One life, one game, one team, one invincibles

One life, one game, one team, one Invincibles (So far)

Friday, 1 March 2013

The cult of the goalkeeper

“He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His sweater, his peaked cap, his kneeguards, the gloves protruding from the hip pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team. He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender. Photographers, reverently bending one knee, snap him in the act of making a spectacular dive across the goal mouth to deflect with his fingertips a low, lightning-like shot, and the stadium roars in approval as he remains for a moment or two lying full length where he fell, his goal still intact.”
Vladimir Nabakov
Goalie’s are odd, different…. unique, eccentric. From the agitated shouter, to the calming and soothing presence of a safe pair of hands, they are an enigma.
Yes, we’ve all played in goal, when we take our turn at school or when we play five a side, but someone who 'chooses' to play in goal, well, they are different. Aloof, imperious, cool headed (or equally.. mental), adopting odd mannerisms and hobbies, uncaring what their teammates think of their precious collection of 18th century scrimshaw or their obsession with topiary.

Most of all though, a good goalkeeper needs to be brave.  When the crowd and teammates see that, their limitations are often overlooked, it inspires you to be brave too, to protect, close ranks and drive on. Someone whose willing to stick their face in the flying feet of a clogging centre forward earns respect.
A  goalkeeper breeds confidence. He has the power to make average defenders brilliant and brilliant defenders average. From an Arsenal perspective, we’ve had some serious contenders amongst our regular custodians (N.b - amazing cameos like Alex Manninger’s, will not be covered).

Looking at keepers within living memory, let’s start with the great Jack Kelsey.
This was from an era where Jack would lean against his post watching play in the other half, smoking a tab. He replaced George Swindin the pre-war veteran of arguably Arsenal’s greatest period of league dominance, Kelsey won a league medal in 53, sharing duties with the older man. Kelsey dominated, commanding his area, a big man, who took serious poundings in defending the net. Brian Dawes wrote a fantastic article about him when reviewing his autobiography, ghost written by the perennially brilliant Brian Glanville, the old school football journalist from another era. (as found here) Glanville still holds a link to the times when top footballers somehow seemed more accessible and fragile, their careers earning them modest sums, where an injury would ruin not just your football career but potentially your life, professional sportsmen, like today, not being equipped to master the rat race of civilian life. Kelsey suffered that serious injury, against Brazil, playing for Wales, but Arsenal look after their own and Kelsey was retained as a commercial manager, people remember him in the dimly lit club shop, smoking a cigarette (as always), keeping an eye on the small amount of merchandise that Arsenal offered at the time.
2nd January, 1954. Jack Kelsey stares into the Smog. This game vs Aston Villa was abandoned after 23 minutes, Arsenal were 3-0 up at the time!
After a few seasons of solid and dependable play by Jim Furnell*, who, like Kelsey was unlucky to play in a team which struggled, despite many gifted forward players, came this middle class academic lad, Robert (Bob) Primrose Wilson, who was studying to be a teacher. I’m sure he raised a few eyebrows when he turned up at the training ground, Frank McLintock provides an insight in his autobiography.
“Bob was so untypical of footballers, with the slightly refined language he used, and the way he dressed, in a camel duffel coat and his Loughborough College scarf. It must have been a bit of a disadvantage to him that he didn’t conform to the footballer stereotype, wasn’t much of a boozer and was from a conspicuously middle class background. But he never looked down on the rest of us and we just saw him as a one-off. Later, of course – and especially when we discovered that his second name was Primrose – he had to endure the ribbing that everyone gets at football clubs… I would have expected his academic endeavour to teach him caution. Far from it, as a goalkeeper he was recklessly brave and often put his head where others would fear to put their feet.”
It took him a few seasons to become the regular number one, but the fans and the players had faith. People talk of his head first bravery, diving forwards to snatch the ball from oncoming attacks. This led him to being broken, battered and bruised on many occasions, but he inspired confidence.
Bob Wilson having been knocked out against Spurs in 1969.
From the concerned look on Bobby Gould’s face, it was probably him that accidently did it.(As Bill Shankly unkindly remarked of Gould – “he couldn’t trap a bag of cement!”
When selected for Scotland by Tommy Doherty, the English born and well spoken Bob Wilson had his club captain Frank McClintock as his minder, he wasn’t having his mate treated with suspicion, and skipper and goalkeeper brought us both the Fairs Cup (our first trophy since the 50s) and the Double in the following season. Wilson is a legend, who is still proud of his involvement with the club. “It was the feeling that you were wearing this big gun on your chest. And my goodness, everywhere you went, you felt proud wearing it” – Bob Wilson.
After Wilson, a brief interlude with Jimmy Rimmer, it’s arguable that his goalkeeping and Brian Kidd’s goals kept Arsenal in the top division in those barren years in the mid-70s, saved by two Mancs! And after Rimmer, Pat Jennings, who joined Arsenal, along with Willie Young, signed from Tottenham by former Spurs boss and Arsenal player Terry Neill. Terry is probably underrated for what he did, he managed to pick up and revitalise a waning team using the tactical knowledge of Don Howe to build a capable squad, which challenged for honours. One of Neill’s difficult decisions was to ship out a number of game but ageing players who he himself was a teammate of in the 60s. It couldn’t have been easy for him. The immaculately haired Jennings seemed a calming presence, gentle voiced but commanding. No way a bawler or shouter. He did a fantastic job for several seasons and is perhaps the only player respected by both sets of North London fans. He won a cup winners medal with Arsenal in 79, but missed out in both the Cup Winners Cup final against Di Stefano’s Valencia and the FA cup final against West Ham in 1980. The former match was particularly sad for me, as a 9 year old. Arsenal had reached a European final, and I was utterly deflated when the winning penalty was struck home. I had so much faith in Jennings, so I was so despondent when we ultimately failed. I didn’t cry though, not like football fans today. Adults and children alike. Pah!
Pat and Pat, with the FA Cup (photo credit -
Then John Lukic, lanky, almost cross eyed, with that ridiculous fringe, he didn’t look like an athlete! He was a no fuss goalie, unspectacular (who would a goalkeeper need to make TV saves if his positional sense is spot on), but cerebral and self critical in his concentration and analysis. Sometimes he’d be furious with his own decision making and you could see him burn and fume inwardly, trying to put things right. He formed part of that mean George Graham team which won us the league so spectacularly in 89.

After Lukic, safe hands himself, David Seaman.

What a save! (photo credit –
Another goalkeeper of quiet dominance, positionally immaculate, always in the right place, instilling confidence in a team which conceded only 18 goals and only lost the once in the league triumph of 1991. A lot of that was down to the defensive drills Graham forced the team to repeat and repeat and repeat. He later added the FA Cup in 93 as well as the league cup in the same year. Under Arsene Wenger, Seaman won two doubles and another FA Cup. He was a mainstay of the famous back five, a gift from George Graham to Wenger. The only thing I could criticise him for was his ponytail which was ridiculous. Seaman joined an illustrious list of goalkeepers. So who could replace this legend? With allegedly only £2 million to spend, Arsene Wenger took a punt on an outspoken German keeper with a chequered history of outbursts and fallings out.
Jens Lehmann. The Arsenal fans loved him. It’s weird the media and the pundits picked on his eccentricities and his mistakes, it was his personality and his determination as well as his constant will to improve which set him apart. A keeper as part of a team who went unbeaten a whole league season is not someone to be laughed at or ridiculed. And as Jens Lehmann himself said, he’s never set out to hurt an opponent, so rightly he felt aggrieved when snide players set out to injure him. He was an honest (and angry) man! When we won the league at White Hart Lane (for the second time) he didn’t want to celebrate, he was so upset at having given away an equalising penalty against that horrible little yappy dog Robbie Keane after he’d stamped all over his feet. But his teammates, coaxed “The German” (as Pires affectionately called him) out of the dressing room to dance and cheer with the crowd.

He was a monster, dominated the area, demanded the best of his team. He was one of the main reasons that Arsenal’s defence - patched together when injuries tore the team apart - kept a clean sheet at the Bernabeu in 2006. Who’d have thought a defence of rookies Eboue – Senderos – Toure – Flamini could keep out one of the best attacking forces in the world?  Zidane and all… Thierry Henry scored the important goal. Arsenal went through. When we got to that fateful champions league final, I remember an interview with Eboue, he was asked “is there anything you fear?”. His answer – a brilliant soundbite - (I paraphrase as I can’t find the original article) “Nothing, apart from God and Jens Lehmann”.
“If I have a lot of adrenaline in my body, that is helpful because I feel less pain”- Jens Lehmann (this quote makes me laugh, I can imagine him saying it quietly, peacefully, but with those crazy eyes tearing you to pieces)
Jens Lehmann and his very good friend Manuel Almunia

One of Wenger’s most perplexing decisions was to freeze out Lehmann in favour of Manuel Almunia. I liked Almunia as a human being, he seemed equipped for the lonely role of the goalkeeper. Brave, a family man, loving stuff like books on the second world war, but he wasn’t up to scratch, whether it was Arsene’s stubbornness to persist with him, a question of finances, or something else, remains a mystery. A nice guy, but not good enough. Unsurprisingly our team dipped, but Almunia was only a contributing factor, not the cause of this barren spell. “When I see Almunia’s performances, I get angry and have to make a fist in my pocket” – Jens Lehmann.
And now, the unpronounceable, confident and supremely gifted Wojciech SzczÄ™sny has taken the gloves. He’s got all the attributes, physicality, the right mental attitude and athleticism. He’d had some unfair stick recently, in goalkeeping terms he’s still a kid, but I see him being a top level goalkeeper for at least another 15 years. Hopefully with Arsenal. His performances at times have been incredible, that save vs Pedro when we played Barcelona for instance, he kept us in the game when they swarmed all over us. But people focus on mistakes, only the mistakes. It may be that Chezzer needs an older goalie to work with, someone to share duties for a couple of seasons, someone who is willing to share tips and give generously. At the moment, he is horribly exposed at times, but this says more about our fragile confidence as a whole. But he will come good. I have faith. We’re in safe hands.
“I’m number 1!”

Many thanks to the mighty Mel Melis @melmelis for the above article

* Great article Mel but sorry to have to break this to you "After a few seasons of solid and dependable play by Jim Furnell" is a long way from the way it was - at least to the eyes of this North Bank regular. 'Fatty' or 'Fingers' Furnell as he was hailed from the North Bank wasn't fit to lace Willow's boots. It can only have been the fact that in his early days at Arsenal Willow was such a twitchy nervous wreck that saw Furnell stay ahead in the pecking order for so long.


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