Goalkeepers are different

At Derby, United's goalkeeper Ben Foster showed no signs of his long lack of match practice. Even the fact that in the 39th minute he was suddenly called on to make two superb diving saves, following a long period of inactivity � often a goalkeeper's nightmare � seemed no problem to him.

Some years ago -- though it ran for many years -- I wrote what was supposed to be a boys' novel called �Goalkeepers are different.' Obviously a gloss on the old saying, �Goalkeepers are crazy'. An ironic German once wrote that football teams consist of 10 men; and a goalkeeper. Peter Shilton, capped a record 125 times in goal for England, once told me that �Goalkeepers are different' was the only book he had ever finished and, flatteringly, that he'd never thought anyone would understand a young goalkeeper's life so well.

On a recent Saturday, following a recent Wednesday, I had cause to reflect on just how different goalkeepers can be. First, the disastrous Wednesday evening game for Derby County at Chelsea. Rooted at the bottom of the Premiership, beyond hope of salvation, with just one League win all season, Derby simply surrendered at Stamford Bridge; and the inept goalkeeping of Roy Carroll was in large measure responsible. He couldn't do much about Chelsea's opening goal from a penalty, but two of the six Derby conceded were down to pathetic fumbles by the 'keeper. Long to be remembered for the goal that never was at Old Trafford, when he was first choice for Manchester United.

Spurs were the opponents, and a long shot from Tottenham's Portuguese midfielder, Pedro Mendes, who is famous for them, completely eluded Carroll and plainly finished inside his goal. Whereupon he cooly retrieved the ball as if it hadn't and cleared it upfield. Who can say what blinded both the referee and his relevant linesman to the fact that a perfectly good goal had been scored? But disallowed it was and Manchester United and Carroll got away with it.

Three days after the Chelsea debacle, and I was present on this occasion, too, Derby were obliged to confront another of the top teams in the Premier League: Manchester United, Carroll's former club at home. To my astonishment and I am sure to that of their loyal and fervent fans, this was a Derby team transformed, as was Carroll himself. Far from surrendering, Derby now played with spirit and commitment, with Carroll engaged in what was almost a private feud with the dazzling young United striker, Cristiano Ronaldo. Very early on, Ronaldo hit a post, and Derby were lucky to get away with that. But, subsequently, Carroll made save after save from the Portuguese, even if one of them, having turned Ronaldo's shot for a corner, came when, to Ronaldo's disgust, the header he sent in simply hit Carroll, who could hardly have known about it, and rebounded to safety. Finally Ronaldo, taking a pass from the left by Wayne Rooney, did beat Carroll for the only goal of a surprising game, but even after this, Carroll made a couple more saves from him.

At the other end, in the United goal, a still more remarkable goalkeeping story. Remarkable but true: Ben Foster, 24, though already an England international, was playing his debut game for Manchester United; although he had been on their books for three years. And he was playing, at the last moment, only because United's first and second choice 'keepers were injured. In fact, United till this transpired were about to lend him to Coventry City, a division below!

Foster, in fact, had made his name with his splendid performances on loan to Watford, had won his cap on the strength of them but alas, back in May last year, had been so severely injured that he hadn't played since. It seems all too probable that had he only been available to play again for England, they could have avoided the ignominy of their two defeats in their European qualifying group by Croatia, and their beating by Russia in Moscow.

Paul Robinson blundered horribly in the away game in Zagreb and again in Moscow; where only a manager as inadequate as Steve McClaren would have picked him at all. At Wembley Scott Carson, who took his place, conceded a pitifully insipid goal early in the return against the Croatians.

At Derby, Foster showed no signs of his long lack of match practice. Even the fact that in the 39th minute he was suddenly called on to make two superb diving saves, following a long period of inactivity -- often a goalkeeper's nightmare -- seemed no problem to him. Afterwards he modestly said that he was likely to go out on loan again. If I were Alex Ferguson, United's manager, I would do everything in my power to keep him at Old Trafford. Even to promote him above the big Dutch veteran, Edwin van der Sar.

On the very same day that Caroll and Foster were distinguishing themselves at Derby, down at Portsmouth poor Carson in the Aston Villa goal was experiencing a nightmare of an afternoon. While at the other end David nicknamed �Calamity� James, back now in the England goal after many vicissitudes, was in his most commanding form. Promising later that he meant to go on playing till he was over 40.

Carson gave away both Pompey's goals in their 2-0 win; ineptly. First, he came rushing out of his area like a headless chicken, thus enabling Germaine Defoe to find the empty net. Later, he again came belting out of goal, took a flying kick at the ball, only for it to hit his Aston Villa colleague Nigel Reo Coker in the back, and rebound straight into the goal.

James by contrast was imposing. Not so however, when he played for England against Austria a while back in Vienna, and gave away two embarrassing goals in a 2-2 draw against a weak side. Nor when, later, he kept goal in a friendly in Denmark which England lost 4-1; a wretched all-round display in which James was at fault with at least a couple of the goals. Goalkeepers, indeed, are different.