Jerzy Dudek and the heroics of an underrated goalkeeper

Jerzy Dudek and the heroics of an underrated goalkeeper

JERZY DUDEK WILL FOREVER BE A LEGEND ON MERSEYSIDE. His heroics in Istanbul have gone down in footballing folklore, and that crazy night is rightly remembered as the zenith of his long career. However, his journey is full of achievements that do not deserve to be forgotten – from setting records in the Polish third division to receiving a guard of honour from his Real Madrid teammates, and much else in between. 

Dudek came from humble beginnings. His father and grandfather were both miners – the goalkeeper’s semi-professional contract with third division side Concordia Knuró, along with the pleas of his mother, were the only things that kept him from following them into the pits. He signed the deal at 18, having played for a local youth side from the age of 12.

His first step on the footballing ladder included groundsman duties, so there was little risk of the teenage Dudek getting ahead of himself as he quietly impressed on the pitch that he helped to maintain. During his time there, he set a league record of 416 consecutive minutes without conceding.

It was not until four years after joining that Dudek successfully caught the eye of a bigger club. Sokół Tychy were hardly a household name – in fact, they had only been founded two years before Dudek was born – but following a merger with Sokół Pniewy, the team began the season in the Polish top flight. It was destined to be a short spell for Dudek, and indeed for Tychy, in the Ekstraklasa.

The goalkeeper only played about half of the games on the way to a mid-table finish, but did enough in those matches to catch the eye of a club with much more pedigree: Feyenoord. Tychy, meanwhile, were forced to disband a season later following financial difficulties.

As the club Dudek left behind started to unravel, his personal stock continued to rise rapidly as he settled in quickly with the Dutch giants. Although he didn’t make an appearance in his first season, he impressed enough as an understudy to be trusted as first choice for the next campaign following the departure of Ed de Goey to Chelsea. He did not disappoint: Feyenoord could only manage fourth in the table in 1997/98, but Dudek was instrumental in securing the second-best defensive record in the division. Only Ajax, who were blessed with Edwin van der Sar between the sticks, conceded fewer.

In the Champions League, Dudek was unable to help Feyenoord out of a tricky group featuring Manchester United and Juventus. However, managing a clean sheet in a home win over the Old Lady – who boasted Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane amongst their forwards – was surely a season highlight for the 24-year-old.

Dudek went one better domestically in the following campaign. He was once again an ever-present, conceding the fewest goals in the league on the way to an Eredivisie title for Feyenoord. A certain Ruud van Nistelrooy rightly took the plaudits in the media, scoring an impressive 31 league goals for PSV, but Dudek’s consistent reliability at the back was equally important in the domination that led to an eventual 19-point margin of victory over the Dutchman’s side.

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This league title, which turned out to be the last for Feyenoord until 2017, meant that Dudek got a second chance to test his talents in the Champions League the following season. Two clean sheets against Marseille and another against Lazio were not enough to see his team progress beyond the second group stage though. Nevertheless, it seemed like only a matter of time before a European giant picked up on Dudek’s string of excellent showings.

In fact, it was not until the end of the following season that the Polish stopper got his big move. He impressed greatly once again in 2000/01, and became the first ever foreign player to win the Dutch Golden Shoe award. Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier was losing patience with Sander Westerveld, despite the keeper playing his part on the way to a cup treble for the club.

Consequently, Chris Kirkland and Jerzy Dudek were both brought to Anfield in a sensational double move. Westerveld was immediately and ruthlessly taken out of contention for selection by the manager, who moved the ‘keeper on in December at the first opportunity. Dudek, despite being the cheaper of the two new signings, was installed as first choice straight away.

If some fans had been left feeling a little sorry for Westerveld, they soon forgot about it. Just as he had done so often at Feyenoord, Dudek played a key role in leading his side to finish with the best defensive record in the league, as Liverpool conceded just 30 across the course of the season, keeping 12 clean sheets along the way. It was not enough for the title – Liverpool finished runners-up to Arsenal – but Dudek received the personal accolade of being nominated for the UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year award alongside Oliver Kahn and Gianluigi Buffon. It was a remarkable achievement for a man who just seven years earlier had been plying his trade in the Polish third division.

His second season was less impressive. He remained first choice, but a string of errors led to Kirkland being afforded a little more game time. Dudek’s downturn in form contributed to a horrible slump for the team – pre-season title aspirations quickly vanished, and the team also crashed out of the Champions League at the group stages. A late surge in the league that failed to fire Liverpool back into the top four was somewhat mitigated, however, by victory in the League Cup, with Dudek named man of the match in the final against Manchester United.

This helped the Pole hold on to his position as first choice going into the next campaign. Arsenal took all of the headlines in their famous ‘Invincibles’ season, as Liverpool put in a solid but uninspired shift to secure fourth place. Dudek improved upon his form of the last campaign, but ended the season with the worst defensive record of the top four. The main thing, however, was securing a Champions League place – this allowed he and Liverpool to reflect on a reasonably successful season.

And how important this qualification turned out to be. Dudek had seemingly lost his edge over the past couple of seasons, but the 2004/05 Champions League campaign became the one for which he would be most remembered. New manager Rafael Benítez opted to keep Dudek as the number one, and this paid dividends almost immediately. His clean sheet in the away leg of the playoff round ended up being crucial, as Liverpool limped to a 2-1 aggregate victory over Grazer AK to secure their place in the competition proper.

He proceeded to keep three clean sheets in the group stage, allowing Liverpool to finish second and dramatically progress ahead of Olympiacos on goal difference following a late Steven Gerrard strike. The last 16 was a replay of the quarter-final in Dudek’s first season at Liverpool, but this time he was able to triumph over Bayer Leverkusen, limiting them to one goal in each leg as the team won 6-2 on aggregate.

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His clean sheet in the second leg of the quarter-final against Juventus was largely down to a stellar defensive effort, but he did what was needed when called upon to ensure Liverpool progressed to a semi-final against Chelsea that saw the famous ‘ghost goal’. More excellent defending combined with two strong showings from Dudek meant that this single controversial finish was enough to win the tie for Benítez’s team.

This was the road that led Dudek to Istanbul. The final would turn out to be the greatest night of his career, and of the lives of many a Liverpool fan. The opponents were AC Milan, at the time one of the greatest club sides ever assembled. Any win for Liverpool would have been astonishing, but what transpired was the greatest footballing miracle of all time.

At half-time, Dudek couldn’t have been imagining that this game would be the one that would define his career. He had already shipped three goals, and with Andrea Pirlo and Kaká providing the service for Hernán Crespo, it looked as though more were inevitable. In fact, it had not been the worst half for the goalkeeper – the incision of Milan’s passing had left him with little chance on any of the goals, and he had made a smart stop to deny Andriy Shevchenko.

Nonetheless, walking off having just seen Crespo loop the ball over his head for Milan’s third, Dudek couldn’t have been feeling particularly positive. Like all great players, however, he rallied. Early in the second half he was on hand to deny Shevchenko once again, this time keeping out a free-kick from the Ukrainian.

His attacking teammates took centre stage in the next few moments. Just a minute after Dudek’s save, Gerrard had scored at the other end – his header evaded Dida, and the captain gave his now-iconic rallying cry to players and fans alike. They responded. It was not long before Vladimir Šmicer drove the ball into the corner to reduce the deficit to just one, and it took just three more minutes to complete the remarkable turnaround after Gerrard was fouled in the box by Gennaro Gattuso. Xabi Alonso slammed home the rebound after seeing his initial kick saved.

Following this astonishing passage of play, the focus turned firmly back onto Dudek and his defence. Wave after wave of Milan pressure was piled on his goal, as some of the best players ever to grace a pitch combined to try and restore their lead, but they found themselves repeatedly denied. In normal time it was the defence who took most of the strain, with both Jamie Carragher and Djimi Traoré making inspired blocks.

In extra time, even the heroism of the defenders was not enough to prevent the ball falling to Shevchenko from six yards out. It looked a certain goal, but Dudek had other ideas. He pulled off a superb reflex save, only to see the ball fall back to the feet of Shevchenko. The keeper hauled himself off the floor as quickly as possible, and somehow managed to deflect the second attempt over the bar. That this most unlikely of saves had been made filled everyone with belief that this could be –  this had to be – Liverpool’s night.

That said, Dudek’s work was far from done. His extraordinary double save had forced penalties: now it was his job to keep them out. He rose to the challenge in heroic fashion, in so doing creating a legacy of one of the most iconic individual performances of all time.

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Serginho stepped up to take Milan’s first penalty but blazed it over following Dudek’s attempts to distract him with the ‘spaghetti legs’ made famous by Bruce Grobbelaar. Dietmar Hamann overcame a broken toe to slot his penalty home. Pirlo was up next for Milan. Dudek dived low to his right and was able to palm the ball away. Djibril Cissé scored his kick, and it was 2-0. Victory was almost tangible.

The drama was not over yet, however – Dudek could do nothing to deny Jon Dahl Tomasson, and then his counterpart Dida was able to keep out John Arne Riise’s penalty. Kaká then converted, as did Šmicer. After four penalties each, it was left at 3-2 as Shevchenko stepped forward. 

He had been denied time and time again by Dudek throughout the match, and approached the ball knowing that he had to find a way past this time in order to keep his team in the match. He could not do so. He went down the middle as Dudek again dived to the right, but the keeper threw out a strong left hand to keep the ball out. He had no right to make the save having dived away, but then Liverpool had no right to win – it was an end befitting of one of the most remarkable game ever witnessed.

Dudek’s teammates descended upon the hero. In hindsight, it’s something of a shame that this was not the Pole’s final bow for the club. The following season he was replaced as readily as Westerveld had been before him, with Pepe Reina brought in to be the number one. Still, this unfortunate ending could not sour the memories of Istanbul. Nothing could ever detract from something so perfect.

In any case, the ending on Merseyside opened up the door for a new beginning in Madrid. By the time he left at the end of the 2006/07 season, he was 34 years old – there aren’t many who can say they’ve been coveted by Los Blancos at such a stage in their career. Of course, it was understood by all parties that Dudek would play a back-up role to Iker Casillas, but this did not prevent the Pole from being taken firmly into the hearts of the Real faithful.

His work ethic and attitude were as faultless as they had been throughout his career, and on the few occasions he was called upon, he excelled. This included an impressive clean sheet on his debut against Real Zaragoza, and a second shut-out when given a game in the Champions League against Zenit Saint Petersburg.

His final appearance – only his second in the league since coming to the club – came against Almería. Real ran out 7-1 winners, and in the 77th minute, Dudek was substituted so as to receive a guard of honour from his teammates. This encapsulated the love and respect that he had won through the way he had conducted himself at the club. In recognition of this, and of his stellar career as a whole, he was applauded off by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and fellow hero of Istanbul, Xabi Alonso.

This was a fitting end to an extraordinary career. He has enough memories to spend a happy retirement simply dwelling on them, but Dudek’s mining background could never allow such lack of industry – instead, he has taken up motor racing. He is a man who lives for putting in hard graft, and seeing what rewards he can reap from it. His journey to the top was correspondingly methodical rather than mercurial, but when he got there he wrote his name into history.

James Martin  

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