9th May 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
David de Gea was crowned Manchester United's player of the season for the third time running this week. And in doing so, he became the first player to win the award three times in a row since its inception in 1987.

When you consider United's rich history, and the plethora of world-class players to have worn the famous red shirt over the last three decades, de Gea's achievement seems all the more remarkable.

Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo had all previously won the ballot in back-to-back years, but the former Atlético Madrid goalkeeper has now gone one better.

"It's difficult to say something, to win three years in a row is amazing, I'm really happy." De Gea said when accepting the award.

"It's an honour and I want to say thank you to everyone. I think we have some of the best fans in the world - thank you to everyone."

De Gea is also the only goalkeeper to have won the award, which perhaps tells you more about United's fortunes in recent years than anything else.

Old Trafford has been home to some outstanding goalkeepers during the Premier League era, with Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar standing out. But the Red Devils have never been as reliant on a stopper as they have been with de Gea over the last three years.

First under David Moyes, and now with Dutchman Louis van Gaal in charge, United have struggled to recapture the kind of form overseen by Sir Alex Ferguson during his 26-year reign. Without the constant heroics of the agile Spaniard between the sticks, the club could have fallen even further.

But it hasn't all been plain sailing for de Gea at United.

When de Gea was signed from Atlético Madrid as a 20-year-old is 2011, eyebrows were raised by many supporters. Some hadn't heard of the young keeper, and those who were aware of his exploits at the Vicente Calderón, questioned whether the youngster was ready for a switch to one of the biggest clubs in the world.

The price-tag, too, caused consternation and debate. United had forked out £18m for a goalkeeper with only two-seasons of top-flight experience. That fee made de Gea the most expensive goalkeeper in British football history, and third most expensive in the world, behind only Italian legend Gianluigi Buffon and Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer.

De Gea's talents were obvious incredible reflexes, accurate distribution, and at 6-foot-4-inches tall, great height for his position. But equally apparent were the young player's imperfections many experts observed a weakness in dealing with crosses, as well as a tendency to be beaten rather softly by shots from distance.

But with veteran Dutch keeper van der Sar retiring, and having scouted extensively across the continent, Ferguson was sure that de Gea was the right choice for United. Having not signed van der Sar until he was 33-years-old, the former Aberdeen boss was not going to make the same mistake with his replacement; de Gea was seen as the man for the long-term.

So de Gea was brought in, and he came with the approval of the man he was to replace "De Gea is high, has good feet, comes with authority and is agile." Van der Sar said. "[He] has everything to be one of the greatest goalkeepers in the next ten years."

And it was a case of out of the Calderón and into the fire for United's new number 1, as his competitive debut came against local rivals Manchester City in the Community Shield at Wembley Stadium on 7 August 2011.

It wasn't quite the start de Gea, or his new employers, were hoping for. The youngster's hesitance in dealing with a crossed free-kick, allowed Joleon Lescott to open the scoring. Then a 30-yard daisy-cutter from Edin Dzeko squirmed past the helpless de Gea the same question marks over his ability with crosses and long-shots had reared their head.

United fought back to win the game 3-2, and fans gave their new man the benefit of the doubt. The mistakes were written off as minor teething pains of a young man adapting to a new team, a new league, and new way of life.

But the following week, in his Premier League debut, de Gea conceded a weak Shane Long effort in a 2-1 victory over Southampton. Had Ferguson made a mistake? Would de Gea's name be added to the list of United's big-money flops, alongside the likes of Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba?

Well, just a week later, the fears of the Old Trafford faithful were somewhat allayed, as de Gea produced a string of brilliant reflex saves including one to keep out a Robin van Persie penalty as United thumped Arsenal 8-2.

Impressive displays against Chelsea, Stoke City and Liverpool followed. Yet de Gea's talent was still very raw. It was becoming obvious that, given time and patience, United could have a special goalkeeper on their hands. But the Spain under-21 international lacked presence largely due to his skinny frame and the language barrier between himself and his teammates.

Despite his progress, de Gea was making errors at a rate which Ferguson could not afford. Following the now infamous 6-1 defeat to City, and a 3-2 loss against Blackburn Rovers in which de Gea failed to sufficiently deal with a cross leading to the winning goal, the young goalkeeper was dropped. Back-up keeper Anders Lindegaard was instead given the chance to claim the first-choice spot.

In the face of this disappointment, de Gea remained resolute. "All keepers make mistakes once in a while and none of us like it when we do." He asserted. "I have every intention of spending many years here at Manchester United. I want to become a great United keeper and I want to earn and deserve the respect I hope to get."

De Gea regained his place before the end of the season when Lindegaard was ruled out with an injury in February. And the young man from Madrid has held onto his position ever since.

Into his second season at United, the costly errors became fewer and father between. De Gea ended the campaign with his first Premier League winners' medal, and was voted into the PFA Team of the Season.

"You bring a boy into the Premier League at 20, it's not easy." Said Eric Steel, United's former goalkeeping coach, speaking of de Gea in 2013. "He's learning in the toughest environment in the world. But the one thing he has is fantastic inner strength. We teach him that the calmest man on the field has to be the goalkeeper. And one of his great strengths is his calmness."

De Gea's inner strength and calmness has become the bedrock of the current United side. As those around him struggle to find form and consistency, de Gea is the one constant that van Gaal can rely on. Time and again he produces breathtaking saves, whether protecting narrow leads, maintaining parity or preventing further deficit.

Having earned a reputation as one of the world's finest goalkeepers, it was inevitable that, at some point, another European powerhouse would try to take advantage of United's transitional, post-Ferguson period, and snatch de Gea away from Manchester.

That was the case last summer, as Real Madrid sought to bring de Gea back to the City of his birth. Understandably, the player was keen on the move -- as much because his family and girlfriend still live in Madrid as for any footballing reasons.

United reluctantly agreed to allow de Gea to leave on the final day of the transfer window. A race against time ensued for all of the relevant paperwork to be submitted to Spanish authorities, confirming the agreement of a fee and the transfer of Costa Rican stopper Keylor Navas in the other direction.

Much to the delight of United fans, and to the great fortune of Louis van Gaal's team, technical difficulties meant that the documents were not processed in time, and the transfer window slammed shut with the deal in tatters.

De Gea committed his future to United by signing a new contract with the club, and has again enjoyed a stellar season. However, there have been murmurings that the new deal included a fixed buyout clause which, if triggered, would see United well compensated, but the fee is by no means prohibitive to Madrid's interest.

So whether de Gea remains at Old Trafford next season is likely to be the subject of much debate, and many column inches, over the coming months. And a lot will likely depend on the managerial situation at United and whether the club's ambitions match those of the player himself.

But if de Gea is to leave, the man once considered a skinny, cross-flapping liability, will prove near impossible to replace.