Why always them?

by Charles Pulling

joe_hart_2691094bIf you were to believe some scientists, you, me and everything around us are just one version of an infinite number  – a theory called the ‘Multiverse hypothesis’. The theory goes that each version of our universe contains you, me and everything around us save for a minor difference.

We may all have only three fingers, the sky may be green or perhaps, in another universe, on Sunday night in the dying minutes at Stamford Bridge Joe Hart stayed on his line and calmly accepted a cushioned header back from his teammate, defender Matija Nastasic. Fernando Torres, fighting the effects of the game’s exertions, would have puffed his cheeks and turned back ruing another lost cause. The referee’s whistle would have peep-peep-peeped and Manchester City would have earned a deserved point.

Alas this is all conjecture based around an unproven theory that exists on the fringe’s of the scientific plain. This universe – the one we all exist in – threw up a very different outcome in west London. Joe Hart did not stay on his line, instead he came charging out ‘300 spartan’ style and then executed a maneuver that looked suspiciously like a penguin trying to jump up some stairs. The ball overshot his dandruff-free head and, well you know the rest.

In the wake of Joe Hart’s blooper the everyman and his dog seemed intent of sticking the boot in to poor Joe whilst at the same time learning the correct spelling and pronunciation of Costel Pantilimon.

But the human in me, the good Samaritan if you will, felt nothing but sympathy for young Joe. After all who’d be a goalkeeper?

The position of goalkeeper is a strange one, you are the outcast of the team, the ‘other one’ consigned to a different colour shirt. You have your own rules, your own tactics and essentially your own little pitch, a little prison to play your game. The rules off the pitch for goalkeepers are just as different as those on it. Take for example Joe Hart’s mistake on Sunday evening – the ramifications following it have lasted nearly a week. This you may say is fair game, after all Hart’s mistake resulted in a goal which transformed his teams return from 1 point to zero.

But if, for example, it had been one of Manchester City’s defenders who were at fault by directly scoring an own goal in the dying minutes it is incredibly doubtful the ruminations would have lasted as long as those Hart has had to endure. Think back to your own experiences watching football. How many outfield players have you seen have absolute shockers? Defenders turning crosses into their own net, the pass of a midfielder going astray leading to an opposition goal. Think even to all the goals you have seen scored from corners, I’d wager very few were the result of poor goalkeeping. Much more likely is poor play from an outfielder – man marking not adhered to, a poor clearance, a defender straying from his position on the front post. Of all those incidences of ‘outfielder’ incompetence how many instances lead to calls for the player to be dropped? Rarer still how many player were actually dropped?

That is the problem with being a goalkeeper, you are very often the lightning rod for vitriol from fans, manager and teammates alike. As Jonathan Wilson explained in his wonderful history of the goalkeeper – ‘The Outsider':

The most influential opinion-formers have found a scapegoat: Marx blamed the capitalist system, Freud blamed sex, Dawkins blamed religion, Larkin blamed his parents and Dr Atkins blamed the potato. Footballers blame the goalkeeper.

There in that mentality, that demand for blemish-free perfection from goalkeepers lies somewhat of a paradox. Goalkeepers are consistently under-valued by football. This reflects in the reactions from both fans and the media to a goalkeepers mistake. In a way it is understandable – a goal conceded is a catastrophic event – but the prevention of a goal is not nearly given as much attention. How many Goalkeepers make it onto the numerous lists of top 20/50/100 players?

This also translates into how much reward goalkeepers get for their efforts. In Chris Anderson and David Sally’s football analytics book ‘The Numbers Game’ they prove a historical trend that goals are becoming rarer as the seasons roll on. So with that in mind you can draw the conclusion that stopping those rare events is as important as scoring them at the other end. Yet despite their performance having much more influence on the game than a midfielder for example, goalkeepers consistently get paid less than their outfield counter parts. This seems doubly unfair when you consider a first choice goalkeeper generally plays every minute of every game in contrast to outfielders who can be substituted consistently.

The under-valuing of goalkeepers can also proved when you look at the transfer fees paid for goalkeepers. Only once has a club paid on or over £30m for a goalkeeper, Juventus to sign Gianluigi Buffon from Parma, and that was over ten years ago. More over Buffon’s transfer is the only goalkeeper that features in the list of top 50 transfer fees.

Seemingly the value a club attributes to its own players diminishes the further they move down the pitch towards their own goal – Star strikers and attackers command the highest fees, midfielders after that and so on. At the end of the financial spectrum is the goalkeeper. And behind him is the player with the least amount of importance – the reserve goalkeeper. It could be argued that why would a club pay more than absolutely necessary for a player whose role seems to involve sitting on the bench for long periods just in case the 1st choice keeper gets injured. Yet again this seems suggestive of the low value a club places on the player between the sticks. The fact that the man the media are touting to usurp Hart’s position as No.1 has been ‘profiled’ in so many publications this week is indicative of the fact most have never heard of him and probably never would have if it weren’t for Hart’s drop in form. The role of reserve goalkeeper is seen as trivial until called upon.

One manager who seemingly has seen through this old-fashioned belief is Tottenham manager Andre Villas Boas. When he signed Hugo Lloris in 2012 many scoffed at this needless expense – Spurs had a No.1 in Brad Friedel. For a while the media seemed vindicated in this view as AVB’s new signing sat on the bench. However the Spurs manager had recognised the need for competition to increase performance levels. In the case of Lloris the strategy has paid off.

Whether Joe Hart remains No.1 and if his form will improve, remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, in this universe at least, the goalkeeper will remain an outsider for some time to come.

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