In the build-up to last month’s Champions League final, former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand hosted a show where he and current Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk chose their five best defenders in the Premier League’s history.
Van Dijk selected Ferdinand as the best, followed by Vincent Kompany, Jaap Stam, John Terry and Sami Hyypia; Ferdinand somewhat surprisingly chose himself as the best, before adding his former partner Nemanja Vidic, Van Dijk, Stam and Terry.
The former England and Chelsea captain Terry might have made the top five in both lists, but he was not happy, and posted some of his statistics and achievements on his social media accounts.
This included highlighting the fact he was in the top ten of players with the most nominations for the FIFPRO World XI, the captain with the most Premier League titles, and the Premier League’s highest scoring defender of all-time.
“The moment one has to start pushing their own records and stats it’s really time to start addressing the fragile ego,” Ferdinand responded. “You’re lucky I even put you in the top five after the racism case with my brother so be thankful you made it.”
Terry could not resist the bait, and replied, “A fragile ego is putting yourself at number 1… Thanks for putting me in your top 5.”
The spectacle of two of England’s greatest ever players indulging in such a public argument inevitably produced some headlines, but largely took the focus away from the original debate.
The truth is neither Ferdinand, Van Dijk or the disgruntled Terry are correct, and the Premier League’s greatest ever defender remains Jaap Stam.
It has been 21 years since the Dutchman left the Premier League, but it is my contention no one has managed to surpass his greatness in that time. Not Ferdinand at United; not Terry at Chelsea, and not Van Dijk at Liverpool.
Stam’s stay in England was relatively brief, just three full seasons, but in that time he did more than enough to be hailed as the Premier League’s greatest ever.
He never finished a season anywhere other than on top and as a champion, winning the Premier League in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
In 1999 he also won the Champions League and the FA Cup, to help Manchester United become the first club side from a major European league to win the Treble.
Stam was the foundation of the Treble winners, the greatest side in English football history, providing crucial defensive security, which gave David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Dwight Yorke and others the confidence to surge forward.
UEFA made him their Defender of the Year in both 1999 and 2000; Premier League managers said he was the player they most wanted to sign for their teams, and former BBC Radio commentator Mike Ingham declared, “Without Jaap Stam, Sir Alex would still be Alex.”
Peter Schmeichel’s career spanned 19 seasons, but only one of them was with Stam, at United in 1998-99, but this did not stop him choosing the Dutchman as the best defender he had ever played behind.
“It has to be Stam, he was a tower of strength; he was so quick and strong,” he once told me. “In the treble-winning season, he proved himself as one of the best-ever defenders. He was awesome.”
Stam was the complete defender; 6ft 3in tall and powerfully built, no one could compete with his strength. He could instinctively read the game, and was exceptionally quick too, and I never saw him lose a sprint.
“Once Jaap’s pace took him into the channel ahead of an attacking player they had no chance,” Ryan Giggs has recalled. “He was so strong it was a mismatch. He would not be beaten. “
At the end of games Stam normally had a clean pair of shorts, for he rarely needed to dive in with a last-ditch tackle. His trademark move was to draw level with a striker before stealing the ball away and passing it to a team-mate.
He wasn’t all brawn, he could be incredibly graceful too, he was Dutch after all, so was always comfortable on the ball and could bring it out of defense with ease.
A late developer, while his contemporaries Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids were at the Ajax Academy, Stam was still at his local amateur side DOS Kampden before moving through a total of five clubs in six years, his talent soon outgrowing his surroundings before winning a Dutch title and a Dutch Cup with PSV Eindhoven, as well as being voted the 1997 Dutch Player of the Year.
“The players did not know much about Jaap when we signed him, but Jordi Cruyff said he was the best center half he had ever seen,” Giggs has said. “We thought, ‘Surely he can not be that good otherwise we would have heard of him.’ But he was. From the moment he arrived he was brilliant, he was a beast of a man. ”
The enduring regret for Stam was that his stay in the Premier League was not long enough, and he was surprisingly sold to the Italian side Lazio in August 2001.
At the time, it was speculated this was because he had written a book that had produced some mildly unflattering headlines for United, but his manager Sir Alex Ferguson always denied this.
“[It was] absolutely a footballing decision, ”said Ferguson, who thought a recent Achilles injury had cost Stam some of his famous pace and mobility.
But over the next six years Ferguson would come to regret his decision as Stam excelled in Italy, and after two years in Rome, joined the reigning European champions AC Milan, where he played alongside fellow legends Cafu, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta, for two seasons, and helped them reach the 2005 Champions League final.
Ferguson is a proud man, rarely one to admit when he has erred, but he made an exception for Stam. He called selling the Dutchman possibly the greatest “mistake” of his 26 years at Old Trafford, which had obviously “backfired.”
The debate will rage on, and maybe one day Stam will be overtaken, but for now he retains the title as the Premier League’s greatest ever defender.