A RARITY for any goalkeeper, but there was once a time when David de Gea alone was worth the entrance fee at Old Trafford.

That Manchester United’s best player in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era was ond who stopped goals instead of scoring them is a whole other conversation, but that is not to detract from the fact that, for a number of years, were it not for the Spaniard between the posts this past decade would have been even more miserable.

Jaw-dropping reflexes, improvisational ingenuity, and a highlight reel of incredible stops to rival any keeper of the modern era, there was a reason Ferguson skipped a League Cup tie against Scunthorpe United to watch him in 2010, one of only three United matches in his 26-year tenure for which he was not present. After a shaky beginning to his Premier League career – pundit and ex-Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp once remarked that De Gea looked like he ‘needed to grow into this clothes’ – De Gea blossomed into arguably the world’s best goalkeeper for a time.

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He was named United’s player of the year on a joint-record four occasions, and was so often the sole shining example of excellence in the series of thoroughly average teams which followed Ferguson’s retirement. His 2017 masterclass away at Arsenal, in which he made 14 saves, was among the most breathtaking goalkeeping displays you’ll ever see.

But for all that, his legacy remains a muddled one.

The last few seasons, in particular, have not been kind to him, and it eventually culminated in a clumsily handled departure, even if the decision to part ways is unquestionably the right one. Mistakes, often glaring ones, became increasingly common. But most strikingly of all is that the 32-year-old found himself left behind by the demands modern football places on elite goalkeepers.

De Gea is among the last school of top keepers whose role was defined almost entirely by the saves they made. His trademark was an uncanny ability to make them with his feet, so there’s a cruel irony about the fact that it’s where they so often failed him that has led Erik ten Hag to cutting ties with United’s last link to the Ferguson years.

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Ten Hag wants his keeper to be an effective contributor to the team’s build-up, but it is simply not in De Gea’s skillset. Fears that this would be the case were brutally realised last season in the infamous 4-0 horror show away at Brentford, throughout which De Gea looked painfully uncomfortable with what he was being asked to do. Afterwards, Ten Hag was adamant he would adjust to the role, but United’s very next game suggested the manager was not so convinced of his own words.

Against Liverpool the following week, De Gea was under obvious instruction to be risk averse as United went long, playing over their opponents’ press, not through it. To be fair, it worked and Ten Hag earned a much-needed result, but there was more than a hint of necessity about the change, one which raised questions over De Gea’s long-term future.

He did not, as Ten Hag insisted he would, show much sign of being able to change his game, and United’s view was that any new contract for De Gea – now into the last year of a £375,000-a-week deal – would only be offered on reduced terms. It’s been reported that as Ten Hag became increasingly convinced a new keeper was required that those terms were reduced even further.

It is understandable, then, that such an influential long-term servant to the club would find his nose knocked out of joint by such a humbling course of events. This clearly led to an impasse which ensured De Gea’s United career petered out in its final weeks under a cloud of uncertainty. There was to be no Old Trafford send-off in the final home game of the season, and it transpired that De Gea’s final meaningful act in a red shirt was to allow Ilkay Gundogan’s FA Cup final winner trundle past him into the bottom corner. That followed costly mistakes against Sevilla and West Ham that surely hardened Ten Hag’s stance. Sentimentality can be in short supply at the top of the game, and despite his obvious decline it’s hard not to feel De Gea did deserve a better goodbye. But it does not change the reality that it was time to move on, something that has been a little lost in the criticism the club have faced for their handling of his departure.

And it should not be forgotten that the player himself was not shy in playing cat and mouse with the club down the years, either. Twice before De Gea had allowed his contract to creep into its final stages to get what he wanted from United, and but for an infamously dodgy fax machine he would have left for Real Madrid in 2015. In 2019, he held out for a massively improved contract – a decision questioned by fans at the time - which made it difficult for Ten Hag to seek a replacement last summer given no other club was likely to pay him what United already were.

So, in the end, yes, it was messy, but that there are few decrying the call not to retain De Gea is telling. Ultimately, this is the best outcome for United, even if how it has been reached appears a tad cold towards a player with a claim for being considered a club legend. The case finally being closed will allow Ten Hag to step up his pursuit of Inter’s Andre Onana, a keeper he worked with at Ajax, and a much better fit for how he wants United to play.

There’s perhaps a case for the club to reflect on how this saga was allowed to play out – departures rarely seem to run smoothly at United – for a player who has contributed much in more than a decade in Manchester. For that, he should always be welcome back at Old Trafford, his place in club history secure in being the last link to the days of Ferguson.

Now, though, it’s time to let Ten Hag secure the future.