IN SPORT, more than most other aspects in life, the conversation will often turn to the question of what if?
Like, what if Alex Ferguson had been fired during his early struggles at Man United?
What if Cristiano Ronaldo had joined Liverpool instead of United?
What if Steven Gerrard hadn’t slipped?
In the last week, another what if came to mind as the club future of David De Gea started to come under scrutiny and the once inconceivable thought of the Spaniard leaving United looks increasingly likely. The what-if for De Gea comes from the failed bid by Real Madrid to bring their countryman back to the Bernabéu back in 2015. A bid that collapsed at the last minute of the transfer window by a bizarre situation of a fax machine supposedly not completing the paperwork transmission in time for the transfer deadline.
To this day, no one is sure how the fax machine malfunctioned, whether the transfer details got caught up in digital congestion along the way, was there a paper-jam in the Real office, or was there a pathetic Hollywood disaster movie scenario, where the transfer page curled its way out of the printer only to fall unobserved behind the coffee machine?
Most believe that Man United were not really interested in losing their star-performance keeper and ‘accidentally’ sent the fax just that minute too late for the deadline to be met. Whatever the reason, many fans, (especially those of other clubs frustrated over the years by De Gea’s brilliance) often must have thought, what if the fax had gone through on time, where would that have left United and De Gea?
In 2015, the Spanish shot-stopper was at the height of his career in England. United were just after winning the league the previous season, they would go on to win the FA Cup the next season and the wonderful performances of De Gea were often attributed at being worth anything between 10 to 20 points a season for the Old Trafford outfit. That assertion is a hard one to empirically prove but anyone watching United over the past decade could not but be impressed with how often De Gea saved umpteen embarrassments from United’s lacklustre defence. Even so, despite the best efforts of De Gea, the club is far from performing at the high standards of success they had become accustomed to in the last three decades.
Of course, the downturn in United’s fortunes coincided with the end of the Ferguson dynasty and the subsequent merry-go-round of new managers at the club, but even an anti-De Gea fan would have to admit that the United’s situation would be a lot worse had the Spanish number 1 not been between the sticks.
So it’s all the more incongruous now that the popular consensus is that should De Gea want to leave and if he gets another club to sign him, that United will not obstruct his way to the exit. Probably without the confusion from the exchanges of faxes that defined his last effort to leave Manchester.
The past two seasons have shown that the once infallible keeper is human after all. And while cases of inexplicable errors, like getting beaten on his near post, or spilling the ball under his body, have become familiar, there is still plenty evidence of his quality. Performing 10 good saves for every error he makes. And still pulling off the outstanding shot-stop on occasion. Unfortunately, that’s not good enough for a keeper who is expected to get it right every time and whose errors are magnified beyond anyone else’s in the squad. Proof of that is the fact is that a certain gurning defender continues to get the occasional game at United while we and everyone else are here speculating over an excellent goalkeeper's future.
And his prospects at United look to be growing ever more precarious. This week, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave the dreaded vote of approval for his goalkeeper and then immediately followed that up by saying he will have difficult decisions to make at who starts the new season in goals in a few short weeks.
Argentinian keeper Sergio Romero has been looking good in United’s Europa League run and may leap-frog the Spaniard in the pecking order. But the growing speculation though has Ole in favour of a return of on-loan keeper Dean Henderson from a very impressive run with Sheffield United as the long-term alternative to De Gea in the future.
Either way, the writing seems to be on the wall if not the fax for De Gea and it now looks that his decade-long run at Old Trafford is coming to an end. A prospect beyond consideration a mere two years ago and inconceivable when the fax machine gave up the ghost back in 2015.
No doubt, Man United look at their nearest rivals and see that one of the key areas that have seen Man City and laterally Liverpool's progression to become championship winners is the rock-solid state of their goalkeeping roles. De Gea was once the epitome of such a function for United but confidence in his perfection has eroded significantly.
Still, it remains to be said that since 2015, Real have won two La Liga titles, three Champions League crowns, two UEFA Super cups, and three Club World cups.
In light of such numbers; the person most likely to be asking the what-if question may well be David De Gea himself.