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Keeping the Bench Warm — The Trials & Tribulations of Back-Up Goalkeepers

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9 min read

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For one reason or another, this season has seen a number of long-suffering back-up goalkeepers finally venturing into the first eleven on a regular basis.

Almunia at Arsenal has at long last cast off the albatross of Mad Jens Lehmann from around his neck, leaving Lehmann to vilipend and gnash his teeth together like Muttley from Wacky Races — to the chagrin of Arsene Wenger, but to the utmost amusement of other spectators. Almunia has been one of The Gunners most consistent performers so far this campaign.

Meanwhile, over the last two seasons a goalkeeper who has spent so long glued to the bench that doctors might have pronounced him comatose — Steve Harper — has profited from the injury misfortune of Shay Given to notch up 17 and 11 league performances in 2006-07 and 2007-08 respectively.

This run of games, if it continues, could allow Harper to reach the milestone of 100 games in a Newcastle jersey, spread over some 10 years in the first-team squad, as well as opening the possibility of surpassing the 18 league appearances managed in the 1999-00 season — an impressive record considering the three bareen seasons in the early noughties when Harper did not make a single league appearance.

With Newcastle having announced yesterday that Given will be out of action for six more weeks, having gone under the knife in a bid to cure his persistent groin problems, Harper will have few chances as precious as this one to stake his case for a first-team berth. Radek Cerny usurped Paul Robinson in the Tottenham Hotspur goal, albeit briefly, whilst at Man City, Joe Hart has gone from being third choice at the beginning of the season, to one of the first names on the team sheet, and in so doing has positioned himself on the verge of an England call-up.

The examples of Harper and Almunia go some way to illustrating the difficult predicament with which back-up goalkeepers are faced, a turmoil which puts to shame the relatively banal struggles of an outfield player, such as Vikash Dhorasoo, when not being selected. On the one hand, any foray into the first-team for a sub goalie generally comes with a costly proviso: either the number one has pulled up with an injury, or he is having one hell of a Weston super and needs to be hauled off pronto before things get worse.

When Eduardo was stretchered off with his terrible double break on the 25th February, substitute Nicklas Bendtner could well have been forgiven for finding it difficult to focus. Now put yourself in the position of Carlo Cudicini, who had to take the place of Petr Cech after the giant Chelsea keeper had suffered a serious collision with Reading striker Stephen Hunt and been taken to hospital with concussion.

A noxious hybrid of relief — finally, a chance to get onto the pitch! —; guilt — how can I be pleased when my team-mate is flat out on a gurney? —; and apprehension — how do I go into the next challenge with the same conviction? or, Jesus, we’re already three down and my tea hasn’t gone cold yet — such is the fare of the substitute goalkeeper when his name is finally called. For footballing understudies, a new meaning is brought to that ever-so-common theatrical phrase uttered from backstage to the star: “Break a leg!”. Either way, for the back-up the omens are less-than-flattering, and the type of concentration and manual awareness necessary to keep goal at the top-level — for a speedy winger, getting prepared might entail as little as pirouetting a few times up the sidelines — are hard to preserve or instil when sitting on a bench.

Meanwhile, for the manager, a substitute goalkeeper is a necessary inconvenience, the leather-handled umbrella one carts about hoping desperately not to have to unleash. Taking the place of an outfield player who could legitimately change the game — a hefty centre-back to shore up a pressured defence and protect a lead; a diminutive midfielder to play the killer pass and set an attacker free; or a brutish goalscorer who is only good for ten minutes a game — a sub keeper offers nothing in terms of flexibility or tactical variation, which is another reason why he is unlikely to get minutes on the pitch, unlike, say, a lanky substitute forward brought on to play out-of-position and defend an aerial siege from corners and free-kicks.

The result is that a back-up goalie is never introduced at the behest of his gaffer, who will invariably plot his game-plan on the firm basis of not having to resort to the traditional number 13. Whilst any injury invariably disrupts the flow of a game, as well as the preconceptions of the manager prior to a game, an injury to the established number 1 is a huge setback to a manager and serves to forcefully reroute his thoughts with regard to the remainder of the match.

Neil Warnock ranks amongst the managers that regularly decide against utilising a sub goalie, with Phil Jagielka memorably slipping on the keeper’s jersey in The Blades’ 1-0 triumph over Arsenal last season. The Scottish FA’s decision to make it obligatory to name a keeper on the bench caused quite a stir, and the methods devised by clubs to contravene this shackle prove to what extent a sub goalie can be seen as a liability.

The number 13 thus joins an asinine and paradoxical group of workers for whom a good day at the office means not having anything to do — bracketing him with the likes of a fireman, a police officer, or a customer services operator wary of pesky clients. In fact, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that a backup keeper is, as Victorian parents used to snarl at their children, better “seen but not heard”, and contingent as is a keeper’s performance on such things as concentration, patterns, confidence and consistency, it is virtually impossible to give a sub goalie a “run out” in the way that one might do with a forward when 2-0 up.

Meanwhile, whilst the brooding rivalry between Almunia and Lehmann is certainly entertaining, it can hardly be taken to be the norm. In general, a substitute goalkeeper must gregariously swallow his pride and put to one side any residual resentment towards the number one: a replacement keeper can be like a shadow, is heavily involved in everything his counterpart does, and is indeed often responsible for helping the man who has been chosen before him to warm-up before a game. The opportunity ripe, it must be some challenge for a number thirteen to avoid becoming Iago to his majestic Othello.

What’s more, goalkeepers do not tend to experience any age-related downturn in form, the corollary of which is that an up-and-coming goalie of, say, 19, could in theory play second-fiddle to a keeper ten years his senior for some 5-10 years. Being stuck behind the likes of Peter Shilton in a queue must rank as one of the most disheartening experiences on offer in football, whilst being the man to replace a long-standing keeper is an equally thorny issue. In a similar vein, watching from the sidelines makes it impossible to replicate the big-match environment and match play necessary to take one’s own game up a notch, meaning that back-up keepers are unlikely to ever reach their peak potential and may often look back at their forsaken careers with wistful eyes.

It is in this light that we can see the desertion of a trio of excellent goalies from a Liverpool side that seems to have delighted in stockpiling exciting guardians: we are talking, of course, about Scott Carson, Chris Kirkland and Jerzy Dudek, although the latter rather insanely opted to join Real Madrid, where he is kept out of the side by a goalkeeper in Iker Casillas who is a good deal better than the man who had blocked his path at Liverpool!

If all goalies are crazy, as goes the mantra, then back-up keepers must be barmily off their rocker. The fact is that substitute goalkeepers are amongst the most disdained individuals in the modern game. Accepting one’s role as back-up leads to nasty generalizations. Whilst Harper is applauded for his loyalty and patience (despite having been born in Easington, which although relatively close by, is by no means a province of Newcastle), Cudicini is, in the eyes of many critics, necessarily a money-grabber. Courted by a multitude of massive clubs throughout Europe, Cudicini has chosen to remain at Chelsea despite the formidable obstacle of Petr Cech.

It is indeed difficult to understand how a player could take any sort of satisfaction, personal or vicarious, from watching the actions from the sidelines week-in week-out, especially with the knowledge that a transfer would allow him to participate far more directly in the game he supposedly loves. However, if we look at it from a rational point of view, how many of us wouldn’t instantly quit jobs if offered the same salary but with a dramatically decreased output demand? About as many as Derby have Premiership points, I’d wager. Additionally, being a back-up keeper does have its fringe benefits. For one thing, you are unlikely to find yourself displaced, and so earn a steady wage with little job precariousness. Conversely, the lack of playing time frees you up to do other things — Steve Harper, for example, has gained qualifications as an FA-approved referee, as well as having a degree from the Open University.

Finally, it is worth noting that the union of replacement goalkeepers represents from the point of view of the neutral spectator’s excitement an unwanted lot, since a significant percentage of the elder generations still look back nostalgically upon the days when sub goalkeepers did not exist, and outfield players deputising between the sticks was a far more common experience. In terms of entertainment, a large number now feel that we are getting a raw deal: recalling the time in 1980 when Glenn Hoddle was forced to don the keeper’s jersey in an FA Cup tie against Manchester United (Spurs were victorious thanks to Ossie Ardiles’ goal), it is hard not to agree that such occurrences ought to be more common. It certainly might spice things up a little.

Survey question: Who are your top five backup goalies? Let us know in the comments below.

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Hugo Steckelmacher has loved football since he can remember - indeed, his mother often jokes that he kicked so much as a baby due to his eagerness to get out of the womb and play football! Of German-Jewish descent, a rocky love-affair with Tottenham began at a young age, and his favourite players as a child were Nick Barmby and Gary Mabbutt. At the age of ten, he began to watch La Liga football and fell in love with the league and especially with the "juego bonito" of the two biggest clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Now living in Barcelona, Hugo regularly [sic] writes on La Liga and Tottenham.