Although football is a team game, one figure stands out from the rest, aloof, solitary, somehow intellectual… But enough about Dimitar Berbatov. Jonathan Wilson’s latest book is a history of the goalkeeper, in which he examines shifting cultural perceptions of the custodian’s role, exploring the ‘keeper as a brooding existentialist, ‘reflective types, prone to introversion, trying, perhaps, to rationalise why such unfair things happen to such undeserving people. The question is whether gloomy prognosticators are drawn to goalkeeping, or whether goalkeeping makes them like that’. It’s a question he is well-qualified to answer; Wilson is one of the most intellectual writers the British sports press can boast, and he is as comfortable discussing Nabokov and Camus as he is Neuer and Casillas.
The goalkeeper plays a unique role in football. Aside from the obvious difference, his ability to handle the ball, his job is to prevent goals, the very thing that the spectators have come to see; he performs best when his team-mates are at their worst. Wilson sees the evolution of the goalkeeper from the ‘small boys, the duffers & funk-sticks’ pressed into service during games at Westminster School, and the early versions of the game in which any player could take a ‘fair catch’, through the largely static goalkeepers of the pre-war years, to the modern sweeper-keeper, embodied by the likes of Edwin van Der Sar, emboldened by changes to the backpass rule and protection from referees to link up once again with their teammates.
Along the way, Wilson uncovers some fascinating figures. The early game in England is represented by the legendary William ‘Fatty’ Foulkes, a Derbyshire miner who went on to keep goal for Sheffield and Chelsea. Standing at 6’4” and weighing up to 22 stone, he is remembered for his intimidation of forwards and his catchphrase ‘Call me what you like as long as you don’t call me late for dinner’. Less well-known is Leigh Richmond Rouse, a showman goalkeeper who made his name with Stoke City and redefined the concept of goalkeeping, provoking a change in rules with to his habit of carrying the ball to the halfway line. Rouse was long thought to have been killed at Gallipoli, but recent investigations by Spencer Vignes reveal that he went on to win the Distinguished Service Medal on the Western Front in 1916, before being lost without trace at the Somme. These extroverts were making their mark in a game where they received precious little protection – from corners, players ‘would kick the ball in the air in the direction of the goalkeeper who would at once be attacked by two of the inside forwards, while the third would attempt to shoot into the empty goal’.
British goalkeepers attracted suspicion by performing extravagant dives – the great Scottish ‘keeper Harry Rennie saw goal-line acrobatics as ‘a descent to mere animalism’. Elsewhere, goalies were viewed with similar hostility. In Brazil, the saying went, ‘to be a goalkeeper you must be either mad or queer’. There was a racial element to this view, as the selecao would not pick a black goalie. Wilson is not short of colourful characters to call on to reinforce his view of the keeper as outsider. The great Hungarian team of the Sixties, for example, featured Groscis ‘a loner who preferred to play chess than to drink and watch westerns with the rest of the squad’. Scottish goalkeeping was a long-standing joke, but was rehabilitated by Andy Goram. Goram may have been a superb player, but even so he was known for his ‘binge drinking, unfortunate habit of being spotted with loyalist extremists and generally shambolic lifestyle’ – also, not mentioned, there were the mental problems which led to the terrace chant ‘there’s only two Andy Gorams’.
One area where the goalkeeper was viewed differently was the Soviet Union. In his memoir Speak, Memory, Nabokov remembers his experiences of keeping goal at Cambridge: ‘the goals are a mass of black mud, the ball as greasy as a plum pudding’. Nabokov also says that ‘In Russia & the Latin countries, that gallant art has always been surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the goalkeeper… vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation’. Wilson speculates that the Soviet ideals of teamwork, sacrifice, and working for the common good are embodied in the figure of the goalkeeper, and allowed them to thrive. To this day, the great Russian goalie Lev Yashin is the only ‘keeper to be crowned European Footballer of the Year, but more heroic is the figure of Mykola Trusevych, the Dynamo Kyiv goalkeeper executed by the Nazis after playing his role in the legendary match between Kyiv and a Luftwaffe team which inspired the film Escape to Victory.
Wilson’s knowledge is wide-ranging, and his chapter on the history of African goalkeeping contains details which will be unfamiliar to many. As he showed in Inverting the Pyramid, his historu of football tactics, he is strong on the links between culture & style in sport – the way British football is influenced by the production line, the importance of subversion in the Brazilian game – and is keen to explore the wider context of the games he describes. As a result, the narrative sometimes jumps from place to place and occasionally strays from the point: sections on the development of the Brazilian & Argentinian styles of play under dictatorships in Seventies are interesting, but don’t really fit the overall thrust of the book. In addition, Wilson is no stranger to pseud’s corner. Here though, he is restrained, waiting until the epilogue before referring to ‘the trope [which] informs the Lacanian branch of post-Freudian psychoanalysis’.
As long hours spent in the field are supposed to render cricketers unusually disposed to suicidal thoughts, the isolated role of the goalkeeper encourages introspection. Wilson doesn’t discuss the case of Robert Enke, perhaps feeling that Ronald Reng’s biography was the final word on the matter, but does look at the Italian goalkeeper Buffon’s experience of depression. Buffon, a world-class athlete who combines a seemingly iron will with a penchant for hairgrips, fits Wilson’s image of the keeper perfectly (‘not afraid of controversy… an instinctive rebel’), but the inherent unfairness of the goalie’s predicament was too much even for him.
After all, as Wilson says, ‘no sportsman, surely, so regularly confronts the arbitrariness of the fates as the goalkeeper. A deflection, a bad bounce, a gust of wind, a momentary misjudgement, a brilliant strike, and everything for which he has striven in the rest of the game is wiped out’. With his slicked black hair and admirable poise Buffon is as much the matinee idol as Berbatov, but the self-assurance of Berba’s ‘Keep calm and give me the ball’ t-shirt is not an option for the goalie. Not only are they exposed to the fates, but as Graham Joyce explains in Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular, English goalkeepers in particular are protected only by ‘a ragged line of prima donnas, hopheads, dimwits, basket cases and Hello magazine fashion shows’. There is hope though: the goalkeeper may have started out as an exile, or scapegoat, but developments of the rules and tactics see them coming home, becoming a full member of the team once again.
Any Cop?: Wilson’s wide-ranging knowledge of the game has always been impressive, but in the past he has drifted into a dry, pseud-y prose style. Here, his warmth, humour and enthusiasm is evident throughout. This is definitely recommended for anyone who likes their analysis a bit deeper than you get on Match of the Day.