Gary Neville on the ‘big decision’ that Alex Ferguson got wrong at Manchester United

Jaap Stam Manchester United

The Manchester United legend still regrets the decision to sell Jaap Stam.

Having won more trophies than any other manager in the history of football, there aren’t an awful lot of decisions that Alex Ferguson got wrong in his managerial career at Manchester United, Jaap Stam’s departure was one.

Granted, 27 years at the helm of Old Trafford will see some mistakes being made but when you consider he won 38 trophies – including 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, and two UEFA Champions League titles – it’s obvious that the Scot got more right than he did wrong.

That’s why he’s still regarded as the greatest manager in the history of club football.

However, in his book Red, Gary Neville recounts a major decision that Fergie made in 2001 that shook Manchester United fans, the decision to sell Jaap Stam to Lazio.

At the time, Jaap Stam was regarded as one of the best defenders in Europe and a cornerstone of Manchester United’s treble-winning team of ’99.

Powerful, good on the ball, and deceptively quick, the Dutchman became a firm favourite with the Old Trafford faithful but the common perception is that Fergie lost patience with Stam after passages of his autobiography were serialised by the press.

Later, Ferguson would say that the former PSV defender lost a yard of pace, which influenced his decision to sell him to Lazio.

In his book, Neville gives an account of how he felt when the news of Stam’s future was announced to the squad.

“Jaap Stam was sold which was a bombshell as big as Sparky leaving, even for the players – especially for the players. We were as mystified as anyone. All kinds of conspiracies swirled around because Jaap’s exit came on the back of his ‘controversial’ autobiography, but I’ve always believed that the book was a minor factor, perhaps irrelevant.”

The former Manchester United right-back later states that Ferguson wasn’t thrilled about the book, nor was Neville about being called a “busy little c**t” in it.

However, the former England defender explained that it looked worse written down on paper than it really was.

“Jaap had called me that to my face many times, and I know it was meant affectionately, but it didn’t look good spread across the front of the Daily Mirror” before adding that Stam “didn’t mean any harm with the book, he’d just not thought through the consequences of serialisation.”

With Stam in Rome, Ferguson signed French World Cup winner Laurent Blanc as his replacement but the 35-year-old was past his best and initially struggled to adapt to the Premier League. However, his performances did improve as he featured in 19 league games during United’s 2002-03 title-winning campaign.

However, Neville thinks that Blanc failed to adequately fill the void left by Stam’s departure and that Ferguson got that decision wrong.

“It was a strange one, made more bizarre when Laurent Blanc, a class act but clearly past his best, arrived as a replacement. There aren’t many big decisions you can point to and say the manager called that one wrong. This was one.”

In 2007, during an interview with The Independent, Ferguson supported Neville’s claim when he described the decision to sell Stam to Lazio as an error too.

“At the time he had just come back from an Achilles injury and we thought he had just lost a little bit. We got the offer from Lazio, £16.5m for a centre back who was 29. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. But in playing terms it was a mistake. He is still playing for Ajax at a really good level,” said Ferguson.


(Originally published on September 30, 2020).

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