène Wenger, who is not-entirely-by-coincidence is the only manager in the league with a remotely similar tenure. Buying goalkeepers is risky, because they can fail for vanishingly small reasons in vastly significant ways, and difficult, because the really good ones already have secure places at comparable clubs. It's just as well that most managers don't have to do it all that often.
But do you even need a "world-class" goalkeeper, whatever that might be? Couldn't a decent or even a dubious one be enough? Alex McLeish estimated the value of latter-period Edwin van der Sar at 15 points a season, and a quick Twitter poll on the same question reveals a spread of suggestions from a rather-low-6 to a very-high-22, with an average of 11. This suggests that either: (a) nobody really knows; (b) Alex McLeish was over-egging the pudding in the hope of persuading his board to open their wallets; (c) despite (a), a top, top, top goalkeeper is worth a significant amount of points; or (d) all of the above.
Let's go with (d). If Edwin van der Sar, last season, was worth somewhere between 11 and 15 points, then Manchester United, who won the league by 9 points plus goal difference, would still have won the league with a goalkeeper worth merely 2-6 points. And that's nobody's - alright, one person's - idea of "world class". Quite who such a goalkeeper might actually be - Ben Foster? Dave Beasant? Manuel Almunia? - is debatable, but contrary to quite a lot of received wisdom, you don't need a world-class goalkeeper to be a successful team. Of course it helps, since better players generally mean more points, but it's not essential, as long as the other parts of the team can compensate. After all, the season that began with Taibi's ignominy was completed by Mark Bosnich, who enjoys reputation only slightly superior in Old Trafford's keeping pantheon. That United team had only the sixth best defence in the league, kept just 11 clean sheets (last season: second best, and 15), and won the title by 18 points, outscoring everyone. They could probably have stuck with the Italian.
The point is that for all that Edwin van der Sar was brilliant - and he was, as well as being charming and wise and impossibly Dutch looking - sometimes you just don't need a keeper that good. And De Gea isn't as good. Yet.
To say that he was bought to replace Van der Sar is both true and misleading; of the world's top goalkeepers at the age of 20, only Saint Iker was anywhere near fully formed, and he's clearly some kind of freak. De Gea is emphatically not there to play like Van der Sar. De Gea is there to grow into the job, and growing into a job means making mistakes; he's there to develop in tandem with the next generation of Manchester United defenders, all of whom will have their fair share of brainfades along the way. In the meantime, United will just have to try to score more goals. In a just universe, everyone would get at least one season to prove their worth.
Sadly, this is football, where patience is a card game, and time is a misspelled herb. Where the long-view is a troubling idea that doesn't generate click-throughs, and perspective won't trend even with #bieber tacked on. Where there is a constant need for content, for news cycles, for narratives that whip back and forth from ACE to FLOP to FURY to STAR to BADGER to SLAMMED, all of which means that people who are theoretically paid actual cashmoney to talk and write about football are happy to write off a 20-year-old goalkeeper on the basis of exactly one competitive match for his new club, a calumny roughly akin to filing a book review based on the first seven words. So let's try it. The first seven words of the book I've just picked up are: "I could not see the street or". Is it any good?
The last proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus reads "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must pass over in silence". He'd never have got a job on the Daily Express sportsdesk.