Alex Stepney cost Manchester United a world record fee of £55,000 when he joined from Chelsea in 1966.
Sir Matt Busby described his signing as ‘the single most important factor’ behind that season’s title win. He kept a clean sheet on his debut in a 1-0 win over Manchester City and a total of 175 during a glittering Old Trafford career.
His record was broken by Peter Schmeichel before David de Gea surpassed the Dane’s landmark in the Carabao Cup final with his 181st clean sheet. Here Stepney tells Sportsmail how the two goalkeepers compare.
Man United legend Alex Stepney (R) has compared David de Gea (L) with Peter Schmeichel after the former broke the Dane’s clean sheet record
Stepney orginally held the record with 175 before fan favourite Schmeichel surpassed it
People often pinpoint the moment I saved point-blank from Eusebio in the 1968 European Cup final. We were 1-1 and about to go into extra time. If I hadn’t been alert to that moment we wouldn’t have gone on to win 4-1.
So often the most testing games are when you are winning 2-0 or 3-0. Your side are in control, maybe passing the ball around comfortably, and if you are not switched on, your mind can drift, but the opposition will always have a moment.
Schmeichel was excellent at ensuring he was alive to those situations. He used fitness conditioning to improve his focus and sometimes simply shouted at defenders to keep his mind engaged. Sir Alex Ferguson advocated his players playing chess.
David de Gea’s concentration has not always been what it should be, but I’ve seen a marked difference this season and he made two crucial saves last Sunday, one at 0-0, that gave United the platform for victory.
I always saw myself as the puppeteer or quarterback if you like. You push and pull your defenders into position because you can see the plays unfolding in front of you. ‘Don’t let them in this box!’ ‘Pick up the winger on the left!’ Communication, organisation and concentration are all intrinsically linked when you are a keeper.
I was a good talker, Schmeichel was one of the best. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister knew where he was, even in their sleep. What I’ve noticed with De Gea, and you could see it particularly on Sunday, is that he is taking greater charge on corners and set-pieces and enjoying the responsibility.
Erik ten Hag has given him licence to order people where he wants them. For too long he has been a ‘line goalkeeper’ as in one who stays around his line as the ball comes in then is forced into making reaction saves. It makes everyone nervous. Now he is setting himself up properly, commanding the area and the defenders are responding to his new authority.
I learned a lot studying the great Wolves keeper Bert Williams and Ted Ditchburn at Spurs. I’d watch them closely. I’m sure David has studied Peter before him and even Edwin van der Sar, who was always very calm.
Schmeichel (L) was one of the best communicators, while De Gea is taking charge more often
A goalkeeper is the first line of distribution. You must quickly assess the opposition’s shape and put the ball where you can hurt them. I could kick a ball long or I could be quick and accurate with a throw but you need players willing to take that ball.
I always had a class act in Paddy Crerand. Whenever I collected a ball from the left, he would already be running into space on the right wing position ready to receive.
When Schmeichel was playing, United had great wingers, so he would launch huge throws into their path just short of the halfway line to Ryan Giggs or Andrei Kanchelskis and it would catch the opposition off guard.
David de Gea has always been assured with his feet but his decision-making has sometimes been ponderous. United have been set up to play out from the back but they have been too slow or predictable.
What we are seeing now is a keeper better at risk assessment. He is mixing his game up, knowing when to kick long or throw short and dictating play. There’s a big difference between the man who played against Brentford at the start of the season and the one now.
De Gea’s decision making has been somewhat ponderous at times – even though he has always been assured with his feet
Schmeichel had good height, physique and speed. It was underestimated just how quickly he got down to shots or rushed out to smother the ball. He would take no prisoners. If he came for the ball he took everything, even if that meant the striker’s head too. You can’t do that so much now.
In my day when we swapped ends you would look out for the centre forward if he was the physical type and say: ‘Come near me and you’ll get a bit of this,’ gesticulating with your fist — you had to put a marker down. When ‘Big Jack’ Charlton stood on my toes at corners, I had to tell defenders: ‘Stay out the way, I’ll deal with him,’ and keep half an eye on the corner-taker at the same time.
I’ve taken many a clout to the cheekbone, had teeth knocked out or broken fingers. Bravery was essential, now it’s not so much.
De Gea used to be almost timid-looking, a lightweight keeper who struggled and got too distracted by players standing in front of him, but he has benefited from working on weights and building himself up. He looks more dominant now, his reflexes are fantastic and he has greater protection from referees.
De Gea used to be timid looking but he has built himself up and appears more dominant now
Schmeichel would take no prisoners when getting up to challenge for an aerial ball
I was top scorer at one stage of the 1973-74 season as Tommy Docherty put me on penalties. I scored two, one against Birmingham and one against Leicester, when I sent Peter Shilton the wrong way. It was the one year I ended up on the same number of goals as George Best.
I wasn’t bad with my feet but you had slim chance of passing the ball out on the pitches we had. You had to be extra sharp on your angles too as any bounce or deviation could catch you out. Speed of reaction in one-on-ones was vital, reading the bounce or the pitch, and trying to guide the striker where you wanted.
Schmeichel was always no- nonsense with his clearances but his footwork owed a lot to his formative years playing handball in Denmark. When he ran out at strikers and launched into his star-jump it would scare the daylights out of them, it turned their advantage into his.
Equally, I’ve seen David make some excellent saves with his feet, one against Real Madrid was around four foot up in the air. David is growing into a more confident keeper for one-on-ones.
Schmeichel is the benchmark, the greatest United goalkeeper of all time but what I saw in De Gea against Newcastle on Sunday was a new-found maturity. A man happy in himself, with his decision-making and finally ready to fulfil his potential.
Ten Hag trusts him and you can see marked improvements in his game. I’m convinced he can kick on and be the best the club has had.
Schmeichel is the benchmark for a United keeper and is greatest of all time – but De Gea could still take his crown in the future