Sir Alex Ferguson didn't make many mistakes during his trophy-laden 26 years in charge of Manchester United, but he believes selling Jaap Stam was the biggest.
The Dutchman, who celebrates his 50th birthday on Sunday, was regarded as one of the best centre-backs in world football at the turn of the century and a man-mountain at the heart of the Red Devils' defence. However, one almighty falling out with Ferguson saw a fruitful three years together at Old Trafford thrown down the drain, with Stam suddenly shipped off to Italy.
In the summer of 2001, the centre-back's United career was cut short after he unforgivably – in Ferguson's eyes anyway – broke the legendary Scottish manager's trust. To top it all off, Stam's unceremonious exit was confirmed at petrol station.
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Back in August of that year, the Dutch defender crossed a line following the inclusion of a number of controversial remarks within his autobiography 'Head to Head'. In addition to suggesting he had been 'tapped up' by Ferguson when signing from PSV Eindhoven in 1998, Stam claimed the iconic Scot actively encouraged his United players to dive during matches.
"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," Stam spilled. "He wants us to copy other sides we face in European competitions and go down to win a penalty."
Unsurprisingly, the revelations didn't go down well with the ruthless Ferguson. In fact, so enraged was the Scot by the whole episode that he left the centre-back out of United's starting XI for a trip to Aston Villa before swiftly agreeing to offload him to Lazio at the earliest opportunity.
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Days before the transfer, tensions came to a head and Stam stormed out of training after making his feelings known to his manager. The fiery Ferguson then tracked the defender down at a petrol station before informing the centre-back his Old Trafford career was over.
"One morning I told him what I thought and left the training ground on the spot," Stam later revealed. "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."
Within 24 hours, Stam had travelled to Rome and joined Lazio. Ferguson subsequently placed his faith in the emerging Wes Brown and veteran Laurent Blanc, who was swiftly brought in as Stam's replacement.
Though United ultimately enjoyed success under Ferguson after the defender was sold, the Red Devils' dominance was not at the level it once was with Stam in the side. The Dutchman won the Premier League title in each of his three seasons at United while 1999 saw the club claim a historic treble.
Ferguson would later admit his regret at his handling of the Stam affair, confessing he made a mistake in forcing the defender out of the club.
"When I think of disappointments, obviously Jaap Stam was always a disappointment to me," he said in 2013. "I made a bad decision there."
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