The existential hero of the football field or just cranks in fancy gloves?
Jonathan Wilson took it on himself to dissect the notion of the goalkeeper in his new book, The Outsider, so the first question is obvious.
Is the reference to Albert Camus’ great novel deliberate?
“Absolutely,” says Wilson. “It works on two levels — it refers to his book but he was also a goalkeeper, he played for his university side in Oran and seems to have been pretty good.
“But goalkeepers are outsiders as well, the team is usually 10 plus one, and I think that influences the way they approach the world and the way the world approaches them.
“They have such an interesting place in culture, and when artists and writers approach football, they often focus on goalkeeper because he’s interesting — he has time to dwell on his mistakes so he has to have mental strength.”
That ability to stay focused even when the play doesn’t involve you is one of the big challenges for goalkeepers, of course.
“True, what’s happened in the last 50 years, or maybe longer, is that there’s more of a sense of the goalkeeper being part of the team in terms of analysing the game. He’s the one who can see the entire pitch, after all.
“That requirement, to constantly analyse and to talk his team-mates through games, is very important. Peter Shilton said that some of his best games were those in which he barely touched the ball but because of the way he organised the defence and shut down the opposition, he didn’t need to.
“To him, that was the best kind of game to play because there was little chance of anything going wrong, you were stopping attacks almost before they began. That’s a skill in itself, organising a defence like that, and if you watch a team regularly, you grow to appreciate that.
“Back in the 90s, when I went to Sunderland games every week, they had Tony Norman and Alex Chamberlain as keepers. Norman was the crowd favourite, was capable of great saves and when they got to the cup final in 1992 he was brilliant, and that cemented his place in the affections of the fans.
“Managers would keep trying Chamberlain as well, though, and he’d be beaten by long-range shots the odd time and the crowd got on his back. I wrote for the Sunderland fanzine at the time and wrote an analytical piece comparing the two keepers in terms of goals conceded, and it turned out Sunderland conceded fewer with Chamberlain in goal even though to the naked eye Norman was the better keeper.
“I think the reason was that Chamberlain organised the defence better, that there was something almost intangible to what he did that made the defence more secure. In general, that’s more appreciated now, though going back over the years it’s striking how many goalkeepers were captains.
“The two captains in the 1934 World Cup Final between Italy and Uruguay, for instance, were both goalkeepers — you’re talking about an age when managers weren’t as vocal.”
Not like the crowds, then. A goalkeeper can spend 45 minutes a few yards from thousands of people screaming abuse at him. How do they cope with that?
“When it comes to hostility goalkeepers can joke along — there’s the story of the Partizan goalkeeper of 1966 getting battered with coins at Old Trafford. A sandwich was thrown at him and he picked it up and ate some, after which the crowd left him alone.
“I don’t know about the literal truth of that story, but it’s one way of responding. The other way is to zone the crowd out totally, and some keepers are very good at doing that.”
Wilson nominates one netminder as the most significant in the growing importance of goalkeepers.
“Lev Yashin, I think. That’s partly tactical, because Gyula Grosicsm, the Hungarian, was the first to really play tactically, a decade or so before Yashin, but Yashin took that on.
“He became such an icon that his style of play spread. His personality, the way he dressed, all in black — though it shocked me to hear from his widow that his clothes were actually dark blue, not black — the flat cap, this icon of Soviet cool, that all contributed to his image.
“My father wasn’t easily impressed but he always spoke about seeing Yashin at Roker Park in the 1966 World Cup, the USSR-Hungary quarter-final, and Yashin really left an impression. That showed the aura he projected, he helped make goalkeeper an acceptable position, that there was a cachet to this isolated figure.”
Cachet? Does Wilson reckon there was a time that goal-keeping was unglamorous?
“Vladimir Nabokov said the goalkeeper was on a level with the flying ace, or the matador, for some reason the goalkeeper appealed to the Russian psyche.
“But in Britain, and maybe Ireland as well, it was often the place for the fat or weird kid. When I was in school one kid wanted to go in goal because he idolised Neville Southall — he had an Everton keeper’s jersey, though he lived in Sunderland, which was seen as perverse.
“Interestingly, Southall was the last keeper picked as player of the year, and that was in 1985, while the last European Player of the Year was Yashin back in the 60s. Even transfer fees show that lack of status, as it were — I think Craig Gordon is still the record UK transfer signing as a keeper, and that was £9m, buttons in today’s terms.
“When Brian Clough paid £270,000 for Peter Shilton that was seen as crazy; a director asked how he could pay that much for a player involved for only three or four minutes of the game, but Clough pointed out the next season that Shilton saved them 12 or 13 points by saves alone, not even counting the way he organised the defence, which cut down even further on their goals conceded. Goalkeepers are underrated, certainly.”
In Ireland, GAA goalkeepers like Dónal Óg Cusack and Christy O’Connor have written award-winning books, while in Canada, ‘The Game’ by Ken Dryden, a former ice hockey keeper, is held up as the ultimate Canadian sports book. That’s without talking about Camus or other famous keepers like Vladimir Nabokov or Julian Barnes.
Is it all that time left to themselves to think?
“The issue of time is definitely a factor. They have to train their minds to focus. With cricketers they say that batsmen who have innings of three or four hours have an ability to turn their concentration on and off. As soon as the ball is gone they can switch off their brains until they have to focus again, and a lot of goalkeepers can do that as well — drift when the ball is at the other end of the field and switch on when it comes in their direction.
“Generally I think goalkeepers are better interview subjects, they generally have more interesting things to say, and they’re more interesting subjects of books, or authors.”
Okay: a favourite save. Call it.
“As a Sunderland fan it’s got to be Jim Montgomery’s save against Leeds in the 1973 FA Cup Final, but clearly that’s the greatest moment in the history of sport.
“My Dad, being as cussed as he was, would always say ‘it’s not as good as a save he made at Huddersfield four years before that’, and you’d have to say, ‘Dad, think of the context’.
“I remember as a kid the keeper who influenced me was Luis Arconada of Spain, and there was that terrible mistake he made in the 1984 European Cup final, when Michel Platini’s free-kick squeezed under his body.
“And he became this tragic figure as a result, to the extent that Andrés Palop, one of the Spanish sub keepers, wore Arconada’s jersey when Spain won the European Championships in 2008, when he received his medal from Michel Platini, of course.”
One last question: famous literary goalkeepers: who’s the best?
“Camus probably played at a higher level,” says Wilson. “Nabokov played for Cambridge after World War One but didn’t really continue with it, whereas Camus always retained an interest in the game.
“After he won the Nobel Prize in 1957 he went off to watch Racing in Paris — they wore blue and white like his university team — because he was sick of getting interviewed. A TV station found out he was at the game and sent a crew down to interview him but he was concentrating on the game and dead-batted away the questions about literature and the prize.
“But when they asked what he thought of the game, he came out with this long answer about what was going wrong for Racing. He was engaged with football for longer than Nabokov, then.
“Julian Barnes was a keeper but at a lower level; Pope John Paul II was a keeper but didn’t go much beyond school.
“Mind you, Arthur Conan Doyle played for the amateur side which eventually became Portsmouth FC, so he played at a decent level.
“So between Camus and Doyle, then.”
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