Goalkeepers are different

Outfield players may make mistakes and get away with them: when a goalkeeper makes an error, it is usually fatal. Over to Brian Glanville.

The vicissitudes, the two ghastly blunders, by Arsenal’s second choice Polish goalkeeper, Lukasz Fabianski, throws lurid light on a keeper’s penchant for error. Long ago, I wrote a short story called ‘Goalkeepers are Crazy’. More recently, I wrote a boys’ novel called ‘Goalkeepers are Different’. Flatteringly, Peter Shilton, 125 times capped in goal for England, a record holder (though David Beckham is controversially reaching up w ith his brief, cameo appearances) once told me it was the only book that he had ever finished and that he’d never thought anyone could understand a young keeper’s feelings so well. Yet even Shilton had his bad, eager post moments, giving away a vital World Cup qualifying goal to Poland’s Jan Domarski at Wembley in 1973.

It was at Wembley, though at the other end of the field, that poor Fabianski, conceded a near post goal — at his right hand post rather than Shilton’s left — to Chelsea. This season, alas, he gave away a very early goal at Stoke, through his hesitancy in coming for a typically massive throw by Stoke’s Rory Delap.

In the first leg European Cup match against Porto, Fabianski managed to fumble a low, miss hit cross from the right into his own goal. If that was bad enough what followed in the second half, with the score at 1-1, was sadly decisive. When the 35-year-old Arsenal centre back, Sol Campbell, prodded the ball back to Fabianski, the keeper rashly and distractedly picked it up, thus conceding a free kick, well inside the box. He should, of course, have booted the ball away. As it transpired, Porto took the free kick very quickly and put the ball into the net to win the game, 2-1.

It was all very well for the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, to explode with fury, damning the admittedly inadequate Swedish referee, already guilty of ignoring the blatant hand ball whereby, in Paris, Thierry Henry had set up a goal for France in the World cup eliminator against Ireland. Wenger asserted that the referee was wrong on five counts, though he might have done better to have emphasised the clear foul on that excellent Czech attacker, Tomas Rosicky, in the first half, which should certainly have produced a penalty. The salient fact was that if Fabianski hadn’t distractedly picked up the ball, then Porto wouldn’t have scored.

That Wenger, so mysteriously, should have eulogised the Polish keeper, both before and after the game, defied logic. In a sense, you might say that in picking so erratic a keeper, he himself was the one to be blamed. Choosing Fabianski for any kind of crucial game is plainly a question of dicing with death.

Yet even the greatest goalkeepers have their bad days. Go right the way back to the old Arsenal Stadium in 1931 and you find the humiliation of Spain’s Ricardo Zamora estimated to be one of the finest goalkeepers of his time, a hero alike of Olympic and World Cup tournaments.

Yet on that fatal afternoon, England, keen to avenge the 4-3 defeat in hot Madrid two years earlier, the first ever by a foreign team, beat Zamora seven times.

Dixie Dean of Everton, holder of an indelible record of 60 Championship goals in one season, scored against Spain that day. Many years afterwards, when I spoke to him about it, he recalled that at the post match banquet, the interpreter, pointing at Zamora, said, “He is nothing in Madrid today.” To which Dean pungently rejoined, “Tell him he’s not much here, either!”

Talking of Wembley’s near posts, another renowned goalkeeper, Bob Wilson, playing for Arsenal in the 1971 FA Cup Final, conceded such a goal to Steve Heighway of Liverpool, though the Gunners eventually won the game in extra time.

Another famous Arsenal keeper and England international was David Seaman, but he, too, had his embarrassing moments. Not least with England in Japan in the 2002 World Cup against Brazil, when he allowed himself to be beaten by a long range, swirling shot from Ronaldinho. Towards the end of his England career, playing against Macedonia at Southampton, he let the ball curl in straight from a corner. And in a Cup-winners Cup Final in Paris, for Arsenal against Saragossa, he saw Bayim’s high shot from a vast distance soar over his head, as he stood well out of goal, giving the Spaniards the trophy.

Today, the best England keeper is arguably the 31-year-old David James, now at Portsmouth after a plenitude of other clubs, including Liverpool. At his athletic best, he is a brave and commanding goalkeeper, but not for nothing has he been nicknamed Calamity James. Twice, playing for England, he has had abysmal matches. In Vienna, against Austria, he let in goals which should easily have been saved and was once himself saved by an intervention on the line by a defender, after he’d carelessly misjudged a shot.

There is no doubt that things have been made much harder for the keepers of today since the change in the rules, whereby a goalie is not allowed to handle a back pass in his penalty area. It certainly undid poor Fabianski and has been responsible for all too many embarrassing goals being given away. Though one of the most reliable was conceded at Stamford Bridge by that commanding but highly temperamental German international, Jens Lehmann, playing in a European semifinal for Arsenal against Chelsea, he ran out of his own area to his right, took a kick at the ball, only for it to rebound off Chelsea’s Eidur Gudjohnsen, who gratefully ran it into the empty net. Arsenal would, in due course, be eliminated.

It was a German who, in the remote past, once ironically remarked that a football team has ten players: and a goalkeeper! Yet, as many a keeper has pointed out, the outfield players may make mistakes and get away with them: when a goalkeeper makes an error, it is usually fatal.

Still, they do have, now, the kind of protection from marauding, challenging attackers they never did in the past, especially in English football, when keepers were fair prey for the physical buffeting of opponents who rose with them to the high crosses. One recalls all too well that moment in the 1958 FA Cup Final at Wembley, when the formidable Nat Lofthouse of Bolton barged big Harry Gregg of Manchester United, holding the ball, in the back and over the line, when the referee bewilderingly called it a goal. At least that would never happen now.