The old cliche decrees that goalkeepers are a crazy breed, that there is a necessary madness which all top ‘keepers possess that allows them to handle the weight of responsibility and pressure which comes with being the last line of a team’s defence. A singular mistake, just a momentary lapse of concentration in a game where he was otherwise faultless, can see a goalkeeper lose his team the game and be cast as the villain, derided by his own supporters.
It is not surprising then that the idea developed of slight madness being a prerequisite for the aspiring custodian. But is this idea outdated? Was it ever even accurate? What really makes an elite goalkeeper in the modern game? Watford FC Academy Goalkeeping Coach Adrian Creamer spoke to BackPageFootball to shed some light on an often misunderstood position; a unique insight into a unique role.
“I was in talks to join Nottingham Forest as a 17 year old when I had a devastating knee injury that almost resulted in the amputation of my leg”, says Creamer of his beginnings in the game. “Following a 22-month rehabilitation programme and surgeries in double figures, I returned to action and played over 300 games as a semi-professional goalkeeper. I studied for a degree in sports science from St. Mary’s University and undertook my coaching badges to nurture young goalkeeping talent to maximize their potential in the art of goalkeeping. I have been coaching for over 10 years and this enabled me to work with many established former players and coaches whilst undertaking my UEFA B goalkeeping license and UEFA A license at Lilleshall. I currently combine my role of a senior lecturer in sports science with goalkeeping coaching at a Stanmore College in North London as well as being the Watford FC Academy Goalkeeper Coach for the past 6 years.”
As an academy goalkeeping coach, Creamer works with 8-16 year old ‘keepers with the goal of providing players to Watford’s first-team goalkeeping coach, Alec Chamberlain. He must assess and develop the necessary abilities of each individual player, something which requires a precise eye and terrific knowledge.
“First of all we have to look at the technical ability of each of the goalkeepers, particularly at the younger age groups,” he says.
“Handling, footwork, shot-stopping, dealing with crosses, dealing with 1v1s, and distribution (throwing, dead ball and kicking from hands) [are all important]. Each goalkeeper should have quite natural hand / eye coordination, but most of these things can be developed through good training.
As they develop we concentrate more on tactical attributes such as start positions, supporting defenders, distribution to attack quickly and communication. These will be developed working with a coach.
“With the game moving forward physically we have to consider physical attributes. The average height of a Premiership GK has moved from 6’1 to 6’3 in less than 20 years. Height is important and ideally we want goalkeepers to be 6’3 – 6’6. I have heard that some clubs are now doing scans of the wrist of young goalkeepers in their academy to assess their predicted height. This is obviously something natural and cannot be taught. We are also looking for the physical attributes of speed, power, flexibility and agility.
“Watford FC have a first class system where the 12-16 year olds attend the same school at Harefield Academy and we get more contact hours with them. 8-11 year old goalkeepers have three sessions of goalkeeping-specific sessions a week and a match, plus one team training session.”
Many column inches have been dedicated lately to assessing the strengths, weaknesses and suitability of a number of goalkeepers to top English clubs, particularly Arsenal and Manchester United. Arsenal’s search for a top-class ‘keeper has been a recurring theme throughout the last few seasons while the impending retirement of Edwin Van der Sar has necessitated a search at Old Trafford for the latest in a glittering list of successful United ‘keepers. One of the greatest amongst these names is a player with whom Creamer credits much of the modern approach to goalkeeping.
“Peter Schmeichel changed the job description for goalkeepers,” says Creamer. “He was just immense. Big, brave and so difficult to beat. His distribution was top class too. I remember those long rifled throws out to the front man or winger to start an attack. He was a tough act to follow at United. Van Der Sar has been imperious the last few months and has gone about his business in his usual understated manner but he has made vital saves during games that have allowed United to build a platform and push forward with minimal mistakes. His distribution and kicking are terrific and he brings calmness and confidence to the defenders. Whoever goes there is under pressure from minute one and will be compared to Schmeichel and Van Der Sar.
“Schmeichel though just refined goalkeeping and his unique style has been copied by many since. I don’t think there is any definitive guide to text book goalkeeping because every individual goalkeeper and coach are different. What works for one might not work for the other. I try to break things down and look at efficiency of movement coupled with providing the largest surface areas behind the ball.”
So who does Creamer believe to be the player best suited to continue this legacy?
“Seemingly [Manuel] Neuer is going to Bayern Munich so that rules him out,” he says. “[David] De Gea looks good but he is so young and inexperienced and the first mistake will bring unbelievable pressure and suddenly his age and inexperience will be called into question so I can’t see him at United for those reasons. Ferguson has always targeted more mature goalkeepers. I think [Manchester United first-team coach] Rene Mullenstein has already alluded to the clubs interest in [Maarten] Stekelenburg and I see him as the most viable replacement for Van der Sar. They have a terrific goalkeeping coach there called Eric Steele who will push and develop any ‘keeper.
“Arsenal have the biggest headache in this department. I like Szczesny but one mistake in the Carling Cup Final tarnished his growing reputation and the door is open for an experienced goalkeeper to come in. I think Shay Given would now not be a realistic target for a top-four side due to his reccurring shoulder injury. He’s a phenomenal ‘keeper but it was disappointing to see him accepting a place on the bench and not move in January.
“[Pepe] Reina is a proven top-class goalkeeper and he would be a top signing for a top-four club but I think he’ll stay at Liverpool. I worked with Ben Foster at Watford FC and saw how he came on under Alec Chamberlain. Ben was so impressive in his approach to everything in training and he developed into a top ‘keeper. I thought he had a raw time at United and as mentioned earlier a couple of mistakes and it proved to be his downfall. He has since reignited his career at Birmingham and I think he should be a target for a top-six club. His shot stopping is phenomenal and his kicking is brilliant.”
So what then of this idea that a goalkeeper must be slightly mad in order to succeed at the highest level?
“Goalkeepers are the only players on the pitch who wait for the ball to come to them – so who is mad?
“I wouldn’t go as far as saying that ‘keepers have to be mentally unstable but I do think they need an element of an extrovert in them. They have to be big, brave, confident and communicate effectively. There is so little room for error now in the top-class game that having someone who is unstable is too much of a gamble for managers and they want someone who will perform consistently over and over again.
John Burridge, Bruce Grobbelar etc… were great characters for the game but I don’t think that character would suit the demands of the top class goalkeeper now.
“I think goalkeepers need to be cool and calm with a moderate streak of extroversion. They need to have a hard work ethic and be willing to learn.”
It can perhaps be difficult for those outfield to understand the allure of donning gloves and aiming to place your body in front of shot after punishing shot. Despite being a romantic position, goalkeeping does not carry the same glory as that held by attacking players. But it does offer a unique challenge and experience. To be part of a collective yet simultaneously individual is a charming idea, and one which thankfully appeals to a great number of youngsters. Creamer himself admits being inspired by those men between the posts whom he watched as youth…
“Bruce Grobbelar, Neville Southall, and Packie Bonner were all big heroes of mine growing up,” he says. “I remember praying with my dad during the penalty shoot-out in 1990 when Bonner made the save from the Romanian to give [David] O’Leary the glory.”
…and offered his current evaluation of the art to which he has devoted his career.
“You are number one and the only one in your team on the pitch. If you don’t concede, your team doesn’t lose. You can be the hero of the day or the villain. Everyone else can attack and defend but they can’t play in goal. In goal you cannot hide. You have to front the opposition and believe that you are not going to concede.”
This duality of existence is surely quite an exciting challenge to deal with, working to stay on the correct side of the thin line between being the saviour or the enemy within. Maybe then it’s not madness which a goalkeeper requires; just a flair for drama and an exceptionally balanced outlook in order to realise that they must, as Kipling surmised, ‘Meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.’ With that said, it could surely be argued that such a rationale would suggest a sanity above all others – that goalkeepers are the most well-adjusted players of all. Perhaps it’s time we rethink a position so rarely thought about and appreciate its exceptional demands.
Adrian Creamer runs his own goalkeeping academy, coaching a range of abilities and age groups from five years old to senior goalkeepers. Visit www.goalkeepingacademyuk.com for details.