Top Gunners: Ranking the Best Goalkeepers in the History of Arsenal
Football is a team game. Eleven people on the field attempt to cooperate with each other, in the most efficient way possible, to defeat the opposing club’s contingent. As often as it happens in the shared responsibility that undoubtedly goes with team-work, one or two team members seem to have more weight mounted on the shoulders.
Irrefutably, the weight is usually more pressing on the lone man burdened with guarding the goal—the last line of defence: the goalkeeper.
One of the most responsible positions in football, where a mistake can lead to catastrophe, the goalkeeper position has been occupied by an array of colorful characters—from the likes of Jorge Campos with his blindingly colorful attire, the immovable reliability of Edwin van der Saar, to the stunning reflexes and innovation of Lev Yashin and Gordon Banks.
Every club needs one of those characters, but not every club gets them— only the lucky ones and for a limited period of time.
Arsenal, as every other big club, has had a piece of the goalkeeping pie with several world-class keepers settling into the club during the years.
And that’s something that the club can be proud of.
Here are the Best Goalkeepers in Arsenal’s history based on the respective time of their tenure at the club:
No.9: George Swindin, 1936-54
The long-serving goalkeeper’s career was abruptly interrupted by the Second World War. He appeared 297 times on the Arsenal match stage and practically finished his career there.
To comprehend Swindin’s career, two periods must be taken in consideration: before the war and after it.
Before the war, Swindin frequently showed signs of nervousness; his erratic behavior forced him to compete with Alex Wilson and Frank Boulton, the other goalkeeper at Arsenal, for the first-team spot. As Jeff Harris, the author of Arsenal Who’s Who explained: "At this early stage of his career he was inconsistent and excitable, nervous and highly strung. George was also hesitant and lacked confidence and his kicking was poor."
Nevertheless, his determination to prove himself snatched him more matches than the other two goalkeepers and earned him a First Division medal.
During the war, he served as a PT instructor for the army, but still managed to participate in some games.
War erupted and he went through a complete transformation.
Regular football resumed after the war and Swindon’s change was impossible to miss. Drastically improved and more consistent, he became the undisputed No.1 goalkeeper for the Gunners for the next six seasons in a row.
His change in behavior led him to dominate the penalty box—most evident when faced by aerial threats. Swindon emitted commanding demeanor backed with strong physical resilience. He then won his second and third championship medals in 1947-48 and 1951-52 respectively, also reaching the FA Cup final twice.
Eventually, his age began to show and he was eventually ousted by another talented keeper, Welshman Jack Kelsey, who later was branded one of the best to ever play the game.
No.8: Frank Moss, 1931-37
Incredible bravery was definitely the epitome of Frank Moss.
He joined Arsenal after his performances in Oldham Athletic raised the interest of the manager Herbert Chapman. Later, Bob Wall, Chapman’s assistant, further expounded: “What impressed Chapman even more than the sureness of his hands was Frank's physical courage.”
His debut was against Chelsea and since then Moss was ever-present in the Arsenal line-up for the next four seasons in a row. In his second year, Frank was a pivotal stone in his team’s success in lifting the First Division trophy.
The next season was heart-stopping and the brave Moss would have the final word in the drama. Two games away from the season’s end, Sunderland were heading the division by a point, closely followed by Arsenal who had a game in hand.
It all came to the game against Everton at Goodison Park: a win there for the Gunners would send the title travelling their way. Moss suffered a shoulder injury and had to play out of position, deep out of position—on the left wing.
Despite the dislocated shoulder, he scored Arsenal’s first goal of a 2-0 win to secure the club’s title—this goal remained his only goal throughout his career.
His talent and bravery earned him five caps in the England international side. Undoubtedly, he was one of the colorful characters to play for Arsenal.
No.7: Bob Wilson, 1963-74
Bob Wilson’s professional career took off later than usual as his father’s believes that football was not a proper job led him to another direction. Eventually though, Wilson’s heart had the final word and he started playing for Arsenal as an amateur.
In 1963, though, he was signed by the North London team for the fee of 6500 pounds. His debut came shortly after—against Nottingham Forrest in October. But he was yet to wait to receive the call again.
Jim Furnell had ensconced the first-team spot and was not ready to give it away until four years later when a mistake by him against Birmingham City in the FA Cup gave Wilson the green light.
He completed the season, but then broke his hand during the next one. Fully recovered, Wilson came back with a bang to help his team win the 1969-70 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. In the next season, he won the player of the year award as Arsenal won the double.
After his retirement, Bob Wilson was appointed Arsenal’s goalkeeper coach. He remained an astounding 28 years on the position and helped in the training of Pat Jennings, David Seaman, and John Lukic.
No.6: John Lukic, 1983-90, 1996-2001
Born in England to a Serbian mother and father, John Lukic was long-serving Arsenal goalkeeper—services which won him the status of an Arsenal legend. An urban rumour had it that his mother was pregnant with him on the plane which crashed in the Munich disaster. This rumour, however, is false since this happened three years before he was born.
He started his career at Leeds United, but was transferred to Arsenal in 1983 to serve as a long-term replacement for retiring Pat Jennings. He remained there as the undisputed No.1 for his first spell at Arsenal leading up to 1990 when he was ironically replaced by his understudy at Leeds, David Seaman.
Loved by the fans, Lukic tried not to let them down by his stable and consistent performances. He played an integral role in Arsenal’s first League title in 28 years when in 1989, in the last day of the season, he kicked the ball to start the attack that led to the last-minute goal against Liverpool.
He then returned to his first club Leeds in 1990, but six years later he came back to Arsenal to serve as a replacement for David Seaman and later Alex Manninger. In total, his services for the Gunners stretched to 12 years and 293 games which make him one of the most respected keepers in the Arsenal camp.
No. 5: James “Jimmy” Ashcroft, 1900-08
It all began in the far-away year of 1900 when the Arsenal representatives, the club then called Woolwich Arsenal, spotted the goalkeeping talent of 22-year-old youngster playing in the Southern League side Gravesend United.
In his first year, Ashcroft convinced the coaching staff that he is the right man for the job and they put their trust in him by using him regularly.
His first year was average, but, a year later, he managed to bring his game up and kept 17 clean sheets in the process of the season, six of which were in a row— a club record rivaled only by Alex Manninger’s equal amount of clean sheets achieved some 90 years later. Despite his stellar performances, Arsenal finished fourth in the Second Division, narrowly missing the promotion.
Jimmy was not content with his record, though, and kept on breaking new ones.
In 1903-04, he managed to keep yet another 20 clean sheets, conceding 22 goals in 34 games, and inspiring Arsenal’s promotion to the First Division. He broke yet another record during the next season when he made his 154th consecutive appearance for the club.
Talent of this magnitude didn’t go unnoticed on the international stage too and in 1906 he was invited to join the ranks of nation’s team.
Three games for England, two FA cup semifinals and a promotion to the First Division were among the achievements that make Jimmy Ashcroft stand out as goalkeeping giant for Arsenal.
No.4: Jens Lehmann, 2003-08
Jens Lehmann, Mad Jens, was bought by Arsene Wenger to serve as a replacement for David Seaman.
He was a very good keeper who had a dark side to him. His callous facial expression hid a fluctuating mind that played tricks on him.
Lehmann would often rush out without second thought to terminate the danger, but in his zeal he would make bookable foul or will leave his goal completely unguarded and to the mercy of the oppositional attackers.
Accompanying his football craziness was a color of character rivaled only by a handful others. Once, he went to urinate behind his goal when his team was on the attack. Facing the crowd, which he seemed not to mind, he did his job and returned to his duty.
But that was Jens.
He also had a good side: a terrific shot stopper with great bravery. A good organizer, he spat orders to the defense in front of him. And it worked. In the first year at Arsenal, he played in every match and became part of the famous “Invincibles” side that finished the season undefeated.
In 2005-06, his form reached its peak.
It was most evident in Arsenal’s run to the final in the Champions League. The German goalkeeper kept ten consecutive clean sheets and managed to keep his goal pristine in an astounding 853-minute spell.
He was awarded the goalkeeper of the tournament award.
His career with Arsenal extended for another two years, but his blunders had already taken their toll. Jens found himself battling his first-team spot out with Spaniard Manuel Almunia. In June, 2008, he was transferred to German club Stuttgart.
In spite of his craziness and occasional rash decisions, Jens Lehmann remains one of the best goalkeepers in Arsenal history. He was an integral part of the mechanism that earned the Gunners a 49-game undefeated run.
“Invincible”—how fitting for Jens Lehmann.
No.3: Patrick Anthony
A revolutionary goalkeeper, Pat Jennings’s biggest success came when he played for Arsenal’s arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur where he spent 13 years between the sticks. Starting late, Jennings adopted a very unusual style of play. He was one of the first goalkeepers to use his feet and other parts of the body to stop the ball from rolling past him.
Another trademark of his was his one-handed saves. Due to the size of his arms, which his Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham used to call “Lurgan shovels”, Jennings was able to disappoint many centre forwards with his one-hand saves that glued the ball into his hand.
His strength was evident even in his goal-kick taking and he could kick the ball further than anyone else.
Pat’s physical build, perfect for his goalkeeping duties, was overshadowed only by his character.
His calmness and concentration were second to none. He dominated his penalty box and infected his team-mates with his self-assured attitude. He seemed to be a virus of calmness spreading around the field, crucial in the dynamic turbulence of a big match.
Jenning’s skills reaped success for Tottenham Hotspur for long years, but when he aged they were quick to dispose of him, thinking he is past his best.
They were wrong.
The goalkeeper was sold to arch-rivals Arsenal in 1970 for 40,000 pounds. He pushed his career into another eight glorious years, participating in 327 matches and helping his side to reach three FA Cup finals and a Cup Winners Cup final.
On the international stage, Pat’s unique abilities secured him a place in the Northern Ireland team where he played a record-breaking number of games, 119, and was considered the spine of the team.
He helped his small country to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Spain, further ensuring he will be remembered as one of the best goalkeepers to play the game. Luckily, Arsenal were fortunate enough to have him in their team for a good long eight years.
No.2: Jack Kelsey, 1949-63
The iron man, Jack Kelsey, began his career outside football—as a steelworker. The hard work proved beneficial as he amassed brawn that most defensive midfielders nowadays would find enviable. At times when a goalkeeper seemed to be a dangerous job, Kelsey’s beam of talent, physique, and courage shined uninterrupted.
He was offered a place in Arsenal after being spotted playing for his domestic side in Wales. However, he had to be patient since incumbent, at that time, keeper George Swindon was on top of his game. Two years later an injury to Swindon gave the green light to the young Welshman.
Kelsey seized the chance and never let go of it for the next eight seasons.
Luck had nothing to do with what this man can do on goal. Arsenal were in a period of trophy drought and Kelsey never won anything closer than finishing third in the First Division, but he still became to be acknowledged as one of the best.
Before each match, it was said, Jack rubbed chewing gum on his hands to help the ball stick better. And the, what could be considered, superstition seemed to work as his handling was of the highest possible quality.
His intelligence was another plus.
To back his rugged build, he had a mind ahead of its time. He often came rushing out of his penalty box to eliminate dangers—an unseen goalkeeping practice at that time. To add up to his excellent attributes, his sense of positioning was as accurate as Robin Hood’s arrows. Rarely did he position himself incorrectly.
Finding it hard to reject such talent, Wales’s football administrators called him for his duty on the international stage. He managed 41 games—a record then. In 1958, he was at the peak of his game.
In the only appearance of his country on the World Cup stage, Kelsey helped them reach the quarterfinals where they were beaten by to-be-crowned-champions Brazil. Still, it did not come easy to the five-time world champions as Jack Kelsey performed terrifically to deny them a goal up until the 70th minute.
Luck in the form of a deflection served the Brazilians and they won 1-0.
Jack Kelsey played his entire career at Arsenal, managing to take part in 327 matches and is considered to be one of the best goalkeepers in the history of football.
No.1: David Andrew Seaman, 1990-2003
Silly pony tail, outrageous mistakes, super saves, part of back-bone of Arsenal and England: these trademarks are only a small share of the whole pie called David Seaman.
Who will forget the two vital mistakes to allow goals from long-range shots that cost Arsenal the Cup Winners Cup gold medal and England further glory in the World Cup?
Nobody, and that’s quite sad because David Seaman’s career was jam-packed with glorious moments which entirely overshadow those two mistakes that are constantly reminded to us: three league championships with Arsenal (1991, 1998, 2002), four FA Cups (1993,1998,2002,2003), the League Cup (1993), and the European Cup Winners Cup (1994).
A great shot stopper, David had the positioning and reflexes to imprint in our minds images of great agile super saves that stir us, leaving us wanting for more. One of those displays, an image in the mind as if left yesterday, stamped in our memory of David Seaman’s portrait was the save he made from Paul Peschisolido in the FA Cup.
That header from two meters away was most probably beyond any other keeper, but what David did would leave us trying to figure out with which extreme he should be remembered: the blatant mistakes or the acrobatic saves.
He gracefully stretched backwards in what seemed a slow-motion move, looking like he was going to fly into his own goal, patted the ball gently and escorted it out in front of the stunned attacker. This could be considered one of the best saves ever, matched only by flashes of goalkeeping brilliance that happens once every ten years.
His brilliance was long-serving not only to Arsenal though; he was English after all and it’s hard to not have this quality in the international squad. David Seaman starred in 75 games for England, appearing in four major football forums: the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and 1996 and 2000 European Cups.
His frequent and important penalty saves made him known as the best penalty saver in the country, benefiting England and Arsenal on many occasions. Along with that he was also known to have his moments of ineptitude.
A 45-yard shot from Nayim in the Cup Winners Cup final found Seaman unprepared which robbed Arsenal of a trophy. Then, A Ronaldinho free-kick caught him off the line in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil.
Mistakes that are meant to haunt him. But, in truth, anyone with a pair of eyes would be able to look beyond those blunders to notice the brilliance of David Seaman. After all, we are all human, but only some become legends. David Seaman is one of them.