ON THIS DAY IN TRANSFER HISTORY: United boss Ferguson sanctioned a deal that he would later come to regret on August 26, 2001, as Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal got the upper hand on their rivals
It was one of the most significant moments of the latter years of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United reign, and it all went down at a petrol station.
When Jaap Stam was left out of the United starting XI for a trip to Aston Villa on August 26, 2001, it spelled the final nail in the coffin of the Dutch defender’s Old Trafford career, with one of the best centre-backs in the world at that time discovering that there was one line he couldn’t cross.
Stam had been critical of Ferguson and let slip some rather unflattering remarks in his 2001 book ‘Head to Head’, which had been serialised in the Mirror and caused ructions before it had even been published.
Alongside the rather open suggestion that he had been ‘tapped up’ by the Scot when he was signed from PSV Eindhoven, one further revelation that Ferguson was believed to be particularly unhappy about was Stam’s claim that he had encouraged his players to dive.
“It’s got to the stage where he has even told us: ‘Don’t try and stay on your feet if you’re in the box and get a slight kick,” he wrote.
“He wants us to copy other sides we face in European competitions and go down to win a penalty.”
The implication of any wrongdoing on his own or his side’s part was something Ferguson simply couldn’t abide, and there was a sense that Stam had made life difficult for himself by saying what he said.
His words were beginning to affect his performances on the pitch too, as an error for a goal scored by Michael Owen with his left foot – a foot Stam had said the Liverpool forward couldn’t use in his book – in the Charity Shield in Cardiff only increased scrutiny.
For a raging Ferguson it was all about unity first, and the manager set up a move to Lazio for Stam as his anger boiled over.
“I can say we have accepted a bid from Lazio and the rest is up to the player,” he said before that Villa game, with a deal set up to bring in the veteran Laurent Blanc to replace him as well as promoting a talented youngster.
“We know that Wes Brown is going to be a marvellous player,” continued Ferguson.
“In my opinion he is going to be the best centre-half in the country and he has his opportunity now.”
For Stam, the move was something of a whirlwind.
Recalling the days leading up to the transfer in a later book, he said: ‘I soon realised the club wanted to get rid of me. They also needed the money. Very soon the book became an issue again.
“It led to a conflict between me and the manager.
“One morning I told him what I thought and left the training ground on the spot. On the way home I received a phone call in my car from Fergie’s secretary.
“She said that he wanted to speak to me. He came on the phone straightaway.
“Ferguson said, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘Close to my house, at a petrol station.’ ‘Ferguson said, ‘Wait there!’ He jumped in his car and came straight to me.
“At the petrol station he parked his car and got in with me.
“He told me that I had to be transferred. Then he said, ‘Will you please move to Lazio quickly?’
“I agreed to do it. Right there and then. One quick conversation in my car at a petrol station in Manchester was enough for me to leave that big club.
“When I think about it now, and I have never talked about it before, I find it unbelievable I let that, as a player, happen to me.”
Stam had won the Premier League title in all three of his seasons at United, but after his departure there would be a relatively barren period at Old Trafford.
United finished below champions Arsenal and second placed Liverpool in 2001-02, and although they regained the title the following season they then watched the Gunners and Chelsea (twice) win the league in the campaigns to come.
Would things have been different if Stam was there?
The Dutchman had three seasons at Lazio and was then part of the AC Milan side that lost to Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final, and having shopped around for a centre-back in the years that followed his sale, it was clear that Ferguson knew what he’d done.
“When I think of disappointments, obviously Jaap Stam was always a disappointment to me,” he said in 2013.
“I made a bad decision there.”
He didn’t make many, so the incorrect ones stay with him.