Sunday, 21 January 2007

The Football Monologues (Pt. 2)

ometimes I think too much. Thrust by the lack of a suitable alternative into goalkeeping at indoor soccer (Chickempron Submarine 1999-still going) I pulled off a couple of regulation saves in the first two minutes and started daydreaming about a heroic and unexpected shutout. Cue the defence opening in front of me and the ball flying to my left as I dived to the right for 0-1.

I could have been a keeper. No really. I’m fat, can’t run, like to yell orders at people, have decent reflexes and have the required eccentric qualities. However a childhood with glasses handicapped any chance I had of taking up the noble art. Not surprisingly the few times I did attempt it - usually at kickaround games at lunchtime - my enthusiastic performances were handicapped by a mortal fear of a Bob Hawke-esque splaying of the glasses across my face from a close range strike.

There can’t be many sporting positions where the responsibility for avoiding loss comes so much down to one person. A baseball pitcher can throw junk balls which end up in Row Z but he can be replaced at any time, and if his replacement is equally as bad they can continue the process ad nauseum until they’ve got nobody left. A goalkeeper - whether they be in football, hockey (ice or field), lacrosse or handball - will be judged on how many times the ball ends up in the net. Unless it was so blatantly the fault of the defence that even people who don’t understand the sport can see it the keeper will be judged at fault. Even if the forwards had botched the ball at their end and the midfielders had done nothing to stop the ball it will still be the keeper who goes down as the man who conceded the goal. Statistically there is no difference between being beaten by a 30y screamer and a simple tap in from a foot out. Even the greatest keeper in the world will concede some goals that you’d expect a Provisional League club player to save - it’s that sort of job. Any other player on the pitch can hide in a loss and remain fairly anonymous but the moment a keeper lets in a howler he’s consigned to a million YouTube views and “Football’s Greatest CockUps” video tapes.

Sadly in the era of reserve goalkeepers we are now almost always spared the spectacle of outfield players going in goal as the result of an injury or sending off. Vinnie Jones once went in goal for Wimbledon and put in a performance that was described as “surprisingly” limp wristed in a 6-0 loss to Newcastle. Though the loss of a keeper doesn’t always mean collapse - witness Italy vs Norway in the 1994 World Cup when the Norweigans dominated the first twenty minutes before Italy’s Pagliuca was sent off. An astonished Roberto Baggio was dragged to make way for the backup keeper to take the field and despite the numerical disadvantage the Azzurri played infinately better than they had with 11 men and won thanks to a goal by the younger Baggio, Dino, in the 69th minute.

With goalkeepers, more so than any other player, first impressions count. God knows how many great players have been lost to the professional game after a disasterous debut. Take Richard Wright for example - feted for years as the England goalkeeper of the future he was called up for a seemingly innocuous friendly against Malta where he proceeded to concede two penalties and put the ball into his own net. Overnight his reputation as a potential international was ruined and since 2001 he has only made 72 starts in the Premier League. Or Australian Andy Petterson who copped 6 on debut for Walsall and was sacked after three games. Mike Salmon was voted as Oxford United’s worst ever goalkeeper on the strength of his solitary appearance for the U’s when he let in 7 against Birmingham City in 1998. History records his demise but there’s no mention of the fate of the defenders who were in front of him and may have contributed wholly to the disasterous result. And finally who will ever forget Aston Villa’s Peter Enckleman. In the first league clash against deadly inter-city rivals Birmingham for almost two decades he attempted he - well you can’t describe what he did you have to watch the video.

We rarely talk about great misses or defensive blunders but that video will be played a billion times across the globe before anyone gets sick of it. Who’d be a keeper? I would.

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