The curious headline is prompted by young Junior, scion of the noble House of Bayou, who made his competitive feetballs début a few weeks ago, the very weekend we played our emotionally challenged cousins from up the road.
He donned the traditional No. 1 shirt as custodian for an U10 football side whose name includes the words Park and Rangers. Thankfully there is no Queens involved. (Note: This is a reference to the team name and not an ungrammatical expression of prejudice against a particular sexual orientation.)
“The conditions you need to be a good goalkeeper are exactly the same conditions you need to be a good sculptor. You must have a very good connection, in both professions, with time and space.” – Eduardo Txillida (Chillida), Basque sculptor and goalkeeper for Real Sociedad in the early 40s (see also The Goalkeeper and the Void by Marta Azparren)
Yes, my flesh and blood, at the tender age of eight and three quarters, has been unmasked as one of those singular individuals who view goalkeeping as a reasonable and sane pursuit. He has elected to take his bucket of sporting aspirations and cast it into the same deep well as Fatty Faulkes, Albert Camus, Dino Zoff, Lev Yashin, Bert Trautman, Peter Bonetti, Gordon Banks, Julio Iglesias, John Paul II, Luciano Paverotti and Sylvester Stallone (well only in “that” film).
“There is no position in sport as noble as goaltending.” – Vladislav Tretiak, legendary Russian ice hockey goaltender
I must now view my son as one of that cohort of men and women possessed of a very particular caste of mind. For a goalkeeper is someone who, within what is essentially a collective effort, somehow stands a little apart. The rhythm of their endeavours is not synchronous with those of their team-mates. They engage in sporadic and frantic bouts of action as part of the team and then seem to claim a place somewhere between spectator and partaker. More involved than either coach or crowd, but an observer none the less.
The term goal “keeper” is itself problematic. In certain sports it has evolved to goal “tender” or goal “minder”, while the French practitioner of the art is referred to as a “guardien de but”. These other terms speak in some ways to the gentle, caring art of husbandry, of the individual who remained behind when others went to the hunt or to war. It stands in contrast to the martial descriptions of other team-mates as defenders and attackers. The guardianship of the livestock was a vital role, but one perhaps reserved for the young, aged, infirm or at any rate those who were not of the warrior class.
But why in English football did the word “keeper” become appended to the word goal? Why not “stopper” for instance, a term which on its own is often used as shorthand? Well, at a time when the country is transfixed by the faux history of Downton Abbey, it is surely fair to wonder whether the background of those who administered and encoded the game during its infancy, those men of means from the shires, felt the word “keeper”, with its rustic overtones of the gamekeeper, of a society with strict social strata, would evoke a sense of stability and order even at the time when football was gaining ground (post Factory Acts) amongst the newly “leisured” workers in the increasingly industrial and urban landscape?
However for us, it conjures a rather nuanced and conflicted image as on the one hand the gamekeeper was there to protect land and livestock on behalf of the landowner, but our romanticising of the poacher in folk song and folk tale suggests there was sympathy with the downtrodden, rural poor given the ever increasing enclosure of common lands.
While we recognise it as a necessary and skilled pursuit, the gamekeeper occupies a position slightly apart from those country-folk amongst whom he plies his trade. To this extent it echoes, perhaps, how we view the police in the modern world.
We think of Will Grundy in the Archers carefully tending those little, fluffy pheasant chicks but then remember the only purpose is to enable them to grow into adults birds, the better to be blasted from the skies by those wealthy enough to afford a day’s “sport”. So yes, there is stewardship, husbandry, care for the land and animals, but perhaps not to a purpose that is universally appreciated, unlike say the “tending” qualities of a shepherd or cattleman.
At a time when the work of D. H. Lawrence is being discussed in the context of the regular usage of certain words on the football pitch, the figure of Mellors in Lady Chatterly’s Lover represents another common image of the gamekeeper in the popular imagination. Living deep in the forest, away from domesticity, from the safety of the great house, the “keeper” embodies the more urgent, undomesticated aspects of our character, stripped of the sheen of civilisation. The attraction of the physical over the intellectual; the lure of living with nature, conquering and controlling, standing between order and chaos, all cohere in the persona of the gamekeeper. The frisson of danger this charged attraction transmitted to refined womenfolk, is a theme that reverberates in our culture, perhaps never more so than with the rumours around Queen Victoria and her “ghillie” John Brown, who resembled Billy Connelly according to the film.
It may not just be a lazy shortening of the original term that means we now refer to the position as that of “goalie”. We are perhaps trying to put these complex and unsettling associations behind us, the less to be troubled by the curious nature of the position. After all the tactical formations we constantly use, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-1-2-1 do not include the goalkeeper. Whatever happens to the strategy and tactics in the evolving game, there is one position whose basic tenets are unchanging, whose ambit is always restricted. No matter how sophisticated the evolution, lurking there in the forest is the reminder, that try as we might, we cannot ultimately conceal the stark and basic reality that underpins all this “intellectualism”.
Protect your goal and penetrate the opposition’s.
And while we are paddling about in a thick soup of psycho-sexual nonsense, it is worth remarking that the ultimate taboo in football is to use your hands. Yet lurking there, on the edge of the playing area, within a clearly defined space is someone for who that taboo does not exist. They are free to use their hands inside this area, while the penalty for any other player doing the same is significantly increased. Like some high priest living within the sacred bounds of the temple, the strictures and mores that bear down on ordinary folk do not apply to them.
Such has been the concern over awarding such privilege to one position within the team, that there is constant fretting over how the handling of the ball should be hedged-in, restricted, in order to prevent it overwhelming the game. So there are rules about how long the ball can be held, rules about picking the ball up directly from your own player and so forth.
There is recognition that within the game it is a necessity for the ultimate taboo to be broken, that there is someone who must be invested with the licence to exceed the accepted norm. It stands almost as a reward, an acceptance that the goalkeeper has to be compensated for their exceptional role within the team, an enticement to those who are prepared to take on such an onerous task.
The moment the goalkeeper leaves his area there is an escalation of tension. We do not believe that one so protected within their holy ground is capable of surviving in the workaday world, has the necessary skills to negotiate open play. There is also an unease, an excitement, a heightened danger, when we witness a taboo breaker beyond the bounds wherein they safely indulge themselves.
So it is perhaps little wonder that though we lionise and invest our hopes in them, no more so than in the dreaded penalty shoot-out, we may admit in our quieter moments that we little understand why anyone should elect by choice such an exposed, solitary and misunderstood responsibility as that of the goalkeeper.
How easy it is, during the warm temperate days when summer is bidding us farewell, to forget the fortitude required when a cold, vicious wind is chasing out every vestige of warmth from your shivering body, as you stand on the vast, empty steppe of the local recreation ground gazing into the distance where your fellow players hold off the grip of hypothermia through ever more frenzied activity.
And if this picture of studied detachment is not enough, the goalkeeper is the only player allowed to wear a hat. He also used to be the only one who ever wore gloves as well. But those foreign types have changed all that (cf: endless whinging by sundry well known commentators, yes Alan Green I’m looking at you).
It would be simple to characterise the goalkeeper as one particular personality but a quick rifle through the top drawer of goalkeeping talent from the last 50 years suggests that you have everyone from the retiring stoic to the manic extrovert. Think for a moment of our own Ed De Goey in contrast to Bruce Grobbelaar. What to make of Rene “The Scorpion” Higuita when contrasted with the more self-effacing Pat Jennings. Could Peter “The Cat” Bonetti be said to have been hewn from the same wood as the sadly departed Serbian abstract painter Peter Barota?
You only have to compare the voluble Peter Schmeichel with the more taciturn Yorkshireman, David Seaman. And what of Schmeichel’s successors, Fabien Barthez and Edwin Van der Sar, do they strike you as similar “pershons”?
But you have to think there is a common thread of self belief, an ability to recover quickly from mistakes, a gambler’s instinct to lay it on the line, to be where you can’t hide, which binds these varied characters together.
I mean, has anyone ever shown more sangfroid on a football pitch than Roy Carroll, after plucking Mendes’ shot out of the net as though it had never happened?
The debate about whether, given their position on the pitch, a goalkeeper can be an effective captain will probably never be settled satisfactorily. In rugby there are those that believe a captain has to be in the forwards, sat in the heat of the battle, where they can sense the ebb and flow, and provide emotional drive, while others wonder whether a scrum half or stand-off are not better positioned, at the hinge between the bludgeon and the rapier, to assess the game situation and make adjustments.
So it is with the goalkeeper. While the relative detachment from much of the play allows them to see the pattern of the game, they are perceived to be too distant from their team-mates to provide that emotional spark we still like to believe is needed at the highest level of the professional game. Perhaps the lack of goalkeepers amongst the pantheon of great managers suggests that while the game is played out in front of them they are not the best tacticians. Or is it that the singular trait that sends them down, what at times must be a lonely road of providing the last line of defence, also means they cannot tune into the mindset of their team-mates? Or is it no more than just a function of numbers when you compare the percentage of keepers to outfield players.
For myself, I did play in goal at my youth club for a short time. But my heart wasn’t in it. The reality differed too greatly from my dream…
[A Kenneth Wolstenholme sort of voice coming through in scratchy audio]
“Bremner picks it up in midfield, onto Giles who finds Gray out wide, he beats Harris and flights a pinpoint cross to Jones who heads down for Clarke, what a beautiful strike for the top corner… oh my goodness…”
Yes, fingertips brush the imaginary ball over the picture rail and I crash down onto the bed narrowly avoiding a concussive impact on the headboard. For those in the living room below, only the mattress squeaking with my constant, nervous repositioning followed by a thud as gravity did its part gave a clue to the unfolding drama above.
I was ten and Peter Bonetti. But moments later I would be Peter Osgood or Charlie Cooke. And anyway, the ball moved much faster in the real game, depriving goalkeeping of that essential grace with which it was invested by slow motion.
There can be no football memories that do not include outstanding goalkeeping moments. The glory of Banks saving from Pele in Mexico 1970 inspiring a nation on one hand, Tomashevski scarring the psyche of a nation at Wembley in 1973, on the other. Every fan has an endless fund of goalkeeping heroics and howlers. But unlike great goals, tackles, clearances, unbelievable misses, I would hazard that many of us struggle to imagine the emotional landscape of those responsible for them.
As for the boy himself, I suppose all the signs were there. When he chose his first ever Chelsea shirt, it was the “dark blue with green piping” kit worn with such distinction by Petr Cech. Earlier this year the school summer fête included a four-a-side tournament. Junior and his mates were the beaten finalists in their year group. It was the first time I’d seen him play properly in goal. He was brave, committed and kept a good few out.
But on the other hand, while becoming football mad in recent years, the boy has always resisted undertaking any structured football training. He could never be persuaded to attend a coaching session even though one took place not more than a quarter of a mile from our front door. Yet any pick-up game in the park, any opportunity for a kick-about would be taken. Eternally scuffed shoes were testament to endless games in the school yard. Any room in the house was a pitch where he could kick a tennis ball, balloon or some such, roping in his younger sister, the Princess Bayou.
But I see now that what I failed to appreciate was the significance of how, no matter where or when, something always had to serve as goalposts. He was not always playing in goal, but nonetheless, recognised the centrality of the goal as a structure in validating the football experience.
As a dutiful parent, conscious of my responsibilities to my children, I repeatedly enquired as to whether he wanted to join one of the many local football sessions in order to while away a year or two before he, along with his sister, was prepared for a life as professional cyclist. He did not. He did declare a wish to be picked for the school team without specifying a position, but that was at least a year away and he showed no appreciation that he might be competing with those who had the benefit of a little coaching here and there, nor admit that this may give them any advantage.
Matters took a curious turn early in September when we went on a family cycle ride a few miles up the canal towards Tottenham (yes, yes I know). We stopped at a park, co-incidentally the one where I played occasionally for my primary school (probably because 80% of the school had measles). We were having a kick-about when a coach from one of the several groups who were out training approached and asked if Bayou Junior was a regular goalkeeper. I explained his reticence to involve himself with the organised game. The chap then said that they were looking for a goalie for the U10s and if he wanted to come along the following weekend he could try out. Imagine my surprise when the son and heir declared that this is exactly what he would do.
He displayed his skills the following week, they gave me the forms, I was shocked at the lack of a six figure payment for his services, but appended my signature none the less. And this is where we find ourselves.
He now trains twice a week alongside one other goalie and the other squad members. He was particularly excited to get his own team kit bag with club training and match kits. Yes maybe they get too much too soon these days. He should have to stand in sub zero temperatures wearing a thin vest and shorts, knee deep in mud, shod in boots better suited to work down a pit, because for my generation Kes and Brian Glover say everything there is about organised, childhood football.
But for now, importantly, he is enjoying the experience and is full of enthusiasm for the wild and wacky world of football. He’s played a couple of games but has yet to be scouted by a Premier League club, or indeed any club.
He perhaps does exhibit that curious mix of self possession and athleticism that makes a goalkeeper and seems strangely unperturbed by his father’s expectation that he will be the next Tom Boonen (minus a predilection for Colombian marching powder and a natural fluency in Flemish, of course).
Time will tell.
After all he’s not even nine yet.
I always like to finish with a song and given the subject matter and the recent departure of Max Bygraves, there could only one choice, ladies ‘n’ gentlemen…
You Need Hands.