There are goalkeepers that are more famous than the Schmeichel. | Reuters


In the midst of World Cup qualification, England hosting Australia in the rugby, cricket’s T20 World Cup final, the Brazilian F1 Grand Prix, racism in cricket, Covid in rugby and an international climate crisis in Glasgow, the castaway on Desert Island Discs last week was Peter Schmeichel, the celebrated goalkeeper for Denmark and Manchester United and widely considered among the greatest ‘keepers of all time.

There are goalkeepers that are more famous than the Schmeichel: a list which includes the crooners Pavarotti and Julio Iglesias, writers Albert Camus and Arthur Conan Doyle, the left winger and revolutionary Che Guevara, and Pope John Paul II, but the Great Dane will always be the number one No. 1 for a generation of football fans.

United fan or not, it is always fun to hear the stories from the protagonists on key events in sporting history as Schmeichel recounted winning his first FA cup, Denmark’s unlikely victory at Euro 92 and the Champions League win in 99 that delivered the triple.

Inevitably he credits the managerial ability of Sir Alex Ferguson through an 8 year career at United where an unbelievable 42% of his matches were a clean sheet. “First I needed permission to be the best,” he said.

“In successful teams, everyone has a different way of being at that level. I needed a manager that could manage my friend to my right and my friend to my left and manage us differently but give us the best chances to perform and the best chances for success. Sir Alex was brilliant at that. Also, when things didn’t go so well, you still have all the adrenaline going through the system, and win or lose, you have to move on and he taught us how important that was.”

Goalkeepers are the odd ones out in football. They have a reputation for being a little bid mad, they put themselves directly in the line of fire, their mistakes are amplified more than any other player, and their typical match involves long periods of inactivity punctuated by spasms of violent activity.

“I didn’t have a choice about being a goalkeeper. My first training session, I was outfield for three minutes and because I was a bit wild, the coach said why don’t you go in goal. It suited me so well and when the coaches said I was good at it, I wanted to be better and better.”

But it wasn’t just a case of all his boyhood dreams coming true. There were no professional sports people in Denmark, including footballers, until 1978 and Schmeichel didn’t sign his first professional contract until he was 23.

Before that, the son of a Polish jazz musician worked in all kinds of jobs including in a fabric factory, old people’s home and working in a prison; a period of time that had a lasting impact. “I was an apprentice for four months doing prison floors: lino and carpet fitting. It made a big impression on me as a young man, seeing the inside of a prison and the despair. It was not a great experience. I had to be accountable for every tool I used because I was using knives and hammers. I felt very insecure and vulnerable.”

He would become Denmark’s goalkeeper for 14 years and was capped 129 times. They also played in Euro 92 as last-minute replacements for a Yugoslavian team at war, and, against all the odds, went on to win the competition. “Their players were already in Sweden and we took over their hotel and training facilities. We felt so bad for the players and the people of Yugoslavia. We always felt like we were playing for them as well. When you win, and it was so unexpected, it was the highlight of my life.”

And yet when reflecting on the most dramatic of Champions League wins his mind is a blank. “The crazy thing about 1999 is that I can’t remember anything about it. I have a picture of what happened from the TV images and stories from others, but I can’t remember anything.”

Not even the cartwheels Peter? “Nothing. I Retired in 2003. I could have played on. I wasn’t happy where I was but I didn’t have the energy to go anywhere else. Retiring is a massive, massive problem in football. It was different for me because I was 40 but it is something that has to be addressed.”

And with that, we can return to the present and all the troubles of the modern world, whether Hamilton can turn things around in Brazil and how Steven Gerrard will get on at Villa.