Can a goalkeeper be too eccentric? From the hulking giant Oliver Kahn to the comparatively small but equally outrageous Jorge Campos, clearly many great glovesmen have prowled the goalmouth with a hint of madness. But in England, nurtured by the unwavering subtleness and dependability of Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton and safe hands David Seaman, too much personality in a goalkeeper is often greeted with suspicion.
Referencing Shilton’s assertion that England has produced the best keepers in the world, Johnathan Wilson notes in The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper, “It would perhaps be truer to say that England consistently produced good goalkeepers of the sort it admired. Which is to say goalkeepers who were safe and reliable, and, as though by right of birth, escaped that terrible foreign habit of flapping at crosses.”
Intensified by today’s match lying so precariously at the feet of the goalkeeper, following the huge development of the role in the years since the 1992 back pass ruling, have unconventional goalkeepers still got a place (if they ever did at all) in the modern English game? This question has regularly cropped up when discussing the career of Heurelho Gomes.
The current Watford shot-stopper, formerly of Cruzeiro, PSV and Tottenham has led a truly rollercoaster career; seeing some dramatic reputation changes and evoking feelings from differing fans that have ranged from unbridled elation to sheer antipathy.
From achieving God-like status in Brazil and Holland to being branded the “worst Premier League goalkeeper of all time” by Alan Hansen, to maturing like a fine wine with Watford, it is fair to say that the 38-year-old’s image has never stood still for long. Potentially bowing out of the game following an FA Cup final appearance against Manchester City, is there room for goalkeepers of his kind in the Premier League today?
Like the script to an overly ambitious Hollywood film, things all began for Heurelho Gomes in fields of Joāo Pinheiro, on a farm in the south-eastern Brazilian State of Minas Gerais in 1981. Growing up, life was never easy for young Heurelho. His early childhood was spent herding animals and preparing harvests with parents Antonio and Maria, alongside his ten brothers and sisters. Aged five, Antonio and Maria took new jobs across state in neighbouring Canoeiros, leaving Heurelho and his siblings to fend for themselves during the working week as they desperately tried to put food on the table.
But this tough start to life helped forge the man who joined Cruzeiro’s ranks aged 21. Like so many modern goalkeepers, Gomes began as an outfielder, dreaming of scoring goals rather than keeping them out. “I became a keeper by accident, playing in goal during a local tournament,” he later told the Daily Mail.
But the young Brazilian took this lack of interest in keeping net to another level, not receiving any kind of formal coaching until he was 19. Following a massive growth spirt in his late teens, however, the boy would eventually find a regular home between the sticks.
Towering over his opponents and adept with the ball at his feet, he joined a Cruzeiro side stewarded by Vanderlei Luxemburgo in 2002, taking no time to flourish under the Brazilian journeyman’s tutelage. Incredibly, it only took one season to adapt to the rigours of professional football, with the rookie starring as Cruzeiro won a triple crown of Brasileiro (a first since 1966), Campeonato Mineiro State and Copa do Brasil in 2003.
It was here that the young goalkeeper’s unorthodox approach was first noticed. His teenage growth-spirt had left his arms unusually long and gangly. This meant that whilst only standing at six foot three inches – a comparatively average height for a man of his position – Gomes’ arms hung so long that his knuckles practically grazed the turf when taking up starting position; an imposing sight for any striker.
Throughout the season he used this quirk to the maximum, charging from his line to pluck crosses from the air at will, whilst instantly setting his team on the offensive with long throws that regularly crossed the halfway line. Fans would often call him O Goleiro Grande – The Great Goalkeeper – in recognition of their new-found star’s extraordinary heroics. “I don’t stay on my line and wait for the ball to come,” Gomes would later tell the Evening Standard. “I cannot wait for a guy to come within five meters of me and score with his head. No, I go and get the ball before he tries that on me.”
With just two seasons of professional football under his belt, Gomes’ performances in the treble-winning campaign saw a place in Brazil’s 2003 Gold Cup squad presented, making five appearances as the Seleçāo reached the final in Mexico City. Whilst eventually losing to the hosts, the surrounding attention saw the youngster touted as Brazil’s number one for years to come with Europe beckoning.
His next destination was Eindhoven, where Gomes cemented his status with PSV as one of the worlds most talked about goalkeepers. The Brazilian was ever-present as the club won four straight Eredivisie titles. Statistically sensational, Gomes set a clean sheet ratio of 60 percent – a Dutch record – whilst regularly collecting Brazil caps along the way.
Just like in Brazil, the PSV fans were not shy to hale their new rock’s unorthodox talent. They quickly nicknamed him The Octopus – a strange salute, both to his tentacle-like reach and his match-winning reflexes.
Such was Gomes’ bond with the crowd that during home fixtures, the club’s ultras would regularly unfold a giant tifo depicting their stopper as a Christ the Redeemer-like figure. In response, Gomes would often celebrate goals wildly, jumping and dancing around like a mad man, as if personally in the stands with his jubilant people.
One particularly mad display in the UEFA Cup against Tottenham attracted the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs. With a performance Spurs fans would soon grow accustomed to, Gomes was equality brilliant as he was comical, making a string of spell-binding saves whilst seemingly just as committed to handing the game to Tottenham on a silver platter. “Gomes had an erratic game, frequently keeping his side in the game, only then to endanger his team with a rush of blood to the head,” noted the BBC’s John Sinnott. In the dying embers of extra-time, the octopus sprung, leaping brilliantly to stick a Steed Malbranqe piledriver destine for the top corner over the bar, before winning the resulting penalty shootout.
Clearly not put off by the Brazilian’s wild side, the display was enough in persuading Tottenham to part with £7.8m, securing the much-touted stopper’s signature in the summer of 2008. This was still a substantial price-tag for a Premier League goalkeeper at the time – the league’s first Brazilian goalkeeper – carrying lofty expectations. “I am here to win trophies,” Gomes insisted to the British press on arrival, further fuelling excitement.
But the club Gomes arrived at was in no fit state to win anything. That summer, a raid from warring Liverpool and Manchester factions had left Spurs bereft of prized front line partners Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov. Whilst these transfers rightly grabbed headlines, the incumbent Spaniard Juande Ramos had also proceeded to sell off the bulk of Martin Jol’s dependable UEFA Cup squad, with goalkeeper Paul Robinson, right-back Pascal Chimbonda, and midfielders Steed Malbranque and Teemu Tainio quickly ushered out the backdoor. In their place came a cluster of talented but unproven youngsters, in no way ready to jump headfirst into of a top six dogfight.
With their new goalkeeper in place and a great hope for maintaining Daniel Levy’s European quest, Spurs stank. By late-October, faith in the new recruits had evaporated with Ramos dismissed and the club sitting bottom of the league. Zero wins from eight: the worst start to a Tottenham campaign in 126 years. The blame hardly fell solely at Gomes’ feet – each passing week saw a new player seemingly intent on throwing the game through a senseless red card or foul in the box – but he was certainly cast among the primary villains, with countless goals the result of defensive mix ups and gaffes hilarious to anyone not of a Tottenham persuasion.
Following a short period of stability under new boss Harry Redknapp, Gomes faced Liverpool on a blustery November evening that must have felt like a foreign planet to the leafy Holland and idyllic Belo Horizonte to which had grown so accustom.
After flapping at two identical Ryan Babel corners – gifting Damien Plessis and Sami Hyypiä tap ins – a hefty whack to the face dealt by the boot of Philipp Degen left Gomes unconscious for nearly ten minutes; an injury so severe that he would lose two teeth, forcing him to wear a gum shield for the remainder of his career.
With no recollection of the incident, Gomes returned to action just three days later with a bandage to his lip against Fulham. Soon back to his usual antics – defying logic to reach a 25-yard stunner from Clint Dempsey – the Brazilian’s bold style, so revered in Brazil and the Netherlands, again faltered, dropping a Simon Davies cross directly into his own net.
For these high-profile errors, Gomes would face the full force the British press. “Such eccentricity was once a quality,” Berated the Telegraph. “As another of his calamitous errors set Tottenham on the way to their first defeat under Harry Redknapp, then they might well have reflected that they did not so much need a man in goals boasting eight arms when two would suffice.”
Amongst the harshest critics was Alan Hansen: “He has to be the worst goalkeeper I have ever seen in the Premier League,” the Scotsman scathed. With the nation in fits of both laughter and rage, compounded by the weight of the British press smouldering his back, the former champion was now a shadow of his old self.
After such a terrible start, things would never get much better for Gomes at Spurs. Spending the next two seasons targeted by opposing sides whilst failing to convince pundits he wasn’t one lapse away from complete disaster, the goalkeeper was at breaking point over what he viewed as an excessively brutal English game. “I thought it would be easy coming to England because I’d been in Europe for four years,” he told the Evening Standard in February 2011. “This is the hardest league in the world in terms of physical contact. What in other countries would be a foul against a goalkeeper is not in this country.”
As per one account on the Peter Crouch Podcast, Gomes was even reduced to tears in the Britannia Stadium dressing room following a particularly torrid aerial bombardment against a Tony Pulis manager Stoke City.
The following April, a Champions League howler against Real Madrid – letting an incredibly limp Cristiano Ronaldo effort slip through his fingers, bobble over his head and trickle past the goal line – cemented feelings in England that the 30-year-old was garbage – an eccentric foreign clown never fit for Premier League consumption. “Heurelho Gomes has shown he can lurch unpredictably from the sublime to the ridiculous.” Lambasted the Express’s Matt Law the proceeding aftermath. “White Hart Lane fell silent for the first time and Gomes looked like a man who wanted the ground to swallow him up.”
Holding the first XI spot in jersey number only, Gomes failed to register a single minute of Premier League action for the next two campaigns, rotting on the subs bench as the ever-reliable Brad Friedel and Hugo Lloris helped usher in an age of European football previously tasked to the sorry Brazilian.
Perhaps attaining something of a cult status amongst fans for his enthusiasm was some vague form of comfort, but Gomes’ reputation as a trustworthy goalkeeper now lay in the mud after what could only be described as a disastrous six years in north London. With his contract set to expire in the summer of 2014, the octopus’ days in England looked over, destined for a quieter life back in his homeland or the Netherlands.
That was until Watford stepped in. With bags packed and reportedly shipped for Brazil, Gomes received news of an offer in July 2014; signing for the Hornets on the Pozzo family’s ambitions to return the club to the top flight for the first time since 2007.
However, after a drab and disappointing previous campaign, the club was crying out for a consistent shot-stopper, not a hot-headed maniac. “Although we knew from reputation that Gomes was prone to an error, we tried to give him a fresh start,” says David Anderson, editor of Watford fanzine Golden Pages.
In Hertfordshire, Gomes had stumbled across a club that was something of a safe haven for previously discarded north London goalkeepers, with former Gunner Manuel Almunia performing amicably during the club’s 2012/13 playoff final-reaching campaign. “We’d had many error-prone keepers in the years before that, but we wanted to avoid making our mind up on him before we’d given him a chance.”
With the slate wiped clean, Gomes thrived. Regaining the promise and hope thought lost on the plane from Holland six years earlier, Gomes surpassed all expectations as he led Watford to promotion at the first time of asking – the joyful enthusiasm of his youth returning once again, clear for all to see. “When we score his celebrations match those of the goalscorer, and when we lose he always remembers to thank the fans regardless.”
Showing no signs of slowing down, Gomes’ commitment to his bold approach was still glaringly evident following a collision against Aston Villa in 2015, in which the goalkeeper feared he’d broken his neck. “The first thing I did was move my legs to make sure everything was ok,” he later reflected. “[But] I will never give up on crosses, getting injured is always possible and that’s why I’ve had injuries.”
But question marks persisted over his Premier League capabilities. Doing it in the second tier was one thing, but after failing so spectacularly to warm the net of a Champions League competitor, how could this eccentric jester possibly fare differently at a club destined to struggle at the other end of the table?
Emphatically repelling doubts, Gomes would play every minute as the Hornets finished a solid 13th, the bedrock of a club so synonymous with chopping and changing its personnel. “It’s like a new goalkeeper has stepped out of the shattered shell of the old one as he heads into the twilight of his career,” suggested the Mail’s Sam Cunningham after an impressive string of clean sheets in September. “He’s like a fine wine, just getting better with age,” chuckled captain Troy Deeney after a particularly outstanding display against Bournemouth in February.
Those wanting a true picture of Gomes’ impact that season need only look at Watford’s 2015/16 awards. Usually an occasion reserved for flattering a club’s prime creators and goalscorers, the Watford 2016 Awards Ceremony read:
Player of the Season – Heurelho Gomes
Players’ Player of the Season – Heurelho Gomes
Individual Performance of the Season – Heurelho Gomes [saving not one, but two penalties in a 1-0 win against West Bromwich Albion].
No longer is the name Heurelho Gomes associated with buffoonery and gaffes. His transformation in the eyes of the media is perhaps best summarised by the Independent’s Jack Pitt-Brooke: “No one in English football has a bad word to say about Heurelho Gomes. Along with Troy Deeney, Gomes has been a pillar of the Pozzo era.”
After helping Watford thrive as a stable Premier League outfit during the 2016/17 and 2017/18 campaigns, the Gomes of today takes a backseat role, letting Ben Foster star in the league whilst he performs equally in cup competitions. His efforts in this season’s run to the FA Cup final marks his greatest accomplishment to date on these shores.
Despite the loss, it’s fair to say that the past five years have seen Heurelho Gomes salvage his reputation in England. Through an unyielding belief in his own unique ability and methods, he’s shown emphatically that there remains room for a hint of madness in the Premier League’s modern goalkeeper. Perhaps his Spurs bloopers will forever be the staple for any ‘dodgy keeper’ YouTube compilation video, but with his gangly arms and big heart, the octopus will never be forgotten by those who have cherished him.
By Mike Thomas @mikethomas__
Illustration by Daryl Rainbow