The Toughest Role In Professional FootballPosted: May 9, 2012
It is not one whose immense difficulty is recognised enough, primarily because it is so rarely in a position to be recognised. The substitute goalkeeper plays rarely and must use these occasional matches to make a lasting impression on their coach and their teams’ supporters. The nature of the goalkeeping position means that rotation is not a regular occurrence in league games, as it is with most outfield positions, so domestic cup games generally act as the platform for them to showcase their abilities.
90 minutes every six weeks or so leaves no chance to build momentum or grow off the back of a good performance. Indeed, if a backup goalkeeper makes a mistake in a cup game, they are tarred with the label of error-prone. The position of goalkeeper requires a lot of mental strength and self-belief, but the constant demoralisation of being placed on the substitutes’ bench week after week will take its toll to varying degrees, depending on the character at hand.
The difference between many goalkeepers at the highest level, ability notwithstanding, is their confidence. The best goalkeepers will have an impenetrable wall of confidence and belief in themselves. One of the worst things a goalkeeper can do is let mistakes beget further mistakes. Victor Valdes, in November’s El Clasico, showed this on as big as a stage as possible. Valdes is an unorthodox goalkeeper and like Edwin van der Sar, Rene Higuita and many others before him, he takes on the ‘sweeper keeper’ role, acting almost as an eleventh outfielder. Part of this his all round play is passing the ball short to his defenders, rather than kicking it long. This backfired horribly on him during Barcelona’s clash with Real Madrid, culminating in the hosts taking the lead within 30 seconds. Immediately following his error, his passing was askew and he looked suspect but as the game wore on, he did not let the mistake get the better of him. He continued to pass it short, staying true to Barcelona’s style. He demonstrated his own confidence and how vital it was to his team’s and his own success.
Valdes was a figure in Ronald Reng’s book ‘A Life Too Short: the Tragedy of Robert Enke’ during the German stopper’s spell in Catalonia. Enke’s time with Barcelona shows the difference in the required mentality between a first choice goalkeeper and a backup. As he had grown with local side Carl Zeiss Jena before moving onto Borussia Monchengladbach and Benfica, he had grown to thrive on being first choice and had been worthy of the role wherever he had gone. Coming to Barcelona, he was confined to the bench and was given his first chance in a Copa del Rey clash with Segunda B side Novelda, though by this time, self-doubt had begun to creep up on Enke and he was a shadow of the goalkeeper he had been when he left Benfica. His lack of self-assurance manifested itself upon him and he had an unfortunate hand (though it was not completely of his own doing) in the humiliating 3-2 loss than ensued. Although he impressed in a later Champions League match, the damage was done and he was never given a fair run at the Number One spot in Barcelona. He was loaned to Fenerbahce of Turkey in order to get his career back on track, though his crushed confidence led to him being at fault in a 3-0 defeat. When his confidence disappeared and he began to doubt himself, he fell to pieces, inducing a bout of depression which almost led to him quitting the game.
Enke’s recovery with Tenerife and Hannover showed as much as his spells at Monchengladbach and Benfica that he had the ability and the mentality to be a first choice goalkeeper, but being a second choice at Barcelona damaged him. Reading this chapter of Reng’s fantastic book, sympathy is renewed for the second-choice goalkeeper: the likes of Lukasz Fabianski, Brad Guzan and Henrique Hilario. Fabianski looked a promising young ‘keeper and was well regarded among Arsenal fans until his mistakes in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Chelsea. Since then, he has remained a predominantly bit-part player and has only looked convincing during a run of games as first choice which was cruelly cut short by injury. Since then, Wojciech Szczesny has claimed the role as first choice for himself, for both Arsenal and Poland. Fabianski must be content with occasional Carling or FA Cup games and looks relatively shaky and uncomfortable when he plays.
Guzan was forever in the shadow of his fellow American Brad Friedel for his first three years at Aston Villa. He played fairly well whenever called upon, but following the sale of the veteran to Tottenham, Villa chose to sign Shay Given, rather than allow Guzan to develop. Following the Irishman’s hamstring injury in December, Guzan got chance to prove himself, but in spite of a runs 9 games in which he put in solid performances, as soon as the Irishman recovered, he returned to his position on the substitutes’ bench. Hilario is a very different case, as he is not good enough to be first choice goalkeeper at a club like Chelsea, especially with Petr Cech ahead of him, but he continues on the payroll and never looks particularly good when he plays.
The best backup ‘keepers to have are young players who are vying to break into the team. They accept their roles on the bench and still have the desire and belief to try and force their ways into the team when given the chance. But even within that, they must have the right attitude. Goalkeepers young and old will invariably make mistakes. Physically, it is by far the most unique position in the game but it requires such unwavering confidence and self belief that many with the ability to become great fall by the wayside in one way or another. The pictures of Joe Hart grinning at the camera after Thomas Vermaelen’s effort flew just wide of his far post in Manchester City’s fixture with Arsenal in December, as well as his ‘psyching out’ of Scott Sinclair when the Swansea man stepped up to take a penalty against him (which Hart subsequently saved) show that he does not seem phased by even the most important of occasions. For a goalkeeper with his talent, that mentality and approach will see him go far on the road to becoming a world class goalkeeper – a path on which he is very firmly set.
While the majority of ‘keepers do not share Hart’s talent, nor his propensity to brush off pressure, many would be far closer to the former with a pinch of the latter. It is imperative to a goalkeeper that he does not panic, but when all their opportunities are condensed into such small time frames, a substitute ‘keeper is likely to panic under the pressure. The misery the bench induces Saturday upon Saturday can be crushing and it requires massive strength on any backup’s part not to let this get to them.