David De Gea’s aborted transfer is English football’s gain


The acrimony between Manchester United and Real Madrid shows no sign of ebbing away just yet and, with the international break creating a news vacuum, the David De Gea story threatens to run through to the weekend and beyond.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the detail of who did - or did not do - what on Tuesday evening, but the only real-world consequence of that melodrama is that, for now, De Gea is still a Manchester United player.

That’s really good news - and for the league as a whole, rather than just Louis van Gaal, the United defence, and the club’s supporters.

When Real Madrid’s interest in De Gea became apparent, I remember hoping that the player would stay in this country.  Not because I have any loyalty or interest in Manchester United’s form or even because I enjoy dramatic, gravity-challenging goalkeeping, but because his visible emboldening between the frail-limbed months of 2011 and the present day has been so rewarding to watch.

It’s been so admirable.  Despite his slow-burning career in England, David De Gea’s stock has remained high in Spain throughout the last five years and, having encountered initial difficulties, there must have been moments when he was tempted to tap-out of Premier League life and head home.

Yes, he is on a very generous contract at Old Trafford and, yes, it’s hardly a sacrifice to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world.  Even so, when the media were treating him like a fraud and opposing crowds were targeting him on those cold British weekends, a return to La Liga must have seemed awfully appealing.

There would have been no shame in that, either.  We like to think of English football as some sort of ultimate proving ground but for someone like De Gea, who originates from a country with an enormously visible domestic league, that just isn’t true.  For him, there was no premium on being successful in this part of the world and, in the same way that we are relatively indifferent to the failure of our players abroad, his career wasn’t dependent on success at Manchester United.

Many paragraphs have already been written about the differences between keeping goal in Spain and doing so in this country, but it’s worth re-emphasising that - even just because De Gea doesn’t get nearly the credit he’s owed for bridging that gap.

He has developed his existing skills over the last four years, definitely, but he has also added a raft of new ones.  His reflexes are, and have always been, outstanding, and his freakish shot-stopping was a feature of his game during his Atletico Madrid career, but his willingness to work on and adapt his game has made a very flattering statement about his emotional characteristics.

He is far stronger in the air; he is more secure when punching or catching the ball under pressure; his command of his defence has improved immeasurably.

Some of those improvements are related simply to the passing of time and have been acquired through the osmosis of experience, but in the main they’ve been honed and are the product of relentless training-ground drilling.

And that’s why this process has been so gratifying to watch: everyone is aware of just how much work has gone into it.  Manchester United have, brick-by-brick, built David De Gea into one of the most consistently impressive goalkeepers the Premier League has ever seen.  They didn’t just buy him off the rack, throw him into the first-team, and have an instantly outstanding player, they meticulously crafted him to suit a new environment.

For a Spaniard, Real Madrid must be very hard to turn down and, for all intents and purposes, De Gea had his heart set on moving to the Bernabeu this Summer - and he may still do.

Had that happened, it would have been a crying shame.  Having watched his maturation over these past years, sometimes from behind the sofa, the English audience has only witnessed the spectacle of his current level for a little over a year and it would be strange to not be at least curious as to what he can achieve as he moves towards his prime.

Not to be melodramatic but, had he moved away this early, it would have felt a little like being cheated.

This situation isn’t at an end and realism implies that Madrid will come knocking again before too long, but even just one more year of De Gea should be thought of as a privilege - and, putting tribal loyalties aside, that goes for everyone rather than just the Old Trafford season-ticket holders.

He’s a staggeringly accomplished goalkeeper and, like any player within that category, we should want him here for as long as possible.

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