Goalkeepers and the protected species myth

Goalkeepers and the protected species myth

After a resurgent Liverpool’s victory over Bournemouth, Jürgen Klopp was antagonised by one tabloid journalist who was keen to peddle the line that Daniel Sturridge won the match. “We have a football game and you want to talk about one player?” the former Dortmund manager barked. “We live on different planets,” Klopp insisted.

Klopp’s assertion that goalkeepers do not live in a different universe received far less media coverage, but was of considerably more interest. Referring to a foul he saw on debutant Danny Ward during the build-up to Bournemouth’s consolation goal, the 48-year-old was quick to speak of the weight carried by the next generation of custodians.

“Let the self-confidence grow of goalkeepers, they’re normal human beings. Only gloves on hands. The rest is normal.” The BBC’s Conor McNamara didn’t enter into the spirit of the statement. “I can see you are not interested what I say,” joked the jovial but direct German.

In some ways Carlo Cudicini had effectively echoed Klopp’s concern in 2006 when he scoffed at suggestions by the head of the Professional Football Association, Gordon Taylor, that goalkeepers should wear helmets as a matter of course: “Instead of demanding action against those who so violently challenge the keepers, they want to dress us up like ice hockey netminders,” the Italian said.

Perhaps the British audience have tired of the debate that the shot stopper should be protected. Great Britain is the land of the robust. Jack Robinson, the England and Southampton keeper who taught his European peers the finer arts of the game, once said that the number one must be “like a compound of steel and gutta percha”. Continental counterparts are more protected historically, which may or may not influence Roy Hodgson from picking Andy Carroll for Euro 2016.

Keepers are unique in that they elicit a certain affection or hatred from fans. When a goalkeeper makes a mistake, there is nowhere to hide. When a striker misses a chance, he gets another chance. He is congratulated for not hiding by the same pundit who picks out the one error by a keeper that “cost the game”. Cameras can assassinate or glorify a keeper as much as keepers can make fans nervous or confident. It is a bizarre power they possess over the ambience of a stadium. They are a species detached and therefore vulnerable when we demand them to be hardened and multi-faceted.

How quick the English are to laud their number one for diving at the striker’s feet as a brave move. Yet the same fair-minded individuals are all ready to blame a keeper who shows a certain “weakness” when he is not pushing his way through a crowded nightclub in the penalty area. Arsenal’s championship-winning mastermind Herbert Chapman noted that Continental defences were positioned to give the utmost protection to the keeper: “They do not seem to put the same trust in the goalkeeper as is usual in this country.” Same trust or same burden?

In the modern game, goalkeepers are required to master more complete football skills, advancing off their line to intercept attacks, charging outside the box and clearing swinging balls as well as receiving back passes under pressure while starting quick counter-attacks. Manuel Neuer is a perfect case in point of the sweeper keeper who can act as an extra defender while have a towering presence above his station. Neuer makes it all look easy, but he is a unique specimen. The keeper’s main job is still to be king of his castle when the invaders arrive.

In his book The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper, Jonathan Wilson points out that 19th century keepers were subjected to relentless physical assault. Francis Hodgson wrote in Only The Goalkeeper To Beat that: “Goalkeepers are part of a defense, but the word is the wrong one. In reality they are attacked.”

In fact, before the 1930s, there was very little outfield players were banned from doing to a keeper in order to try and score a goal. In some cases, this was effectively robbing him of the ball in the style of a rugby player forcing a turnover. There was no real regulation on roughhouse tactics as long as the players in question were seen to be attempting to play the ball.

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It was only a keeping mortality that led to lawmakers becoming more protectionist. James Thorpe was the Black Cats’ minder when top of the table Sunderland met a mid-table Chelsea in 1936. After a 3-3 draw, one newspaper attacked Thorpe, suggesting that it was atrocious goalkeeping that led to a dropped point and that “he’d turned chicken at the moment of truth”. In fact, the truth was much more complicated than that.

The 22-year-old was hospitalised after he had been kicked four times, including on his side, chest and head. A local police constable who gave evidence at the subsequent inquiry said it was “pretty wild kicking”. The coroner said that the match was a “disgrace to first-class football”.

Thorpe died after lapsing into a diabetic coma four days after the match. Hiding behind his pre-existing illness, an FA Commission of three senior gentlemen exonerated all Chelsea players and match day officials from any role in his death, although it was a fatality “accelerated by the rough usage of the opposing team”. No financial compensation was given to his widow.

Very soon afterwards, it would be deemed foul play for players of an opposing team to raise a foot to a keeper or attempt to free the ball from his possession with their feet. Touchingly, four years ago, Petr Čech and Craig Gordon wore black armbands on the 75th anniversary of the Sunderland keeper’s death. Thorpe was an important death to enforce a ban on what was effectively GBH on the man between the sticks

FIFA published an article at the beginning of this millennium which drew attention to the particular occupational risks of keeping: “He often has to catch the ball in the air and then land on the ground without the protection of his hands and arms. The result is that the goalkeeper is often subjected to direct trauma against the body, which increases the risk for contusions, abrasions, and other injuries produced by direct trauma.”

It is no wonder that shoulder injuries are common. Goalkeepers are five times more prone to upper extremity injuries than outfield players. Statistically, keepers are more likely to be injured during aerial clashes. This is just within their normal remit.

It was only a couple of months ago that a Finnish under-19 goalkeeper never regained consciousness after colliding with another player. Accidents can happen in any part of the pitch, but the follow through on a goalkeeper in pursuit of the ball can have severe consequences.

Almost a decade ago, in 2006, Čech was laid out after being caught by Stephen Hunt’s knee during the Premier League match between Reading and Chelsea. What is often forgotten is that in the same match, his deputy, Cudicini, was knocked unconscious when he fell heavily following a collision with Ibrahima Sonko. Cudicini ended up with concussion while Čech still bears the scars of a depressed skull fracture to this day.

The normally sanguine Arsène Wenger suggested that one day a keeper would be killed. Jens Lehmann also laid into the debate: “This word clumsy makes me really angry as well because these stupid TV pundits say sometimes ‘it’s clumsy’ and ‘it’s a man’s game’.

“Yes it is a man’s game, but what you have to consider as well is these men have children and wives and their children don’t want to see their fathers end up with lifelong damage, driven around in a wheelchair or not being able to work anymore.”

In Australia’s A-League, Newcastle’s Mark Birighitti lost four teeth and needed 40 stitches after taking a boot to the face from Sydney striker Shane Smeltz in October 2015. The incident polarised the debate into those who believed the striker had every right to go for the ball, and those who feel he failed in his duty of care to his opponent.

Enraged Newcastle coach Scott Miller summed it up beautifully: “It’s about the decision-making, there’s borderline competitiveness and then there’s outrageous and reckless. I’m not saying it was, but we need to be sensible with our challenges regarding goalkeepers and head injuries.” Smeltz was cleared and Birighitti was magnanimous in not apportioning blame, but the grey area remains.

In England especially, there still persists a rugby-style mentality to challenges on the custodian who has a hold of the ball. The problem with slow motion replays is that it makes it look subtle and almost justified. This is a distortion of both the evidence in front of us and the prehistoric images of what a goalkeeper should take on the chin.  A man’s game doesn’t mean anything goes.

Protection need not devalue competitiveness. No goalkeeper is an island, but their lack of sovereignty is sometimes a stain on the game.

By Tim Ellis @Timotei365

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