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SINGAPORE — Think of Peter Schmeichel, and two indelible images come to mind. The first is of the ex-Manchester United goalkeeper spreading his arms and legs wide, making his massive 1.91m-tall frame seem even bigger as he repeatedly denied advancing strikers what seemed to be easy goal chances.
The other is of the imposing Dane, wide-eyed and flushed with annoyance, loudly berating his own teammates for their sloppy defending. The sight of players cowering at their own goalkeeper may have made for much amusement among rival fans, but it laid bare Schmeichel's demand for consistent excellence that made him one of the finest custodians in the world, let alone in the English Premier League (EPL).
It was also why he was one of the most trusted lieutenants of Alex Ferguson, Man United's legendary manager who guided them to 13 league titles from the 1990s to the 2010s, with Schmeichel the first-choice goalkeeper for five of those triumphs. The Scot was a force of nature who demanded total commitment among his players, and Schmeichel was undoubtedly the embodiment of his boss on the pitch.
It comes as no surprise that the Dane, now 58, was a fan of Ferguson's infamous "hair-dryer" treatment, whereby the manager would scream right into the face of a player who did not play to his expectations.
"People may think that he was not in control of his temper, but I think it was all a ploy to get a positive reaction from the player. It worked for me - I liked it that he had an explosive impact when things needed to improve quickly," he told Yahoo New Singapore in an interview on Sunday (12 December), being in town as the guest-of-honour for the JSSL Singapore FA Cup youth football tournament at Our Tampines Hub.
"Sir Alex's temper is just a small part of what made him great. He was very knowledgeable in football tactics, and his man management was second to none - he knew exactly how to bring out the best in every player."
Even so, Schmeichel acknowledges that Ferguson's authoritarian managerial style may not work as well nowadays as it did in the 1990s.
With a slew of football resources available online, he feels that the best managers in this era are the ones who can marshal such data into a cohesive playing philosophy, and convince players that they can win trophies by using these data to improve themselves.
"It's not a football thing, it's more a society change. Players nowadays prefer managers who help them make sense of the information they have, rather than be told what exactly to do," he said.
"Will it come back again to having strong leaders who stand out so much that others have to accept their words? I don't know, but I kind of hope so, because sometimes we need these people to steer us quickly back on the right track. Working with Sir Alex, there was never any doubt what I had to do, and I liked that."
Optimism over new Man United manager Ralf Rangnick
The interview inevitably shifted to Man United, the club Schmeichel remains most identified with. The Dane admits that he misses the stability at the club during Ferguson's glorious 27-year reign from 1986 to 2013, especially as the Red Devils have already gone through four failed managerial appointments in the eight years since the Scot's retirement.
The latest appointment came just two weeks ago, when Ralf Rangnick took over on an interim basis from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, after the former United striker - and Schmeichel's ex-teammate - stumbled badly amid the current EPL season.
Rangnick is renowned for setting up modest German clubs to play a progressive, high-pressing style of football, but he has not yet managed a club of Man United's massive global stature. Does Schmeichel believe that the new manager can put the Red Devils back on the right track?
"Well, as a fan of the club, I have to believe they are making changes for the better," he quipped.
"I think the club want to involve Ralf for his restructuring skills, and he is expected to have a position in the club to continue this restructuring after his interim job. This is a positive step, but will it be enough to bring United back to the top and challenging for titles like before? It's hard to say now, but I'm passionate about the club, so I am optimistic."
Proud to see his son Kasper's success at Leicester
Schmeichel retired in 2003 after a glittering, trophy-laden club and international career, but has continued to be prominent in media punditry and supporting football projects around the world.
As he lends his support to the youth football development such as the JSSL tournament, he says he is immensely proud to see his son Kasper, Leicester City's first-choice goalkeeper when they stunningly won the EPL in 2016, enjoy an elite career like him.
"I'm glad that I'm now better known as Kasper's dad, rather than Kasper being known more as my son. Whatever success he had, it was down to his own hard work - I tried not to push him to do things my way," he said.
"I think parents of young footballers should let their kids enjoy playing the game, and not demand them to start winning trophies. Success can come later, young kids deserve the chance to have fun first."
The JSSL Singapore FA Cup - which saw 133 four-a-side teams taking part - was the first tournament by the JSSL academy in two years. Its Singapore International 7s competition is set to return in April next year.
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