Goalkeepers and their dramas

In the globally ranging World Soccer poll, Lev Yashin romped home among all goalkeepers with a massive 31 votes. England’s Gordon Banks came a distant equal second with six. goalkeepers are crazy, they say. But luck will always play a part. By Brian Glanville.

Bert Trautmann died recently; the greatest German goalkeeper never to play for his country. This because, the whole of his distinguished professional career was spent with Manchester City and West Germany at that period wouldn’t pick any player from a foreign league. Trautmann was a former Nazi paratrooper, who first played in goal in an English prison camp, where it was said he stayed for a protracted time since he refused to recant his Nazi allegiance.

Eventually he played for the little local St. Helen’s club, where he was spotted and signed by Manchester City. There were protests from elements of the local Jewish community but a Manchester rabbi boldly stood up for him and in quick time he became with his power, his daring, his supreme athleticism, a local hero. I saw the 1956 FA Cup final at Wembley, when approaching the end with City deservedly in the lead, Bert, with typical reckless courage, flung himself at the feet of the oncoming Birmingham City forward, Peter Murphy, broke a bone in his neck in the process and defiantly played on till the end. Doctors told him he was lucky to be alive.

Though I often, admiringly, saw him play, I met him only once when he was acting as an aide-de-camp of the German 1966 World Cup team in England. He told me how often my articles had annoyed him, which I suppose was something of a left-handed compliment. In due course, he would become thoroughly anglicised, utterly and happily at home in Manchester.

In a somewhat immodest moment Lev Yashin, the celebrated Russian goalkeeper, once remarked, “There have only been two world class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester.” Yet, if the criterion of football greatness (always excluding such stars as Alfredo Di Stefano and George Best, who never played in the leading tournament), it just surely has to be the World Cup finals, has to be applied, Yashin was palpably at fault in three of them.

In 1958, I was in Gothenburg in the Swedish World Cup to see England force a somewhat desperate draw against the USSR. England’s crucial goal coming when their big, blond centre-forward Derek Kevin forcefully out jumped Yashin, as the ball came over from the left, to head a vital goal. The 1962 World Cup in Chile was anything but positive for him. When the USSR met the Chilean hosts in Arica, Yashin let in two embarrassing goals from long range and the USSR was out. In the next World Cup in England, Yashin conceded a goal at Everton in the semi-final versus West Germany, when Franz Beckenbauer curled a free kick inside his right hand post. His manager blamed him for that; perhaps a little unfairly.

Yet, in the globally ranging World Soccer poll, Yashin romped home among all goalkeepers with a massive 31 votes. England’s Gordon Banks came a distant equal second with six. Yet, surely in Guadalajara in the 1970 World Cup, I was lucky enough to see Banks make one of the most sensational saves that tournament had ever seen, a dramatic one-handed turnover the bar of Pele’s point-blank header.

To this day I still believe that had Banks not so mysteriously been laid low by food poisoning in Leon, on the eve of England’s quarter-final match against West Germany, the result could have been different. Peter Bonetti, who took his place, had a nightmarish match and out went England. Yet, long afterwards, Gordon assured me that he had eaten and drank exactly the same as every other England player. What a pity no kind of medical analysis took place to discover whether, as I now believe, he had been poisoned.

He was already a World Cup winner, in 1966 at Wembley, where he materially helped England beat West Germany in the final. I remember him saying to me before the match, of England’s manager, Alf Ramsey, “He’s told me that my mind’s not got to wander.” Now and again in the past it had, notably, even in his first Wembley game he let in a low, long-range Brazilian free kick against which Ramsey had warned him. And in 1965 in Belgrade, he distractedly, at a free kick, stood behind his own defensive wall. “One of these days,” Alf had told him afterwards, “I shall lift up a dagger and blanking will kill you.”

In comparatively recent years, a radical change in the laws of the game has made life much more difficult for goalkeepers as one of today’s finest exponents, Italy’s Gigi Buffon, has emphasised. Now, no goalkeeper may pick up a pass back into his own penalty box; he has to play the ball with his feet. Something which some can do with great dexterity, but how often have we seen goals given away by keepers who mis-kick or allow themselves to be robbed off the ball?

Meanwhile, as we know, the fate of the goalkeeper is that, should he make an error, he will all too probably give away a goal. An outfield player by contrast may get away with even the worst mistake. Even give away a penalty and he can be rescued by his goalkeeper saving the consequent kick.

Goalkeeping errors are all too frequent even among the best of them. One of last season’s most sensational stand-off took place at Real Madrid between Jose Mourinho alias ‘The Special One’ and no less a hero than Iker Casillas, who had been playing superbly for a decade for both Real and Spain. To national let alone club-mates’ astonishment, Mourinho suddenly dropped him and in so doing, in the vernacular, he lost the dressing room. Yet, even when Casillas’ replacement had to drop out, Mourinho would not recall him. Now Mourinho has gone and you do wonder just how smooth his regime will now be at Chelsea after such a monumental blunder in Spain.

At the end of the last season in Rio, superlative goalkeeping by Joe Hart kept England in the game during a first half when Brazil made chance after chance. This was Hart at his best, though during the domestic season, he had clashed several times with Manchester City’s now departed manager, Roberto Mancini, especially after a defeat at Real Madrid, when Mancini unfairly blamed him for words spoken in dismay in an immediate post match interview; and for a goal which was largely down to his own defender inexplicably ducking under a free kick. In Stockholm, versus Sweden he had rationally dashed out of his area enabling Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score with a sensational overhead kick.

A once celebrated Italy keeper, Giuseppe Moro, once told me, long ago in Rome “A goalkeeper can influence a game with his saves in two ways: by encouraging his own team and by demoralising the opposition.”

Some keepers are luckier than others. Look up the records and you’ll find that supremely athletic keeper George Marks played only two League games ever for Arsenal in 1938/9, just before war put an end to “official” football.

Yet in wartime football he reigned as England’s splendid keeper, unchallenged even by the legendary Frank Swift, who took over only when Marks hurt his eye. Marks was my hero when I was a young schoolboy. But no one ever thinks of him now. Goalkeepers are crazy, they say. But luck will always play a part.