The Dutchman—a four-time Eredivisie champion and 1995 Champions League winner with Ajax—had failed to win any major silverware in Turin, and after back-to-back second-place finishes in Serie A and a group-stage exit in the Champions League he was replaced by Gianluigi Buffon, who had arrived at the club for a world-record fee for a goalkeeper.
And so van der Sar, 30, moved to Craven Cottage, where over the next four seasons he would revitalize his career to the point that Manchester United would offer to make him their No. 1 ‘keeper ahead of the 2005-06 campaign.
He could hardly refuse, and by the time he hung up his boots in 2011, another four league titles and a Champions League winner's medal had been added to his trophy case.
Those four years at Fulham were a godsend to van der Sar, but the club—who were able to employ a top talent in transition—benefited from them as well. And after signing Maarten Stekelenburg from AS Roma on Wednesday, the modest London outfit is no doubt hopeful history is about to repeat itself.
The €5.6 million Fulham spent to land Stekelenburg (h/t Football-Italia.net) represents only a small financial risk, and with Mark Schwarzer out of contract and set to turn 41 in October, the Cottagers were always going to be in a market for a goalkeeper this summer anyway.
Enter Stekelenburg—the Netherlands No. 1 who, like van der Sar, headed to Italy after an illustrious spell at Ajax only to jump to the Premier League after two years. And, like his countryman, Stekelenburg arrives at Fulham at the age of 30, having failed to make much of a mark in Serie A.
But will he provide an upgrade on Schwarzer, the popular veteran who might have agreed a new contract had a replacement not been sought out?
This past season Schwarzer took points from 20 of the 36 matches he started, stopped 89 percent of the shots he faced and recorded an impressive eight clean sheets.
Stekelenburg, by comparison, took points from 14 of the 19 matches he started (he spent much of the season injured), stopped 88 percent of the shots sent his way and shut out his opponents three times.
Statistically (all stats courtesy of TheScore.com), Schwarzer had the slightly better season, and when Stekelenburg takes his place between the sticks, his teammates will find a goalkeeper significantly less confident on set pieces—particularly corner kicks—than what they got used to with the Australia international.
What Stekelenburg will offer, however, is excellent ball distribution and a chance that he just might rediscover the highs he hit while at Ajax, where he worked under current Fulham manager Martin Jol.
Stekelenburg has already expressed his delight at linking up with his former boss, telling Fulham’s official website that Jol understands the abilities he brings to the table.
There will also be at least one new face in the Fulham defense next season—Venezuela international Fernando Amorebieta, who joined the club on a free transfer from Athletic Bilbao back in May (h/t Telegraph).
Looking at Fulham’s summer transfer activity as a body of work (which has also included the acquisition of Ghana midfielder Derek Boateng from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk), they have managed to sign a goalkeeper and starting central defender for the grand total of €5.6 million—moves that might represent some of the smartest business conducted over the next few months.
Of course, Fulham would prefer to see all their new players—and Stekelenburg in particular—play well above their valuations.
Stekelenburg, for his part, will be looking to replicate what van der Sar did at this club. If he takes the opportunity, there could still be big things waiting for him.