The mentality of second-choice goalkeepers

in Opinion

It’s a sad but undeniable fact that the modern day person is generally defined by their job. If you were to meet someone at a dinner party or social gathering, the first thing they would ask is what you do for a living – whether they’re generally interested or just have nothing better to say.

If someone were to say they were a footballer, they would probably provoke the emotional cocktail of contempt and jealousy – people rarely like it when someone earns more money than them, which footballers generally do.

But what about if you are a second or even third choice goalkeeper? Can you call yourself a footballer even though you hardly ever actually play football? Someone wouldn’t label themselves a lorry driver if they never set foot in a lorry. Despite the relatively high wages, the job satisfaction for a back-up goalkeeper must be quite low.

Steve Harper played for Newcastle for twenty years; he was the first choice goalkeeper for one solitary season, the only season Newcastle spent in the Championship. For the other nineteen seasons, Harper was resigned to the number two spot. His position as the reserve goalkeeper is epitomised by the years 2001-2006, where Harper played sixteen times – only two were in the Premier League.

You may ask why Harper didn’t leave, but it’s rarely that simple for a reserve ‘keeper. Given the fact that Harper was a Newcastle fan growing up, added to Newcastle’s reluctance to sell such a reliable number two, probably meant he didn’t take much convincing to stay. However, it’s hard to imagine Harper doesn’t look back over his career without the slightest tinge of regret. He admitted recently in an interview to suffering from depression during his most absent period from the team; imagine waking up every morning, training as hard as you can only to watch someone do your job instead of you. For all the glamour surrounding the profile of a Premier League footballer, being in reserve can seem as lonely a place as they come.

For outfield players, moving clubs isn’t particularly daunting. A central midfielder for example, would be aware that if he were to move clubs they’d at least two, possibly three positions in the middle of the park for him to claim. There’s only ever one goalkeeper.

Once a goalkeeper has been relegated to the number two position, it can be very tricky to climb back out into first team action. Recently at Liverpool, Simon Mignolet has been once again entrusted with the number one jersey, but after Rodgers ‘dropped him indefinitely’ it seemed the Belgian’s rebirth was very unlikely. Mignolet’s Merseyside counterpart, Tim Howard, certainly thought so – “I’ll be honest and I think it’s a hard road back now. I think when you get taken out of the team, sometimes there’s no way back.” Perhaps the American stopper was a tad hasty with his remarks, but his opinion was understandable – sometimes for a ‘keeper, a return to the team is out of their hands.

Harper and Mignolet can take solace in the fact that even the top goalkeepers get dropped from time to time; a certain Czech international a recent example of this. Petr Cech’s demotion to reserve goalkeeper is one of the more ruthless decisions to be made; Cech could barely even be accused of a dip in form resulting in his setback to the bench. Thibault Courtois is an undoubtedly fantastic goalkeeper, regarded by some as the best in the world at the present moment; I doubt that makes it any easier for Cech though.

Professional goalkeepers in this situation must find themselves split into two trains of thought: they are ultimately professional and want to see the team perform well, but on the other hand they are competitive athletes who are desperate to play. Veteran goalkeeper Dean Kiely explained that he left Charlton Athletic because the only way he’d get back into the starting line-up, was if either Thomas Mhyre got injured, or performed badly – neither of which he wanted to happen. After training together day after day, goalkeepers at the same club naturally build a rapport, therefore wishing ill thoughts on the first choice ‘keeper is unheard of.

Unless of course, you’re Jens Lehmann.

It’s fair to say Jens Lehmann didn’t take losing his place in the team to Manuel Almunia particularly well, venting his fury at “sitting on the bench behind somebody who only started to play when he was 30″. Lehmann engineered a move to Stuttgart the season following his public dismay of being out of the team; the fact that Wenger duly discarded him that summer suggested not everyone was as confused as Lehmann about his lack of playing time.

Lehmann’s outbursts aside, generally goalkeepers will stick together, welcoming each other into a ‘keepers union (the reason a goalkeeper rarely celebrates when scoring a goal). They realise that in many ways, their position is possibly the toughest one in the game, so they need all the help they can get. A striker will get all the plaudits for a twenty goal season, but if a team achieves a high amount of clean sheets it’s often attributed to a strong defence as opposed to an outstanding goalkeeper. There are of course, a few exceptions.

Manuel Neuer’s inclusion on the shortlist for the Ballon D’or was generally met with widespread approval; the Bayern stopper rightfully receiving the praise his incredibly high standards deserves. I wonder what Pepe Reina made of it all though. The former Liverpool number one is now the back-up goalkeeper to the ‘Goalkeeper of the year’ – a path into the starting eleven for Reina looks inconceivable, yet he chose to go there. On paper this looks a strange decision from Reina, surely he would have been aware of his ranking in the goalkeeping hierarchy. At thirty-two, Reina isn’t particularly old in goalkeeping standards, so there’s an argument that he wanted to improve by watching the world’s best before he moved on.

Or maybe Bayern just offered him the most money; it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a club somewhere offering first team football for Reina. Either way, the likelihood of a big club purchasing Reina as their new number one now seems minimal, his reactions and handling are unlikely to improve by sitting on the bench.

In the transfer merry-go-round that is modern football, a move to a new club never seems too far away for most players. But how often do you see a goalkeeper make headlines on transfer deadline day? If the opportunity of first team football turns up for a goalkeeper, it would seem they’d be foolish not to take it – you never know when one might turn up again. Just ask Steve Harper.

by Luke Chapman

luke chapman bnw