Goalkeepers: saviours and heartbreakers

Thibaut Courtois nudged out Cech to be Chelsea's first choice shot stopper last season.-AP

While Petr Cech and Thibaut Courtois were so prominently in the early season news, another prominent goalkeeper, Manchester United’s David De Gea, had fallen on difficult times. By Brian Glanville.

Way back in the 1950s, in the old Queens Park Rangers Press Box, I heard a little, elderly journalist say, “A good goalkeeper can break your hearts.” Some years after that, on the field of Rome’s Olympic stadium watching Roma train, I heard their Italian international goalkeeper Giuseppe Moro declare that a goalkeeper “can be decisive with the saves he makes, not only by encouraging his own team but by demoralising the opposition.” Today goalkeepers by and large, at least at the highest level, are bigger and taller than they ever were in Moro’s time. And recently, at Wembley, we saw, fascinating contrast and conflict between the two.

This occasion was that of the annual Community Shield, which for many decades was known as the Charity Shield. It has, you might say, no real relevance even if it traditionally pits the winners of the last Premier League against the victors of the last FA Cup. It was many years before it ever became a Sunday match at Wembley, on this occasion drawing 85,000 spectators. For some time after the last war it even became a mere midweek affair, an afternoon game, with floodlights still to come.

But on this occasion, when Chelsea, the runaway winners of the previous Premier League met Arsenal the Cup holders, who had finished a dozen points behind them in third place, there was a particular piquancy about the occasion: provided by the opposing goalkeepers, two formidable giants, Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea, a Belgian, standing six foot six and the veteran Petr Cech of the Czech Republic, standing just one inch shorter. Piquant to a degree, because till this season, Cech had been a Chelsea goalkeeper for 11 years, winning a string of honours. Only last season he lost his place to the much younger Courtois.

Had Chelsea’s outspoken manager Jose Mourinho had his way, Cech would never have been allowed to go across London to their rivals Arsenal. The problem being that for all the wide continental interest in him, Cech and his family were determined to stay in London. Mourinho dug his heels in but in vain. At Chelsea, the man who inevitably calls the shots is its billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich and he, in his generosity, decreed that Cech be allowed to move to the Gunners.

Hearing this, Chelsea’s captain and centre half, that dominating John Terry, announced that Cech could be worth fifteen points or more to Arsenal. Even after the Community Shield game, at least one leading columnist was calling Chelsea’s decision to sell Cech for GBP10 million to Arsenal a mistake. Viewed in the cold light of day, it may eventually turn out to have been just that, but in the circumstances, it is arguable that Abramovich has done the right moral thing. Last season Cech made just half a dozen Premiership appearances for Chelsea plus one as a substitute, an almost embarrassing, even humiliating record and surely a waste of a major veteran’s talent.

In the Community Shield game, though Arsenal in the second half tended to drop back and defend, Courtois was called on more often overall than Cech, sometimes rushing off his line characteristically to make essential, smothering saves.

For his part Cech, though he looked his customary commanding self, found there was only one major save to make, when he flew across his goal to reach a dangerous second half free-kick from the Brazilian Chelsea substitute Oscar, made the more difficult since the big Chelsea right back Ivanovic had decided to stand right in front of him.

Curiously enough, this at Chelsea was a situation which had occurred long before. Two accomplished international goalkeepers with room only, of course, for one. The two were John Jackson, a Scottish international, and the Englishman Vic Woodley, who had come to Chelsea as an amateur from the little Windsor and Eton club and quickly matured into a resourceful England international. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, when football officially shut down, Woodley was very much in the ascendancy, the undisputed number one and England’s keeper.

Curiously enough, the advent of a restricted wartime programme solved the problem for numerous years. The point being that clubs were allowed to field so called “guest” players, which enabled Chelsea to lend Jackson to their West London rivals Brentford, still at that time, a First Division club. With the somewhat uncharitable provision that when the two teams met, Jackson should not be allowed to turn out against his actual club.

Jackson had, however, the substantial satisfaction of playing for Brentford in the Wembley final of the wartime League South Cup against Portsmouth. Which turned out to be a notable victory — I saw it as a 10 year old — for the “Bees”, against a Pompey team which was strongly the favourite. In the event, Jackson kept an unblemished goal and Brentford’s surprising 2-0 win gave them the only major honour they have ever won. Unfortunately as it took place in the war, you will never find it in the official records.

As a schoolboy watching Woodley play for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, I thought him almost unbeatable. He carried on immediately after the war to join Derby County, appearing at Wembley in the 1946 FA Cup final in which they beat Charlton Athletic.

While Cech and Courtois were so prominently in the early season news, another prominent goalkeeper had fallen on difficult times. Manchester United’s David De Gea had celebrated an outstanding season in 2014/2015 after a slightly uneasy beginning when he arrived in England. Brave, intelligent and acrobatic, he had flourished last season behind a defence which all too often looked porous. 6 ft 4 and 24 years old, a year older than Courtois, by the time it came to this summer and Manchester United’s American tour, he had clearly been badly affected by the interest of Real Madrid: in the city where he had emerged with rivals Atletico. He had an especially poor game against Paris Saint Germain, who scored four goals with excessive facility. Could United keep him? Came the obvious question. Followed by another, how could they possibly replace him?