It is the nightmare scenario. Your manager has decided either to make three early substitutions or has abandoned the idea of putting a goalkeeper on the bench altogether and then, as Sod would have it, your keeper lies prostrate in his six yard box and the physio is doing what resembles the Macarena towards the bench signalling he has to come off.
Cue the widespread scratching of chins and heads and the search for a hero to step forward. The wingers are automatically dismissed, naturally. This requires a different type of diving masterclass. The real footballers of the team turn away, refusing to even be taken into consideration. They’re above these kind of shenanigans, you see. Goalkeeping is beneath them.
So, you’ve got your shortlist down to three: The fearless full back who isn’t the biggest but always pulls the gloves on at the end of training shooting sessions. The brutish leader of a centre half who sees it as his duty to step into the breach. And finally the mobile six foot striker, the kind of person who’s brilliant at all sports and is physically the most up to the job.The manager looks into the eyes of each of them and plumps for the one he trusts the most.
So now what? Is he going to salvage that point you’ve been hanging on to or will he end up out of his depth resembling Mr Bean on roller skates? I’ve been a professional goalkeeper for 23 years. Here’s my five pointers to those wannabe Niall Quinns to help them through to the final whistle.
1: Don’t be scared of the ball
There’s a big myth about having to be either brave or stupid to be a goalkeeper, especially in the post-Nat Lofthouse era. Perhaps the stupid part still applies because as soon as we discovered how thankless a job it is, we should have all jumped ship there and then. But the bravery comes from decision making and mental strength rather than putting your body on the line with any physical heroics.
With the exception of a direct hit to your own spherical appendages, a football rarely hurts, no matter how hard it’s blasted in your direction. The most difficult thing to do here is to fight your own body’s natural reaction to lean backwards away from the comet hurtling towards you. Even the most experienced of keepers have to work at leaning forward and stepping in to the line of shots, particularly when returning to pre-season training.
You give yourself the best chance of saving any shot, but especially those from close range, by standing your ground, square on to the ball. In this respect, your face becomes the most import part of your body. Look at most keepers faces at the moment a ball is struck during a one-v-one and you will see them close their eyes and turn their face away from where the ball is coming from. The problem here is twofold. Firstly, if you close your eyes you can’t react in any way which leaves any save down to luck. And secondly, when you turn your head away, your body then follows, turning in that direction, thereby halving the amount of area you’re covering. The minute you flinch or take an instinctive step backwards, you’re cutting down your chances of saving shots dramatically.
2: Keep your eye on the ball – No shot is an easy shot
A basic requirement, you’d think, but in heated atmospheres and high pressure situations, the smallest of distractions can prove deadly. Whether it’s a speculative 30 yard effort or 10 miles per hour Dambuster ball bouncing towards you, you’ll soon discover no shot is an easy shot. The only time you take your eye off the ball is after it’s been in your grasp for at least three seconds. Then you can relax.
Combined with boot technology and the advent of “knuckle-ball” shooting, modern footballs move so much that even long range shots can require last second reactions saves as they deviate in flight towards you. The secret here is fast footwork and only committing to the dive as late as possible.
You should also never attempt to guess where a player is going to shoot. The better the player, the better his patience to wait for you to make your move and exploit it. Stand up, trust your reactions and call his bluff. You’d be amazed at how many shots will be straight at you.
3: Practice Goal-kicks and Kicking Out Your Hands
Chances are, the opposition are going to try and heap pressure on the stand-in keeper and the first part of this is forcing him to kick long and stop playing an easy ball out from the back. That’s no problem though. Kicking a dead ball as far up the pitch as you possibly can is simple isn’t? Just run up and whack it as hard as you can, right? Wrong.
If you take into account throw-ins, the ratio a goalkeeper uses his feet compared to his hands is similarly relative to a full back and takes up the bulk of their participation in the game. It’s not just a luxury to have a ball playing keeper, it’s a necessity.
Many teams set up in a particular way to give them selves the best chance of retaining possession, gaining yards up the pitch, and in cases such as Kasper Schmeichel, offer a direct attacking option from goal-kicks. Chances are, your manager will expect a ball to be kicked consistently 60-80 yards, into a precise area of ten square metres.
In many ways, taking a goal-kick is the same as taking a tee shot in golf, it needs the right mix of power, direction and technique. When you break down a young goalkeeper’s technique, you do so in the manner as a golf coach. The mechanics of body position, approach and swing through the ball are identical. The biggest mistake you can make is trying to put too much power into the ball and striking it too hard. This forces your body to tense up and you end up slicing or hooking the ball.
So if you can’t play out from the back, pick your intended target and kick through the ball without looking like you’re trying to launch it into orbit. During a time when you need relieve some pressure on your team and helping them up the field, you’ll invariably shank the ball out of play and heap it back on you.
4: You’re not at the casino. You’re in goal.
Despite the theory that we’ll all end up in an asylum when our playing days are over, we’re not actually mad. Well, most of us aren’t. That said, the off-field antics of many keepers can be explained as a reaction to placing themselves in professional bubble-wrap for much of their working life. We need to be ultra safe, sensible and take as few risks as possible so as to cut the risk of errors leading to goals conceded. Any player putting themselves in the firing line needs to readjust their mentality from that of the gambler at the craps table, shooting dice for a win, to that of an insurance man or an accountant trying to limit any damage or loss. We win our bonuses by not risking the mortgage. You’re David Seaman now, not Rene Higuita.
5: Don’t do it
Perhaps I should’ve started with the first and saved myself hours of work, but this is exactly what I would have told my seven year old self if I wasn’t naturally such a masochist. Imagine that ball flying straight towards you, it’s an easy catch, you’ve got this. Suddenly, you realise the ball’s moving a little quicker than you thought. Your hands aren’t quite in the right position and before you know it you can hear the nightmarish sound of the goalkeeper’s death rattle. That unmistakable sound of ball and net.
Somewhere, in the stadium, the away fans scream in delight. You momentarily close your eyes and the pit of your stomach sinks. You sit up, arms clasped around your knees and look up at your teammates. All you can see is the back of ten heads wearily making their way back to their positions. A sharp pain pierces the brief trance you’ve slipped into and you’re brought back to the moment. You look up and your centre-half turns to you, shakes his head, says nothing, making you feel as if it’s you against the twenty one other players on the pitch. If you think you can handle that feeling and still be able to have the confidence to come for the inevitable high ball into the box that comes two minutes later, then you’ll be a keeper, my son.
You can follow David Preece on Twitter (@davidpreece12)