Goalkeepers – The Key to Success

Even in the chequered history of the England team, there have been few worse days than June 14, 1970, when West Germany came back from 2-0 down in Mexico to snatch the World Cup from their hands… Non-League blogger and Hyde United match announcer Mike Pavasovic (@CharlieBunyan) highlights the importance of the goalkeeper. [Originally featured in Liquid Football Magazine Issue Six]

Most people still blame the substitution of Bobby Charlton, saying it surrendered midfield to Franz Beckenbauer. Dominant as Charlton was, however, it was the absence of goalkeeper Gordon Banks that really proved England’s undoing. Banks, who had food poisoning, was replaced at the last minute with Peter Bonetti. The Chelsea man was no mug but on that stifling afternoon in Leon, racked by nerves, he froze completely.

Alf Ramsey’s defences were known for their effectiveness, but lacking a commanding keeper, England wilted in the face of the late German onslaught. Bonetti, known as the cat, was cataleptic as the disaster unfolded. This sad scenario from 45 years ago demonstrates the crucial role the goalkeeper plays in a successful team. Defenders must have complete trust in the man behind them. The keeper, in turn, has to be an imposing figure with the authority to organise, and even criticise, the back four.

The very best goalkeepers have no idiosyncrasies and only rarely make mistakes. If Don Revie’s great Leeds United team of 45 years ago had one chink in its armour, it was Gary Sprake whose occasional howlers can still be seen on YouTube. How much extra might they have won with a more dependable man between the sticks?

As 1980s Arsenal keeper John Lukic put it: “The top managers need someone who can stand there for 70 minutes and, when called upon, make the saves they want him to make, as opposed to someone younger and inexperienced who might not.”

The legendary Brian Clough summed things up in his 1994 autobiography “Clough” when giving the reasons he signed Peter Shilton: “A good ‘keeper can save you 18 points a season. That’s like a striker scoring a winning goal every six games. It can mean the difference between winning a title or qualifying for Europe and missing out. It can mean the difference between being relegated and surviving.”

When Clough took Shilton to Nottingham Forest in 1977, he did so for what seemed the ridiculously expensive sum of £250,000 – a figure not far off the record £350,000 Everton paid Birmingham for Bob Latchford a short time before. But Clough did not hold the common view that keepers were bargain basement buys. He maintained Shilton was a class act, telling his directors: “class acts don’t come cheap”.

Research shows that every team that has enjoyed regular success over a period of years has had a steady, long-term goalkeeper. Without a top-class centre-forward or midfield dynamo a side might not win as many matches. But without the right man in goal it will definitely lose more.

Throughout Liverpool’s domination of the English game in the 1980s, they had only one keeper – Bruce Grobbelaar – and he spent 13 years at Anfield. Peter Schmeichel did the same for Manchester United when they won five of the first seven Premier League titles and claimed their unique treble in 1999.

After Schmeichel retired, United enjoyed some success with Fabian Barthez but it is perhaps no coincidence that their three years without a championship from 2004 to 07 – a long period for the Red Devils – was the time when they were relying on Tim Howard and Roy Carroll – keepers who might be described as competent rather than outstanding.

Fortunes changed with the arrival of Edwin Van der Saar. United’s biggest rivals at that time, and in the earliest years of the 21st century, were Arsenal, for whom David Seaman was the rock behind the famous back four of Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams and Martin Keown. Since Seaman’s departure the Gunners have won only one title, in 2004, when Jens Lehmann wore the number-one shirt.

Chelsea’s revival, of course, has much to do with Roman Abramovic’s mega-millions. However, few would disagree that it was the use of seven of those millions to sign Petr Cech from Rennes that turned the Stamford Bridge club into title contenders.

The tradition continued with Joe Hart at Manchester City and Cech’s successor, Thibaut Courtois, at Chelsea. Could he be the perfectly balanced individual with fingertips of steel, the kicking ability of Jonny Wilkinson, the concentration of a Queen’s guard and an ability for organising defences, that the BBC said Gunners boss Arsene Wenger needed as far back as 2010? History, statistics, and the fact Cech is only 36, suggests that the end of Arsenal’s long run might be in sight.