First Past the Posts: Why Goalkeepers are Like Racehorses

Adam MichieCorrespondent IOctober 25, 2007

The life of a racehorse can be glorious. A win at the Grand National or the Gold Cup can raise a horse to somewhere close to equine God, and has made names like Red Rum synonymous with triumph and success.

The life of a racehorse can also be desperately tragic and short. A trip or fall in a race has put paid to even the trustiest of steeds. Barbaro, the 2005 Kentucky Derby winner broke an ankle in a race meeting, and was subsequently euthanized even after a lengthy operation.

Regardless of the $2m his owner made from his six career victories, a broken leg—in racing circles—is a terminal illness. When a horse, no matter how successful or well bred, loses its ability to perform and earn money for its owner, its suffering is eased and it is retired or put to sleep.             

The life of a goalkeeper can often run according to a similarly tragic pattern. Goalkeepers are remembered for two reasons: they either made famous saves or they made famous errors.

That is not to say that those who made famous errors weren’t at one time or another great goalkeepers—but those errors became an everlasting stain on that goalkeeper’s reputation.

One goalkeeper who could be stumbling into this situation is Spurs’ Paul Robinson. Spurs have already leaked 20 goals in the Premiership this season, and many have been attributed to the clumsy handling skills of their keeper. England’s first choice stopper has made a growing list of unforced errors in recent months—including a howler at Wembley against Germany, letting in four soft goals against Aston Villa at home, and most recently, palming a shot to the feet of Russia’s Pavluchenko, who rolled in a goal that may lead to England missing the 2008 European Championships.

Robinson's loss of form has been made all the more remarkable because of the ability and talent he displayed only two years before, helping his club to two successive 5th place finishes in the League and being rewarded with a seven year contract. After almost equalling the England record of consecutive clean sheets (set by the great Gordon Banks back in 1966), Robinson has hit the worst slump in his career for club and country.

The history of goalkeepers who faced this lack of form in their career should be troubling to Robinson, who is perilously close to becoming another good keeper who could not step up to the next level.             

The list of great goalkeepers of the 20th and early 21st century is debatable, but somewhat short. Banks was England’s World Cup winning keeper of 1966—and famous for “that save” against Pele in 1970. Ray Clemence, meanwhile, won more domestic and European silverware than any other goalkeeper, and Peter Schmeichel has left Manchester United with an unfillable void eight years after helping them to five league titles, 3 FA Cups, and a European Cup.

All the great goalkeepers have something in common: they are winners. A great goalkeeper can make the difference between winning and losing.

Chelsea’s success in recent seasons has been largely due to their young keeper, Petr Cech, who arguably accounted for at least 15 points a season with his superb displays. Chelsea’s failure to retain their title in 2007 coincided with Cech’s long term absence with a head injury.             

Winning, however, is not enough to be considered great.

In the early 90’s, Dave Beasant (then at Chelsea) poorly let in two goals at home to Norwich City, coinciding with a loss of form. He had previously played 300 times for Wimbledon, and captained their winning FA Cup side of 1988. At Chelsea, he played 130 games—but his errors against Norwich spelt the end of his time at Stamford Bridge, leaving at the end of that season and going on to play at 11 clubs in 11 years.

Liverpool’s Sander Westerveld had a fantastic start to his Anfield career, winning three trophies in his second season. When his form slumped a season later, culminating in a calamitous mistake against Bolton, he was dropped to the bench and subsequently replaced by two new keepers. Since leaving he has played at six clubs in six seasons.

Westerveld’s successor Jerzy Dudek was subjected to a similar fate. Letting in several goals—most notably against Manchester United—he was fazed out of the club, even after his penalty heroics in Istanbul in 2005 won the European Cup for Liverpool.

The position of goalkeeper is in itself unique. There is only one spot on the team to be filled and it is the last line of defence for every team.

If a striker loses form, there are others on the field that can score the goals he is failing to provide—and a spell on the bench is usually the worst that can happen. When a goalkeeper loses form, goals are conceded, the defence is left unorganised and lacking confidence, and a team slides down the league. Only a direct replacement can be made, and there is little chance of a substitute appearance.

In career terms, a loss of form for a goalkeeper is like a broken leg to a racehorse.            

Robinson is not the only goalkeeper to have suffered this season. Jens Lehmann of Arsenal has been dropped to the bench, and replaced by his perennial understudy Manuel Almunia after several poor performances. Just a few years before, he was the goalkeeper who helped Arsenal win the Premiership and remain undefeated for 49 games.

It seems that the dividing line between good keepers and great keepers is the loss of form. Complete faith and trust in a goalkeeper is paramount to a team—and once it is lost, it is hard to rediscover.

Legends of the game such as Lev Yashin, Dino Zoff, and Peter Shilton are considered legends because they never lost form. Keepers like Fabien Barthez, Peter Bonetti, and David James are all considered to be good at what they do—but the calamitous errors they make have kept them from becoming the great keepers their talent suggested.            

Goalkeepers walk a very fine tightrope, because no matter how or where it is played, football comes down to goals. How many are scored, how many are conceded.

Glory only tends to reside at the attacking end of the field. When a rasping 30 yard drive hits the back of the net as an 89th minute winner in the World Cup Final, no one remembers the person the ball flew past. For a keeper to grab the headlines, that 30 yard shot would have to be spectacularly saved or dropped at the feet of a lurking striker.

Paul Robinson and many like him are discovering quickly that keeping goal is an all or nothing business that rewards triumph and derides failure. No matter how many races you’ve won, a champion thorough-bred is just one bad fall away from his last trip to the vets.