Investigating the unique psychology of the No.2 goalkeeper, football’s loneliest position

It was an all-too-familiar feeling. Standing on the Wembley turf surrounded by his team-mates, Carlo Nash soaked up the atmosphere as the pre-game buzz and excitement spread around the stadium.

The 2011 FA Cup Final between Manchester City and Stoke would be Nash’s second experience of the showpiece event, and it would almost certainly mirror his first for Everton two years earlier.

As the goalkeeper warmed up beneath Wembley’s iconic arch, he knew this was likely to be his only taste of action on the hallowed turf. Barring an unexpected turn of fortune, Nash’s final would be spent on the bench, watching the drama unfold just yards in front of him. When you’re a No.2 goalkeeper, the frustration of viewing the action with your nose pressed against an imaginary pane of glass is a regular feeling.

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“I was lucky enough to be part of two cup finals,” says Nash, looking back at his brushes with Wembley immortality. “I didn’t play in either final, but I was on the bench – I did feel part of it, but there’s a little point in your head when you think ‘I wish I was playing’. Although it was great to be part of the occasion and [with] that group of players.

“You do get used to that [being on the bench] when there’s only one shirt up for grabs, but there’s not really much you can do in that situation other than prepare right in case you’re needed. I always prepared as though I was playing: maybe the guy who’s in front of you gets a little bit more work in the warm-up, but I always tried to do the work I needed as if I was starting.”

Despite his professionalism, Nash never did make his Wembley bow. Left on the bench, gloves primed for an emergency but remaining unused, the veteran custodian’s tale isn’t uncommon. After making only 10 league appearances in the final seven years of his professional career, Nash soon got used to the feeling of being left out.

After making his breakthrough at Crystal Palace in the late 1990s, the shot-stopper earned his corn as No.1 for Stockport County, Manchester City and Preston North End, before his career took a distinct turn towards the touchline. Signed by Wigan on an emergency loan in 2007, Nash soon became accustomed to the bench – backing up Chris Kirkland at the DW Stadium, before taking similar roles at Everton, Stoke and Norwich.

It’s often said that you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, but what about a goalkeeper who rarely keeps goal? According to Nash, expectations set at the start of the season are key to coping with the loneliness of being a virtual spectator for months on end.

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“It can depend on the situation,” explains the Bolton-born former custodian, who now works as Oldham Athletic’s goalkeeping coach. “A lot of the time there’s an out-and-out No.1 and a No.2 who might be a younger lad or a more experienced keeper. In that situation, it’s a lot easier to motivate the players because they know their places in the team.

“But when you’ve got two No.1s who are as good as each other and want to fight for that No.1 shirt, it can become more difficult. If one is playing and the other wants to, he can get unhappy and it becomes a lot more psychological and personal – you need to be fair and liaise with both goalkeepers on a regular basis.

“Players want to play at the end of the day. No matter who you are, you want to be in that team and playing regularly. That doesn’t change at any level.”

And that’s where it gets tricky. When a disillusioned goalkeeper is working so closely to his rival for the coveted No.1 jersey, it’s easy to see how healthy competition can descend into a destructive situation.

One man who has experienced that is former Watford and Brentford glovesman Richard Lee, who now runs national coaching company GK Icon and represents goalkeepers alongside agents. The 35-year-old has suffered the ignominy of signing as a No.1, only to find himself shunted down the pecking order soon after arriving.

“The situation at Brentford was interesting because I went there expecting to be No.1,” Lee recalls. “So when I got dropped and became No.2 – and No.3 at one point – the expectation of having the No.1 shirt became anger and frustration. I was blaming everyone and everything because the situation isn’t what you want it to be.”

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Instead of letting the ill feeling fester, Lee got his head down and earned back his place through a combination of hard work and persistence, although it was a journey of conflicting emotions as he plunged his team-mates into the situation he’d fought so hard to escape. Step forward, the fabled goalkeepers’ union.

“Everyone talks about the goalkeepers’ union and there’s a lot of truth in it,” Lee explains. “You do share a bond because you understand the nerves they’re feeling, the highs and lows, and everything else that goes with it.

“There’s an unwritten rule that you want to be fair to each other, but we both know that we’re there for the same reason. We’re both goalkeepers and have a lot in common: we like each other but both want to play.

“While I’m not playing I’ll be nice and support you, but when I’m playing I expect the same in return. Sure, there are times when you think you should be playing and there’s a little bit of animosity between you, but you know it’s not personal.

“When you’re No.2 and feel you should be playing, the only reason you’re going to get back into the team is if the No.1 loses form, gets sent off or gets injured – all of which are really negative. But the truth is, that’s the only way you’re getting back into the team, and ultimately [earning] another contract and your career taking the trajectory you want. It doesn’t sound nice but that’s what you need for something positive to happen.”

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Battling that inner conflict isn’t the only challenge goalkeepers face. While most No.2s yearn for the chance to show off their skills on the pitch, the reality of walking out to perform in front of thousands after a long stint on the bench can trigger anxiety.

Leading sports psychologist Phil Johnson has worked with several goalkeepers across the world and has witnessed first-hand the impact that being away from the limelight can have.

“There’s a whole psychology about being on the bench and for goalkeepers in particular,” Johnson explains. “Although there is a squad mentality more and more; at the end of the day, you’re not starting.

“When your name is on the team sheet, your status rises, regardless of if you’re the best in the position or if others who might be preferred are injured or suspended. But it’s rare that a second-choice goalkeeper is brought on as a substitute, so he’ll rarely play. One could argue that the adjustment from not doing anything competitively to suddenly having to do it is a real psychological challenge for goalkeepers.

“For example, at Monaco, the No.1 goalkeeper was injured and Seydou Sy – who had been No.3 and recently became No.2 – came into the team. He’d been at the club for five years and only played one cup game before that, so that’s been a real change. On his first appearance, I noticed a nervousness about him because it was so new and different. When these guys are called upon, they have to be ready and it’s not easy.”

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At times, though, the No.2 custodian can become a hero. Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal famously swapped goalkeepers before a penalty shoot-out with Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup, with substitute Tim Krul entering the fray late on in extra time and helping the Dutch advance to the semi-finals.

Lower down the pyramid, Nuneaton Borough’s James Belshaw was also brought on just moments before penalties in a 2013 FA Trophy tie – but as a specialist taker rather than saver. Yet there were no heroics on this occasion: Belshaw missed from 12 yards and Boro tumbled out of the competition.

Johnson believes there are ways to maintain goalkeepers’ confidence even when they’re not playing regularly, citing another example from his time at Monaco.

“One of the goalkeepers made a triple save in training that was absolutely phenomenal, but only [manager] Claudio Ranieri and an attacker applauded,” Johnson says.

“I remember speaking to Claudio about it afterwards. I said that these guys put their bodies on the line every day to stop the ball going into the net and how it would be really good for everyone to be more appreciative of them. To Claudio’s credit, he spoke to the other players about it and a few days later, the goalkeepers were walking around looking three or four inches taller. It makes a difference.”

That extra confidence is crucial – it could even be the difference between a cup final appearance and a place on the bench.

Investigating the unique psychology of the No.2 goalkeeper, football’s loneliest position
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