A fter observing Liverpool’s tragic exit which can only be put down to the absence of Alisson and another magnificent big match display by Jan Oblak… I was inspired to write an ode to Goalkeepers - the unloved, masochistic, lonely bastards who lead a solitary life between the sticks with only the 18-yard area for company.
First a confession to make - I could not be more unqualified to write about the 'Art of Goalkeeping' because ever since a young child, I have at all costs sought to avoid having to enjoy a spell in goal - cursed with poor eye-sight, fear of getting blasted in the nuts, not being particularly flexible and the sheer thought of missing out on the heat of the battle in midfield made me shiver at the prospect of lining up with the Number 1 shirt on my back…
Instead it was the kooky kids with zero outfield ability - those lacking in technical finesse, athleticism (pace, power, endurance), football intelligence and competitiveness who were thrown into goal. It was an unwritten playground rule…’Can’t play? go in goals’ and yet guarding the goal is the most significant responsibility in the game… You can play without any position in football but you cannot play without a goalkeeper.
It is fair to say however that the goalkeepers you would face in the playground, were of a different ilk to the ones lining up between the posts in organised weekend football. These goalkeepers would still be perceived as eccentrics and the ‘least talented’ outfield players but they had a certain pride for their specialism… and there was a burgeoning respect for their abilities and unflinching willingness to throw their body on the line for the team.
The earliest reference to keeping goal comes from Cornish Hurling in 1602 where it was said that participants would "pitch two bushes in the ground…which they term their Goals. There is assigned for their guard, a couple of their best stopping Hurlers".
During the climax of the industrial revolution, the FA's Laws of the Game did not make any special provision for a goalkeeper and handling the ball was completely forbidden. By 1871, the laws were amended to introduce the goalkeeper and specify that the keeper was allowed to handle the ball "for the protection of his goal"
Prior to the onset of the Second World War, Jimmy Thorpe, the young Sunderland goalkeeper, died as a result of a kick in the head and chest after he had picked up the ball following a back-pass in a game against Chelsea at Roker Park. He continued to take part until the match finished, but collapsed at home afterwards and died in hospital four days later. His tragic end led to a change in the rules, where players were no longer allowed to raise their foot to a goalkeeper when he had control of the ball in his arms.
The next substantial rule change was in 1992, with the introduction of the back-pass rule, which prohibited goalkeepers from handling the ball when receiving a deliberate pass from a teammate that is made with their feet. This rule change was made to discourage time-wasting and overly defensive play after the 1990 FIFA World Cup which was rife with back-passing and goalkeepers holding the ball.
An accomplished goalkeeper is essentially a permanent ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Even when all hope seems lost and the enemy has breached defensive lines, seemingly set to put the game out of reach, a quality goalkeeper can pull off miracles and keep you in it, saving your blushes.
From the oppositions perspective, they make the goal seem smaller, you avoid taking certain shots because you think there’s no point shooting from a certain distance or angle - in fact they force you to exert more power and yet simultaneously strive for more accuracy…thus inflicting a bout of heightened anxiety and the panicked execution of more error prone shots.
Aerial bombardment also gets taken away as an option, especially in an 11 aside context, where a strong confident goalkeeper consistently collects the ball in the corridor of uncertainty, relieving his centre backs of the need to put their head where it hurts. Such a goalkeeper is a pillar of strength during set piece situations and willingly withstands any attempts to intimidate him with vicious elbows to the ribs or to the face. It takes a rare type of character to thrive in such a high-pressured and physically intense situation…
From a defensive organisation point of view, the best goalkeepers are like tactical watchtowers, overseeing the battle from afar, assessing the first signs of danger. They are vocal and pivotal in marshalling the troops to ensure pin-point tactical positioning from set-piece as well as open play. They think like an elite level manager and libero, despite not having the physical or technical ability to play in the outfield at a high level.
In the modern game - with the extra emphasis on possession – goalkeeper’s are expected to play football too, at a higher standard than some amateur outfield players – they need to execute long passes with precision, feint with the ball in order to avoid the oncoming press and locate the open man. They need to be able to head a long ball or bring it down on their chest due to teams employing a high backline needing a keeper to act as the sweeper.
Because of the importance of all the above facets of the position, a first-rate goalkeeper can therefore be a crucial psychological pillar for the team… someone who the team looks to in moments of difficulty and the emotional foundation upon which the rest of the team can be built on regardless of that team’s designated tactical framework or philosophy.
A prominent example of a goalkeeper influencing an entire tournament was Peter Schmeichel’s displays during the 1992 European Championships. Denmark were the underdogs and missing Michael Laudrup who had opted to quit the national team and rated Denmark's chances of success so low he stayed in retirement.
Schmeichel made a string of important saves during the tournament, keeping a clean sheet in Denmark's opening 0–0 draw against England, and producing decisive stops against Eric Cantona and Jean-Pierre Papin in a 2–1 win over France to advance to the last four.
In the semi-finals against defending champions the Netherlands, following a 2–2 draw after extra time, he stopped a penalty kick from Marco van Basten – the only miss of the shoot-out – which enabled Denmark to advance to the final on a 5–4 victory.
Schmeichel also made several decisive saves in the final, and even held a cross with one hand, keeping a clean sheet in his nation's 2–0 victory over Germany. For his performances throughout the season, he was elected "The World's Best Goalkeeper of 1992" by IFFHS. opportunity to replenish their emotional reserves.
In summary, Goalkeepers are too oft an afterthought at many levels of the game. At the highest level, the greatest managers recognise the worth of a top goalkeeper and the recent big money addition of Alisson to Liverpool and the subsequent success they have achieved further illustrates how integral they can be in shoring up a defence and providing a stable psychological foundation for a team in pressure moments. It is very hard for a team to ‘carry’ a bad goalkeeper… remember Manchester United after Schmeichel retired?