The life of a goalkeeper

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Much to my annoyance and disappointment, I couldn’t be at Wembley yesterday. But watching it recorded later in the evening, I sat proud of Reading that we had taken Arsenal, a team on an eight match winning streak, to extra time and probably should have beaten them.

One error cost us the game as goalkeeper Adam Federici spilled Alexis Sanchez’s shot into his net just before the half-time in the extra period. I screamed at the TV: “Adam no!”, not out of rage, but because I felt genuinely sorry for him, and he didn’t deserve that. He made a few saves in normal time, including a stunning leap to deny Gabriel’s header, that I doubt many Premier League goalkeepers couldn’t make. We wouldn’t have even made it to extra time if it wasn’t for the Aussie, but that’s unlikely to console him. Outsiders won’t remember Federici for all those saves, all the many times he has kept us in games throughout the season. They will remember him for that one mistake, which isn’t fair. Every single Reading fan felt for Federici at that moment, and I still do, and I’m sure he will be in the top three of, if not win, our Player of the Season award for 2014-15.

But this article isn’t reflecting on that unfortunate incident at Wembley – well, sort of. We’ve seen similar mistakes in the past, the most high profile being Rob Green’s blunder at the 2010 World Cup against the USA. But whereas when an attacker makes an error, he can easily correct it by scoring a wonder goal, it is incredibly hard for a goalkeeper to come back from a mistake which has ultimately cost his team the game. I hope Federici can recover, and I know for sure that the whole team will help him do so.

Federici was in tears as he left the pitch.
Federici was in tears as he left the pitch.

In my opinion, the goalkeeper is the most difficult position to play on the pitch. Yes the attackers can score, but there’s no point in doing that if you can’t keep them out at the other end. You’ve got the most responsibility, and there’s always thoughts going round in your mind: “Can I keep a clean sheet?”, “What if spill the ball?” and so on.

Take this quote from Roy Hodgson: “Goalkeepers are part of a defence, but the word is the wrong one. In reality they are attacked.” The keeper is the last line of defence, making him vulnerable as there is no one to cover for him if the ball gets past him. If a midfielder loses the ball, then the defence can win it back. If a goalkeeper loses the ball, the other team have scored.

Of course, goalkeepers can be heroes. Wonder saves can effectively win games, whilst a series of blocks keeps a team in with a chance of getting something from the match. But in my opinion, rarely do goalkeepers get the credit that they deserve. David de Gea has been nominated for the PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year this season, with Thibaut Courtois also nominated for the latter. If either win the award, it will be the first time a goalkeeper has done so since Peter Shilton of Nottingham Forest in 1978. West Ham’s Mervyn Day was the last goalkeeping Young Player of the Year in 1975.

David de Gea and Thibaut Courtois have both been nominated for PFA awards this season.
David de Gea and Thibaut Courtois have both been nominated for PFA awards this season.

Only one goalkeeper has ever won the Ballon D’Or – Lev Yashin in 1963, with Manuel Neuer coming close in 2014. But will a goalkeeper ever win the prestigious award again? If we are to assume it will be either Messi or Ronaldo for the next few years, and then more record-breaking goalscoring talent is produced, any goalkeeper’s achievements will be overlooked. Such is the nature of football currently, people seem to be dumb-struck by goal after goal that these forwards score, and do not notice clean sheet records and least goals conceded etc. when they are equally important statistics.

Indeed, in a book published called The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong, research found that in the Premier League, on average clean sheets produce almost 2.5 points per match. Compare this to scoring a goal, which on average earns a team about one point per match, means that not conceding is more than twice as valuable. In other words: “Goals that don’t happen are even more important than goals that do”.

So why does everyone in football overlook this? Part of it is simple psychology. Attacking has one best outcome: a goal. But defending is the opposite: the best outcome is a goal that is not conceded, an event that does not actually happen. It explains why the human brain prefers the immediate pleasure of a goal. It’s hard to stand up and cheer and shout for a non-event.

Rob Green is now back in the England squad following his error at the World Cup five years ago.
Rob Green is now back in the England squad following his error at the World Cup five years ago.

Going back to goalkeeping errors, players can recover from them. Rob Green for example, is in good form for QPR and is now back in the England squad. But still every once in a while his mistake is brought up in commentary, which isn’t really fair. Every player has made at least one mistake in their career, but rarely is it mentioned five years later.

So I do have sympathy with goalkeepers, as I think they are the most important players on the pitch but have the toughest job. Mistakes do happen, as with any player, but they should be given equal opportunity to recover from them, which isn’t currently the case. The press jump on them, which is the last thing they need. I don’t blame Adam Federici for our exit from the FA Cup. I thank him for his contribution to the game previously to keep us in it and for all the great saves he has made this season. It could have happened to anyone. Unfortunately it happened to the worst person possible.

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