Thursday, 14 April 2011

Back of the Net?

As he contemplates his greatness,
England number 12 goalkeeper David
James displays a rare momentary lapse
in concentration moments before
Hartlepool's fourth goal.

Who’d be a goalkeeper? Judging by the look on the face of Hiralio Gomes following his moment of darkness against Real Madrid recently, he wished he’d never reached for the gloves. They didn’t used to wear gloves of course, but footballers were just coal miners in disguise back then.

Being ‘in nets’ is not a thankless task, as many an acrobatic No.1 has proved, but on the whole it’s a pretty miserable existence. Strangely though, goalkeepers (with specific notable exceptions) always strike me as the calmest, most intelligent players on the pitch and the ones you’d feel safest leaving your girlfriend with in China White on a Saturday night. They just look so, well, normal. Take Edwin Van De Saar or David Seaman for example: boring looking men who probably have a nice home life and maybe two dogs apiece. No prancing round like a fairy and swan diving over another fairy’s tight-clad leg for them. No, the goalie chooses to spend his days standing on a field watching his friends play football, with all the time in the world to philosophise about world peace or whether he booked his Audi Q7 in for a service. All the while with 5,000 yelping away fans throwing small denominations of change at his head. Or is that just at Millwall?

Surely part of the reason goalkeepers seem a pretty cerebrally collected bunch is down to their ability to put up with inevitable flack from fans, the press and even politicians. Take Seaman (please, not literally) for example; the vitriol that came his way following his world cup clanger against Brazil haunted him for the rest of his career. It was a shocker mind you - meteors take longer to reach Earth than Ronaldinho’s free kick did to sneak in. Thus, as any mistake they make is magnified and almost exclusively leads to a goal, they grow a fairly thick skin. Notable examples of suicidal goalkeepers (in the footballing sense but who knows) include Bruce Grobbelaar, Arsenal’s Flapi-Hand-ki and of course David James, whose blooper reel actually makes up whole shows on BBC3 these days. Incidentally I met Bruce Grobbelaar once at a wedding, and trust me, if I’d offered him a bribe to get me more wine, he’d have taken it.

Like the perennial horse racing question ‘are they jockeys because they’re small or are they small because they’re jockeys?’, it’s strange that nearly all goalkeepers stand well over six feet. We all know that keepers start keeping around the time they can stand (as any of them will, and do, tell you), so it constitutes a pretty fortunate growth spurt statistic. Just in case you were wondering, to keep them small, jockeys are made to sleep in tiny, dark boxes inside stables in Donegal so there’s no mystery there.

There’s no denying that when they do good, they do good, the most famous example being Gordon Banks’s heroics against Pele and co in 1970. I feel a little heathen to say it but for me, with time, ‘that save’ becomes less impressive. Not because of the save itself, but because of the extremely high standard others goalkeepers now attain in the modern game. In the same way you wouldn’t expect Jesse Owens to keep up with Usain Bolt, keepers in the modern game are superior athletes to their predecessors. Maybe not all of them, but the like of Joe Hart are Pepe Reina and are great to watch: fabulously athletic, quick on their feet and often seem to read the game with matrix-like vision. Remember that crazed Colombian with the reverse overhead kick save? Very Keanu.. On top of that, the forwards are stronger than ever too. No disrespect to Gordon, but a solid Ronaldo strike may have rendered him paraplegic.

I can’t write about goalkeepers without mentioning Peter Schmeichel. The absurdly limbed Dane more or less changed the way an entire generation of his successors played the position. The slow motion replays of his flailing arms and legs greeting an attacker at twenty miles an hour were enough to give you nightmares. God knows how his opponents felt. Barring possibly Shilton, ol’ Rudolph must be the finest keeper of the past twenty years, and played a bigger part in Man Utd’s huge 90s success than he is given credit for.

Amongst the invective levelled at them however, there is praise to be had for goalkeepers after a successful penalty shoot-out, kudos for keeping a particularly impressive clean sheet (no more Seaman jokes I promise) and back page action shots for game-saving heroics. The problem is that it goes as badly wrong as often as it goes pleasingly right, as Gomes will tell you once he’s stopped crying. That’s the dilemma for aspiring keepers – to risk a polarised life as a hero and villain or to tick along anonymously as a centre half. No doubt any goalkeeper will tell you he’s happy with his choice, but it’s a bit like having an ugly baby; it’s not how you wanted it but you wouldn’t swap it for the world.

Good for you boys, keep up the good work as you reach for your spit-encrusted Sondicos, sag into the turf all alone on a rainy Tuesday night and pick coins out of your hair. Personally, I was a left-winger; much better, everyone loves a left winger.