To be a goalkeeper requires more than just agility and a safe pair of hands, but mental strength, more self belief than your average multi-million record selling diva and a hide thick enough to repel a missile. I know this as I like many others before me fell far short of these requirements.
A new season, a new team and everything to prove. Five minutes in and the referee has awarded a free kick on the edge of my area. The free kick itself was so poor it should have been an embarrassment to the taker but instead it transformed into a goal like a pumpkin turned into a glittering carriage as it tamely trickled past me.
I stood immobilised by fear like a fly in a spiders web, a helpless by-stander, until my legs eventually slipped through the adrenaline which held them in its grip. My feeble dive when it came only made matters worse. I looked like a circus clown. It was a disaster, a calamity. My team never recovered and my mistake lost the game.
Some of my team mates offered their sympathy, some were more critical, but for one it was too much; I was threatened as I trudged head down to the dressing room, headed straight for my car and quit the team a few days later. I hung up my gloves and made a vow to stick to outfield where causality is often more opaque.
As result of my experience I felt an overwhelming pang of sympathy for England keeper Robert Green after his mistake provided the USA with their equalizing goal. His team mates, as befits professionals, are publicly rallying behind him and his manager has blamed the ball, but this can be scant solace to the goalkeeper who is often their own harshest critic and even if Green isn’t, there are the tabloid headlines the next day, the anger inflected Facebook status updates almost instantly and the Youtube clip for posterity (not to mention the animated Lego spoof).
To put things into perspective – my error, which haunts me several years on, occurred in a Sunday league game on a desolate park; not in a Worlds Cup finals game, in a packed stadium with a TV audience running into the millions including all those back home stoked on months of world cup build-up and over forty years of unfulfilled expectation.
The goalkeeper must also struggle against football folklore which depicts them as the eccentric or the clown. One of the ‘keepers Robert Green pipped to the starting slot David James had himself struggled with being dubbed been ‘Calamity James’; famously blaming not the ball, but long sessions on his Nintendo as the source of a string of mistakes.
James is now a well respected veteran goalie, most recently an FA cup winner and runner-up with Portsmouth, and no doubt will be a source of comfort to his team-mate as he seeks to rebuild his confidence, but despite his successes the label has followed him throughout his career.
Goalkeeping errors seem to stick in the memory firmly fixed by the slapstick comedy value they bring to the drama of a football match. A great goal can have us in awe but the biggest laughs happen when the ball is fumbled, bounces unusually or is deflected in past a hapless keeper courtesy of a beach ball.
Sometimes though the goalkeeper strikes back and not just in their ready-made glory moment of the penalty shoot-out where tables are turned with greater pressure on the outfield players who are detached from their herd and expected to beat the goalkeeper who will face no blame for a goal, but can gain only glory from a save.
Prior to a crucial world cup qualifying clash between Poland and England in 1973 manager and pundit Brian Clough described Poland’s Goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski as a clown. Tomaszewski went on to produce such an impressive performance denying England again and again. The match ended 1-1. The result good enough to send Poland through to the finals at England’s expense.
Such triumphs do not however, detract from the fact that the goalkeeper has without doubt the toughest job in football.