Following Fulham’s promotion to the Premiership in 2001, Manager Jean Tigana set about reinforcing his squad to ensure it would compete fiercely against the best the top flight had to offer.
More than £20m was forked out to bring Jon Harley, Steed Malbranque, Sylvain Legwinski and Steve Marlet to Craven Cottage, but it was one of our earlier summer transfers that really made the footballing world stand up and pay attention to little old Fulham, as the mighty Edwin van der Sar was persuaded to swap Turin for SW6.
The Netherlands number one had already built up a reputation as one of the game’s finest goalkeepers, not just of his generation, but of all-time. He began his career in his homeland with Ajax and was part of the brilliant team that won the UEFA Champions League with a 1-0 victory over AC Milan in the Final back in 1995.
A move to Juventus transpired in 1999 and he spent two years as first choice at the Delle Alpi, but was left stunned when the Old Lady splashed out an eye-watering £33m for a 23-year-old Gianluigi Buffon. Undoubtedly far too qualified to be understudy to anyone, Van der Sar reviewed his options, and eventually decided to buy into the project at Fulham.
“The plans that Fulham Football Club presented to me were impressive and I especially like the ambition that the Club has,” he said upon signing. “Jean Tigana wants to go to the top with Fulham and he proved he can do that with Monaco. I like that ambition.”
The deal was a phenomenal coup for Fulham and a proud beacon that demonstrated how far the Club had come in a short space of time. Once fans recovered from the welcome shock of the transfer, they began counting down the days to see the world famous shot-stopper in action.
He went on to play for Fulham more than 150 times, with his influence during his four-season stay undoubtedly playing a major factor in the Whites retaining top-flight status year after year. Physically imposing yet spectacularly agile, he won countless Man of the Match awards with his consistent displays.
There was one game in particular, at Highbury in November 2003, where he performed so well that if Arsenal had played for another 90 minutes, you would still have fancied Van der Sar to keep them out. Fulham were poor that afternoon and failed to muster an effort on target, but our big Dutchman was imperious and almost single-handedly earned his side a 0-0 draw. It was the first time Arsenal had failed to score at home in 47 matches.
It had been documented previously that Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson had attempted to sign Van der Sar just before he moved to Italy, and so it came as no surprise that he looked to our goalkeeper to fill a hole at Old Trafford that had never really been adequately covered since Peter Schmeichel left the club.
There was no grievance with the Fulham fans upon his departure, and Van der Sar went on to enjoy enormous, and deserved, success with United. He picked up four Premier League winner’s medals, in addition to winning the Champions League for the second time when he was given the UEFA Man of the Match award following his penalty shoot-out heroics against Chelsea. He retired following the 2011 Champions League Final defeat to Barcelona.
The same few names are always bandied around when discussing Fulham’s greatest-ever goalkeeper, with Tony Macedo, Gerry Peyton and Mark Schwarzer all mentioned, but there’s no doubting that EVDS would get many fans’ vote for that accolade.