The steady decline of goalkeepers in English football

The steady decline of goalkeepers in English football

IN BRITISH FOOTBALL FROM THE 1960s ONWARDS, most teams could be relied upon to have a decent goalkeeper. From Gordon Banks and Pat Jennings to Neville Southall and David Seaman, it seemed if you wanted a steady pair of hands between the posts then the English top flight was the place to find a goalkeeper. As Peter Shilton observed in his autobiography: “Some countries are known for producing quality things, Switzerland its watches, Italy its cars; British football was always renowned for the general quality of its goalkeepers.”

Gordon Banks is considered to be the hallmark of what made a British goalkeeper. He was calm, confident, had great agility, and reliable communication skills in organising his defence. Like most others top goalkeepers, he was also an outstanding shot-stopper.

However, it is that save from a Pelé header in the 1970 World Cup that is not only iconic but seemed to define Banks – something he would later admit that he became famous for, rather than being a World Cup winner in 1966 or for his achievements with Leicester and Stoke City. “It was a textbook header,” Banks recalled in an interview with The Times. Nevertheless, it was positioning and quick reflexes that somehow saw Banks get a hand to the ball and tip it over the bar.

Food poisoning put an end to Banks’ World Cup as Alf Ramsey was forced to pick Peter Bonetti as England blew a two-goal lead to go out to West Germany. The England manager was heard to rue the loss of Banks as he said: “Of all the players we had to lose, it had to be him.”

A car accident in 1972, which resulted in the loss of sight in Banks right eye, forced him to retire from professional football, although in 1977 he did spend a year in the United States playing for Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

The England team had no shortage of goalkeepers following Banks’s retirement. Indeed they were spoilt for choice, with Peter Shilton – who incidentally forced Banks out at Leicester – Ray Clemence, Joe Corrigan, and Phil Parkes to choose from.

It was Shilton and Clemence that were more prominent in trying to establish themselves as the regular England number one. At one point in the late-70s, then England manager Ron Greenwood seemed unable to decide who should be his first choice goalkeeper as he alternated between Shilton and Clemence.

Eventually it was to be Shilton who would regularly feature as the England number one, winning a record 125 caps between 1970 and 1990. No doubt the number would have been more but for Clemence. What’s interesting is both goalkeepers’ opinion on what good goalkeeping is about. For them, it is not just about making the spectacular saves when called upon. By organising your defenders and positioning yourself accurately you can stop the opposition from shooting. Peter Shilton himself recalls in his autobiography The Magnificent Obsession that the best games he had were when he hardly had to make a save.

Ray Clemence illustrates this on World of Sport in 1980, which can be seen on YouTube, when two kids won a competition to train with the Liverpool number one. In it, he gives a lesson in how a few yards from the goal line can reduce the goal greatly from the opposing forward’s angle from 18 yards out. He also talks about the fast and the slow side of the goal as he demonstrates positioning yourself to rule out the best angle for the forward to take.

In essence, Clemence is talking about making the opposing player shoot where you want him to and increase your chance of making the save. He advises his pupils that “It is a cardinal sin for a goalkeeper to be caught out at the near post.” To emphasis Clemence’s point, it ends with a variety of clips with his positioning stopping Spurs and Manchester City from scoring.

Above all, both Shilton and Clemence were confident in knowing when to come out and claim the ball as well as being strong in ordering their defenders from set pieces. As a result, they gave themselves every chance of succeeding in claiming crosses.

In theory it sounds easy, but carrying it out is a different matter. This was something that Brian Clough knew; he was more than aware of the value of a good goalkeeper. With his Nottingham Forest side being promoted in 1977 he was unsure that the current number one John Middleton was up to the standard required to compete at the top. Clough made signing Shilton from Stoke City his priority and although one director unwisely questioned the logic of paying £250,000 for a goalkeeper, Clough got his man in September 1977.

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It was to be an inspired signing as Shilton conceded a miserly 18 goals in 37 league appearances, and helped Nottingham Forest win the league. A fantastic save from Shilton stopped Mick Ferguson’s header and gifted Forest the point they needed to clinch the league. It was enough for his fellow players to vote him the PFA Player of the Season.

A season later Shilton helped Forest win the European Cup in Munich against Malmö, and a year later was instrumental in keeping at bay a Hamburg side that boasted Kevin Keegan.

Like Clough, Bill Shankly understood the importance of a good goalkeeper – although for some reason had a mistrust of left-footed goalkeepers, believing that their balance was not as it should be. Luckily Clemence was right footed, with Liverpool scouts recommending Shankly to sign the youngster from Scunthorpe for £18,000. Liverpool’s board, just like Forest’s, questioned the fee for a goalkeeper before eventually signing the cheque that would take Clemence to Anfield. It would take a couple of seasons while Clemence was nurtured in the reserves before he made the number one shirt his own.

Clemence was instrumental in helping Liverpool sweep the board domestically and in Europe throughout the 1970s before joining Spurs in 1981. A penalty save against Borussia Mönchengladbach in the first leg of the UEFA Cup final meant Liverpool were able to take a 3-0 lead to Germany. It could have led to Mönchengladbach winning the competition on away goals as Liverpool lost 2-0 but they ultimately won 3-2 on aggregate.

Such was Liverpool’s defence during the late 1970s that the 1978/79 season saw the Reds concede only 16 goals in 42 matches, and just four at Anfield. It was enough to help Liverpool win another league championship and be regarded as one of their greatest sides. Indeed it is only recently that Chelsea beat the record, conceding 15 goals in the 2004/05 season.

While Clemence and Shilton battled to be the England number one, there were a couple of other outstanding goalkeepers in this era. It is ironic that if either Phil Parkes or Joe Corrigan were playing now they would automatically be the first choice for England.

Parkes started his career with his local side Walsall but it was through his move to QPR in 1970 that he would make a name for himself. Again, he was instrumental in pushing Liverpool all the way during the 1975/76 season. That QPR side was considered by some to be the greatest team never to have won the league.

Such was the regard for Parkes that in 1979 West Ham made him the world’s most expensive goalkeeper at the time by signing him for £565,000. Dave Sexton, his former manager, had tried numerous times to sign Parkes but QPR Chairman Jim Gregory couldn’t say no to West Ham’s offer. Parkes was only ever awarded one England cap, with his only honour in the game an FA Cup winners medal after West Ham beat Arsenal 1-0 in the 1980 final. However, he is regarded as the best goalkeeper in West Ham’s history by the fans, while QPR supporters regard him to be their third best keeper behind Reg Allen and David Seaman.

Critics have also held the opinion that Manchester City’s Joe Corrigan would have won more than nine England caps if it had not been for Shilton and Clemence.

Although not English, it would be remiss to not mention Pat Jennings, who represented Northern Ireland and is regarded as one of the best ‘keepers to have played for Spurs and Arsenal. Jennings became the first goalkeeper to win the PFA award in 1976 and the Football Writers’ award in 1973.

What these goalkeepers brought, apart from their obvious ability, was confidence within the team. They were all were strong communicators and knew where to position themselves – and the defence – to neutralise any threat; reclaiming the ball would look nothing out of the ordinary. As a result, the teams that they played for looked self-assured. The defenders knew that they were in the right position and knew that their keeper was more than capable of dealing with attacks.

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During the 1980s and early 90s, there was still a strong crop of British goalkeepers coming through. The most notable was Neville Southall who, in the mid-80s, was regarded as one of the best in Europe. He had the confidence of knowing when to come out and was an excellent shot-stopper. Furthermore, Southall could read the game, deal with any loose balls as a sweeper, and organise his defenders to give them a better chance of clearing the ball.

Southall was instrumental in bringing success to Everton as they won two league championships, the FA Cup and a Cup Winners Cup. Indeed, a point-blank save from Mark Falco’s header in a 2-1 for Everton was seen as the pivotal point in Everton claiming the title.

Although not British, Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar introduced the sweeper style of goalkeeping – similar to what Victor Valdés was required to do for Barcelona – by racing out of the area to collect a loose ball and pass to a team-mate, thus enabling a quick counter-attack.

Distribution and kicking is another important element of goalkeeping. It’s about being as precise as you can be when taking a goal kick, to having the decisiveness and intelligence of who to pass to quickly. There is little point of passing to a team-mate who will be under instant pressure or dithering when a quick throw to a defender who is in plenty of space can start an attack. It could be argued that in today’s game it’s a fundamental skill for a goalkeeper.

With Peter Shilton nearing the end of his career with his final game for England taking place in the third-place playoff against Italy in Italia 90, there was still an emerging talent of English goalkeepers. In particular, David Seaman and Nigel Martyn. Both were excellent keepers who could organise well and helped make the defence hard to break down. Seaman was instrumental in being part of Arsenal’s defence, which brought the Gunners three league championships and numerous cups.

Although not as successful as Seaman, Nigel Martyn is regarded as the best goalkeeper to have played for Leeds United. He was also the first million pound goalkeeper when he signed for Crystal Palace in 1989. It was at Leeds during the late-90s and early 2000s, when they reached the last four of the UEFA Cup and the Champions League a year later, that were to be the highlight of Martyn’s career.

With the emerging potential talent of English goalkeepers in David James, Paul Robinson and Richard Wright, it seemed that England would never be short of a reliable stopper. None of these players, however, would ever reach the level of their predecessors, and unlike Shilton and Clemence the England number one shirt was passed back and forth after Seaman had retired.

Since Seaman’s retirement – which some have claimed came too late – there has been no prominent goalkeeper to step up to the plate. Chris Kirkland was touted as a potential England regular but a run of injuries put an end to any chance of establishing himself. Scott Carson and Rob Green failed to show any consistency and were both culpable of errors at international level.

Joe Hart is the favoured England number one now. Although he has undoubed ability, there have still been question marks as to whether he has the talent to be regarded as one of the best in Europe. High profile blunders in 2013 against Bayern Munich and Chelsea saw him temporarily dropped from the City team.

Maybe English football was lucky enough to be blessed with an abundance of outstanding goalkeepers back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. As with anything, there is always a dip and maybe there will be another crop of first-rate keepers around the corner. Maybe Joe Hart will come into his own and become a better organiser of the back four and consistent stopper. It could be argued that with the coverage of football greater than ever, every slightest mistake is scrutinised like never before.

Nevertheless, goalkeeping is still one of the misunderstood positions in football. It is not about making the Hollywood saves that feature on Match of the Day, it is rather about being a number one that can organise, position, distribute and provide a confident, calming manner.

By Brian Benjamin. Follow @Benji14B

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