Being a goalkeeper is a funny old business, it is a position like no other. A position that has different standards and different expectations to any other on the football field. An individual can train for years, being a professional goalkeeper and amassing staggeringly few appearances. Alternatively, a goalkeeper can become a regular number one for year, despite a string of poor performances and calamitous mistakes. It is a position where the elite often find themselves largely inactive for most of the game, due to sitting behind a top defence, only needing to make five or so saves a game, yet knowing that the pressure on them is indescribably high that one mistake will ruin them. It is the scapegoat position, at all levels. A midfielder lets the striker skip past him with ease, the defender misses an easy tackle, yet if a goal is scored then the keeper is to blame.
The point that confounds me the most about goalkeepers is the undroppable nature of them. Far too often, a team have their goalkeeper as a cemented place in the line-up, one which will almost always only be budged if injury strikes, or the player is sold. They will rarely be dropped due to poor form, they never get subbed off, yet they take more flak from fans and pundits alike than any other position. If a striker is playing a below average game, they will be subbed off. If a midfielder makes a howler twice in a month then he will likely be dropped. If a defender is in poor form over a long time period then they will often see themselves miss a few games, perhaps even loaned out to a lower league club to regain form at an easier tier. But a goalkeeper? Once they are established, they rarely lose their place.
This mentality has been in the game for as long as I can remember, and for years before I was even born! It is similar to the quarterback position in American football. A head coach will establish who his number one is, and then have him be just that, number one. There will be a backup QB and a third choice one – just as there is a number of goalkeepers at a club. The difference is that in American football, the quarterback gets the unwavering faith of a coach, but if he is a disappointment then he is downgraded to a backup the following season. In football, however, a manager often places his stock on his goalkeeper and has such unwavering faith in him that he will keep him as the number one for as long as he can.
Part of the problem is the hardship that a manager gets for having the gall to drop the ‘keeper. Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is one of the few managers who chops and changes his goalkeepers. Neither Simon Mignolet nor Loris Karius have been anything above average over the past couple of years, with both goalkeepers routinely dropping clangers. The Liverpool manager will often back up his goalkeeper’s ability, only to drop them at a later date. The eccentric one passes it off as rotation, but it is so often a week or so after a string of errors from his goalkeepers.
Another tactic employed by managers is to have a “cup goalkeeper” and a league goalkeeper. Some fans and pundits disagree with this, claiming that the team should always play their number one goalkeeper regardless of the competition. One of the biggest examples of this was Barcelona in 2015. Their then manager, Luis Enrique, had two excellent goalkeepers in his ranks, Claudio Bravo and Marc Andre Ter Stegen. He devised a plan to play Chilean number one Bravo in every La Liga match, while young German shot stopper Ter Stegen would play the cup and Champions League fixtures. While this seems like a fair compromise, it transpired that Ter Stegen wasn’t all that happy. He enjoyed playing the big games, but he was envious of Bravo’s playing 38 league matches.
Some goalkeepers can earn a living playing very little football at all. Steve Harper had a career which spanned over 22 years, between 1993 and 2016. During this time he earned 289 appearances. This means that he averages only 13 appearances a season. This is not a bad ratio for a backup goalkeeper. However, three of those seasons he didn’t play a single game, and in seven of them he didn’t play a league game. This looks even worse when many of his appearances came in the lower tiers of English football as a loanee. For a Premier League backup goalkeeper, he has played 104 games for teams in the championship or below on loan. He was registered at Newcastle United, Hull City and Sunderland in the Premier League, amassing 154 appearances for Newcastle (not counting his season in the Championship with them), 31 for Hull and zero for Sunderland.
The backup goalkeeper is an unusual position. The concentration and motivation levels needed are arguably higher in backup goalkeepers. This is because it isn’t part of their weekly routine. They will train every day knowing that they probably won’t feature on matchday. They will sit on the bench knowing that they will only feature if the number one keeper is injured or sent off. The pressure to come off the bench as a goalkeeper is immense, but to do so if the first choice keeper has been sent off is astronomical. If a goalkeeper has been sent off then they will have likely conceded a penalty. The backup may become a hero if he saves the penalty, but if he doesn’t then his first act will be to pick the ball out of his own net, the team will be deflated and his whole situation starts in a bad position.
The flip side of this is the perks of being a number one goalkeeper. It is truly one of the safest positions on the pitch.
If any other player was sent off through an act of stupidity, they would be banned for a game or so, and if the replacement came in and did well, then they would likely earn themselves an extended run in the team. With the goalkeeper, whoever, they serve their ban and are then reinstated, regardless of the performance of the backup goalkeeper.
The life of a goalkeeper has become even easier since the beginning of the 2016-17 season. Football introduced the double jeopardy rule, whereby a player cannot be sent off for denying a goalscoring opportunity if a clear attempt to win the ball is made, at the referees discretion of course. This benefits ‘keepers massively, as usually if they concede a penalty then they would be denying a goalscoring opportunity. Previously this would see them shown a red card, but nowadays a penalty and a booking is all that is shown. Add to this the fact that goalkeepers rarely get booked for timewasting, and never get shown a second yellow. With the exception of violent conduct it is becoming increasingly difficult to be sent off as a goalkeeper.
Every goalkeeper makes mistakes, some in non important friendlies, others in cup finals. It’s frustrating, it can seem cruel, but it’s just territory of the job. Even the greats like Gianluigi Buffon make howlers from time to time. In some cases, the pressure is too much, and a mistake can derail a career. In 2010, in the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, USA forward Clint Dempsey fired a shot from outside of the penalty box. It bounced twice before reaching England goalkeeper Robert Green. It should have been an easy save, but he palmed it into the goal, costing England a goal, casting doubt and chaos into the camp and epitomising England’s disastrous World Cup in South Africa. Green was a promising young goalkeeper growing up, and had worked hard in the Premier League to establish himself as England’s number one, but he was publically vilified after this. The level of public lambasting that Green took was up there with Wayne Rooney post 2006 and David Beckham post 1998. His career faltered, his stock fell and he regressed into a Championship goalkeeper, and now a backup. His career descended into freefall as a direct result of “that mistake” in 2010, and he just never quite recovered.
The question that stems from all this is simple… who would want to be a goalkeeper? Sure, when the going is good, the going is very good! A starting goalkeeper for a good team is pretty much set for life. But there are hardships. Breaking into a team is so much harder, sitting on the bench watching another player take your position is a struggle and once a ‘keepers reputation is compromised, the game is all but up. It is the position where you can be a hero for 90 minutes and then become public enemy number one with the final kick of the game. It’s the position that you supposedly have to be crazy to take up. It’s the position that is truly unlike any other, and without doubt one of the most tumultuous positions in professional sport.