If there’s one thing we’ve learnt early on this season it’s the true value of a goalkeeper. Circumstance has meant that the person who we most often take for granted, the person who has to stand silently, unnoticed for three quarters of an hour before suddenly being expected to switch on lightning reflexes, has been shoved to the forefront of our attention, and with this newfound attention comes open criticism. As Mark Lawrenson analysed of Carlo Cudicini: “He’s a great shot-stopper, but he’s indecisive coming off his line.” Then again, if the last time you’d claimed a cross you were unconscious before reaching the ground you too might think twice.
Times are tricky in the Chelsea goalkeeping camp and there has been a lot of speculation on how to regain last season’s impenetrable defence, on what the FA plans to do to protect keepers and on what Jens Lehman has to say on the subject. Yet I fear such questions skirt about the real issue, the burning curiosity that has been uncovered by these events, within which may well lie the answer to all the above speculation… What sort of a man decides he wants to become a goalkeeper?
When we were at school the goalkeeper was always the one who arrived late, the least fit and the worst outfield player. I know this because more often than not this was me. My redemption however came in the fact that I turned out to be the worst goalkeeper in known history, and so was swiftly placed in attack, where I could do least damage. It is a role I still fulfil today, hanging around, scratching occasionally and generally not tackling, basically like Chris Sutton. But the question remains: who actually wants to become a goalkeeper? In order to get to the bottom of this I’ve tried to investigate the various merits and demerits of the goalkeeping trade and (naturally) I’ve imagined what Jens Lehman might have to offer on the subject.
Is it all that dangerous?
Well let’s look at the 2006 casualty list: Petr Cech (skull fracture), Carlo Cudicini (concussion), Shay Given (bowel surgery), Kris Kirkland (all-over-body-pain), Paddy Kenny (eyebrow bitten off) (in a curry house car-park) (doesn’t say much for the curries). The list of injuries would suggest danger; but then sport is dangerous, sport is physical and accidents can happen. I admit, goalkeepers probably get it worse than most since a player bearing down on goal will know he’s got only one left to beat and will try that little bit harder than on other parts of the pitch, 60-40 balls become 50-50 in the forward’s eye, so accidents happen. But because of this goalkeepers are generally given the benefit of the doubt and any malice towards them is punished unequivocally.
In Lehman’s terms: “Hey! you don’t ‘ave to watch David Addenborough every day to know life’s dangerous.”
Does a goalkeeper get unduly criticised?
Ask Paul Robinson. Christiano Ronaldo misses an open goal from two yards yet gets barely a mention in the papers. Paul Robinson falls foul to a freakish divot when England are already losing and who takes every single headline? Well ‘imaginatively’ Simon and Garfunkel with their hit ‘misses Robinson’ but the point is, as a keeper a single mistake is unforgivable. And it’s the only position where that’s always the case.
In Lehman’s terms: “Hey! You’re the last line of defence. If you go down, the ship goes down. Of course you’re cridicised.”
Does a goalkeeper get enough praise?
Herein lies goalkeeping’s sole attractive feature: A goalkeeper’s time in the sun is when a team is under the cosh. How often have you heard managers saying, we could have won six or seven nil? And how often does that happen? Goalkeepers relish a training ground feel, when they’re on their toes, saving shots left, right and centre. Under such circumstances even a draw makes them man of the match. Lose seven nil and it’s never the keeper’s fault.
In Lehman’s terms: “Hey! We’re here to stop goals, that’s what we do.”
Is it fun?
Whenever you look at a photograph of a goalkeeper where he’s not arched backwards pulling off some fantastic save, he’ll without exception be bellowing at his team mates. So unless throwing tantrums, getting beaten up, blamed and mocked by song titles is your thing, where’s the fun? Well, there are penalties, for one thing. Those are the goalkeeper’s oldest ally: if it goes in, ah well; if you save it, open the champagne. That’s all there is to it. And then there’s the fact that the goalkeeper is the last line of defence; the most important player; the one whose disappearance will bring down even the greatest team.
In Lehman’s terms: “Hey! no madder what ‘appens, whedder you win or lose, you’re always in the spotlight.”
And in those wise, enlightened words, Jens has summed up what it is that makes a goalkeeper. The thrill of danger rushing straight towards you; the weight of a team, a club, a nation on your shoulders; the non-existent margin for error. To be a top goalkeeper you need to be not only comfortable with such territory, but to seek it out. Bearing this in mind, until our boys are fully fit again I think Chelsea can brush aside advances from Fabien Barthez and keep Magnus Hedman on the bench, for there is only one man for the job. Someone brave to the point of suicidal, rugged to the point of unhealthy, enthusiastic to the point of annoying and more than familiar with an all-star team, why it can only be Escape To Victory’s Cpt. Robert “Sly” Hatch. Adriaaaane!