Tom O’Connor defends the goalkeeping profession, arguing that the skill and hard work exhibited by netminders is often is overlooked by fans and commentators alike.
“That O’ Connor fella’s half mad” was the first positive comment I remember hearing about my fledgling goalkeeping career. It was uttered by one local to another after hearing my 11 year old high pitched screams urging an O’ Neills ball to travel further following a kick out. While it is probably true you have to be a little different to play in goals, to be crazy isn’t a trademark of a successful goalkeeper. This article aims to banish the myth that all goalkeepers are eccentric, unbalanced, nutcases and prove that the opposite is, in fact the case.
So what makes a good goalkeeper? Well, it depends who you ask. Tune into Soccer Republic/ Match of the Day/The Football League Show and pundits drool over spectacular saves from long distance shots or reaction saves from 6 yards while over on the Sunday Game the talk is of kickout/ puckout strategies and the benefits of being able to score frees from distance. Sometimes, the Sunday Game will make reference to how a save from a goalkeeper changed a match- most recently Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy’s penalty save in the All Ireland hurling final or Donegal netminder Paul Durcan’s block from Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly- but for the majority of the season attention has focused on the importance of the restart.
Are these pundits totally wrong in their simple assessment of a goalie as merely a stopper of attacks or someone who kick the ball in a certain area? Whether deliberately or not, goalkeeping is portrayed in a simplistic light by analysts- at parish, club, county, national and international level. Goalkeeping icons in this country are routinely dismissed from greatness because they’re different.
Mention the likes of Roscommon’s Shane Curran or Clare’s Davy Fitzgerald to a Gaelic games supporter and the response is most likely to be something along the lines of “Ah sure he’s mad/ daft as a brush etc”. Why? Because these men while on the pitch displayed some emotion and were different to other players. “All goalies are crazy and sure these boys are the perfect example”. What a load of rubbish! Davy Fitzgerald has been one of the most successful hurling coaches of the past ten years, ask any of the LIT, Waterford and Clare hurlers and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone describe him as crazy- methodical, dedicated, motivational are more likely answers. And Curran who was carried off the pitch by umpires in a club game last year, he’s also known for clowning about on “Second Captains”, but look behind the caricature and he’s a very calculated man. His astute analysis while doing radio commentary plus his internationally successful water bag company prove there’s more to “Cake” than the icing being a tad unique.
Key characteristics of a top class goalkeeper are communicating, decision making, positioning and reflexes. The best keepers rarely have to make the flashy saves because their position allows them to make a save look easy. How many times have we heard a commentator say “He hit it straight at the keeper” and lay the blame directly at the feet of the attacker instead of praising the netminder for anticipating where the shot was going before the ball or sliotar had been struck? It’s only recently been acknowledged how important it is to have a number 1 who can anticipate the danger and snuff out attacks, the emergence of sweeper keepers like Hugo Lloris and Manuel Neuer, drew attention to this aspect of goalkeeping.
In the eighties, Liverpool’s Bruce Grobelaar was known almost exclusively for his ‘spaghetti legs’ routine during the 1984 European Cup penalty shootout. Yet what people don’t remember is that he was an early advocate of the sweeper keeper system, every cross that entered the Liverpool penalty area he competed for. It didn’t matter if he didn’t catch every one- the main thing was that he disrupted the other team’s attacks. So much so that they had to either change their style of play and try to play through the famed Liverpool defence or flood the box with attackers. Neither system was going to be a realistically successful proposition on the heavy pitches of 442 ‘kick and rush’ 1980’s English league. Grobelaar wasn’t the fool he was made out to be, he was taking calculated risks and, judging by the extent to which Liverpool achieved success in this period, he was correct. He was sacrificing himself for the team- if he dropped a cross or two during a game his personal rating for the game would suffer but if he disrupted the style of the other team then it was worth it for Liverpool.
Indeed, only a few weeks ago, Paul Durcan anticipated Diarmuid Connolly’s shot and was diving before the Dublin forward had even struck the ball. Why? Is Durcan crazy? Not at all, rather Connolly had scored a goal against Monaghan some weeks previously by sidefooting the ball past Rory Beggan and Durcan reckoned he would do the same again. No doubt this had been highlighted during one of Donegal’s in-depth opposition meetings and the consensus was to try and guess rather than stand up as would be expected. Durcan was willing to look like a fool for the sake of his team.
This ability to work for the team is another huge element in goalkeeping. Other players can switch off when the play is at the other end of the pitch, but the man between the sticks never rests, they are busy organising their defence. This constant communication between the last two lines of defence is crucial and a mainstay of the top keepers across the three sports previously mentioned. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were an incredibly successful partnership at club level but amassed only 22 international caps between them (Bruce famously was never capped by England). Why did they work so well at club level? Peter Schmeichel.
The Great Dane was famous for his incessant screaming at his defenders no matter how well the team were playing. He was always reading where the danger was going to come from and marshaled his defenders to closing down situations before they became a problem, therefore he had less shots and crosses to deal with. Apart from his well publicised ‘Gordon Banks’ save in a Champions League tie v Rapid Vienna many years ago (1996 to be precise!) I can’t remember offhand of a spectacular save. He didn’t need to make them because the situations didn’t arise too often. Similarly another Premier League goalkeeping legend of the time, Arsenal’s David Seaman, rarely had to perform heroics aside from an outstanding stretch to foil Sheffield United’s Paul Peschisolido, instead he worked closely with his centre backs Steve Bould and Tony Adams to anticipate situations. Schmeichel and Seaman were two of the best goalkeepers the Premier League has ever seen yet most of their greatest saves consisted of one on ones when their defenders were beaten and they stood up tall and made the striker shoot at them. They most certainly didn’t fit the ‘crazy’ stereotype.
But what of those who did? How successful were their careers at club level? Jorge Campos lit up the 94 World Cup with his loud outfits and attacking style of goalkeeping but never played for a major European club, similarly Jose Luis Chilavert was regularly touted as one of the world’s best but never established himself at a top European club. Likewise Rene Higuita, he of the famous ‘scorpion kick’, gained almost 70 international caps yet only lasted 15 games at Real Valladolid in Spain. Aside from Fabien Barthez winning the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championships, most of the goalkeepers who were part of medal winning teams in recent World/ European soccer tournament were experienced, reliable custodians- Marcos (Brazil 2002), Nikopolidis (Greece 2004), Buffon (Italy 2006), Casillas (Spain 2008,10,12) and Neuer (Germany 2014) were all established at both club and country when they experienced success. Solid, settled and successful.
But what about in Ireland, how do Gaelic football and hurling net minders compare? Surely there’s some mad men hiding here? Apparently not, as we see when we go back to 2008 in both codes. Packie Mc Connell (Tyrone 2008), Diarmuid Murphy (Kerry 2009), Alan Quirke (Cork 2010), Paul Durcan (Donegal 2012) and Stephen Cluxton (Dublin 2011 and 2013) were all at least 4 years in the job when they lifted the Sam Maguire. In hurling, James Mc Garry won his 7th All Ireland title for Kilkenny in 2008 when he came on as a sub for PJ Ryan who had been on the panel since 1999. Ryan was between the posts for the Cats again 2009 while 2010 saw the legendary Brendan Cummins succeed with Tipperary, 2011 and 2012 saw David Herity complete his 3rd and 4th years on the Kilkenny panel by winning All Ireland medals while 2013 saw Pa Kelly add to his 2005 Harty Cup Colleges All Ireland with the Liam Mc Carthy Cup.
In conclusion, to be a successful goalie- in soccer, Gaelic football or hurling- being daft is not the way to go. In fact the opposite is usually true, the following are the traits that make a great goalkeeper, along with the leading exponents of each one.
(1) Measured, with their kick/ puck out strategy- Stephen Cluxton, Paul Durcan, Donal Og Cusack.
(2) Composed- David Seaman, Diarmuid Murphy
(3) Athletic- Brendan Cummins, Damien Fitzhenry, Iker Casillas
(4) Fantastic communicator -Peter Schmeichel, Davy Fitzgerald
(5) Superb decision making- Manuel Neuer, Hugo Lloris
Hopefully this article has convinced you that the men between the sticks aren’t crazy, yes we’re different but please don’t call us crazy, or half mad for that matter!
Tom O’Connor, Pundit Arena.