Young Goalies (Go For It!)

by Jonathan O'Shea

Have you noticed that top-flight goalkeepers are looking younger and younger these days?

Carling Cup culprit Wojciech Szczesny (aged 20), David de Gea (also 20), Thomas Kraft (22), Sven Ulreich (22) and Fraser Forster of Celtic (22) are all currently considered the no.1 gloveman at their clubs. Germany’s Manuel Neuer (24), Fernando Muslera (24), Igor Akinfeev (24), Hugo Lloris (24), Sergio Romero (23) and England’s Joe Hart (23) are each the preferred candidate for their respective national teams. The collective efforts of these fledgling goalies’ are doing much to dissipate the evergreen maxim that ‘keepers always peak in their mid-to-late-30s.

The trend toward younger, more agile custodians quickened a pace on Saturday night, when 22-year-old Aussie shot-stopper Mitchell Langerak made his first-team debut for Borussia Dortmund in the white-hot atmosphere of the Allianz Arena, as BVB turned over Bayern Munich 3-1.

The baby-faced stopper drew effusive praise from his manager Jurgen Klopp following a hugely-impressive display under intense scrutiny from a worldwide audience – many of whom were expecting a young Dortmund team to wilt in a game which effectively served as a Bundesliga-decider. Lose, and the door would remain ajar for defending champions Bayern or second-placed Leverkusen to reel in the hitherto irrepressible leaders. Win, and the deal would be as good as sealed.

Those were the stakes as the callow ‘keeper made an unexpected Bundesliga bow. On the Friday before the game, news filtered through that Dortmund’s long-established No.1 Roman Weidenfeller was ruled out following a collision with Mats Hummels in training; suffering a strained ligament in his left knee. Klopp’s reaction to such a setback was characteristically upbeat: “We’ll replace one of the best German keepers with one of the best Australian keepers,” was his conviction.

With his judgments appearing more and more impressive as Dortmund’s miraculous season progresses, Klopp was incontrovertibly proved right once again. Standing at 6ft 3, Langerak confidently punched clear when necessary; commanded his area with growing confidence as the game wore on; and capped a winning performance with a genuinely superb 75th-minute save low to his right to deny Bayern’s chief goal-getter Mario Gomez. It was a showing of precocious authority and well-channelled aggression – as Gomez can attest; having been on the receiving end of Langerak’s forearm as the youngster punched the ball to safety just prior to his wonder-save.

At the final whistle, pandemonium ensued, with Klopp haring down the touchline like a blonde, bespectacled Mourinho. The much-admired trainer’s first port of call was to join in the fluorescent huddle which supportively surrounded his goalkeeping starlet, Langerak. That the first instinct of Dortmund’s conquering heroes (average age only 22.3) was to swarm toward their inexperienced colleague spoke volumes of their collective respect for a tremendous debut display.

It’s been a short but spectacular rise to Bundesliga prominence for young Mitch. The boy from Bundaberg, Queensland spent three years with Melbourne Victory in the A-League, primarily learning the ropes as first-team cover. Though New Zealand international Glen Moss started the 2009/10 season as Melbourne’s no.1, he was usurped by the young pretender, who became the side’s first choice for the remainder of the championship-winning season and started in the 2010 Grand Final.

His endeavours in Melbourne earned a glowing character reference from that most questionable of characters, Kevin Muscat. The former Wolves hatchet-man said of Langerak’s switch to Europe: “I think it’s a testament to the effort he has put in and cream always does rise. The 15 or 16 games he’s played have been outstanding for us. I said it would be hard for the football club to hold him back and it’s eventuated, and we are happy for him.”

Just two months after his title success, Victory accepted a third and final offer from Dortmund, sealing a four-year-deal with the Bundesliga giants, whose sporting director Michael Zorc had eventually got his man.

Langerak has since come close to his first senior national team call-up when, in August 2010, he was put on standby for a friendly with Slovenia. There’s plenty of time ahead for his Socceroos career to develop, particularly as current custodian Mark Schwarzer shows few, if any, signs of slowing down or calling it a day. Similarly, at Dortmund, Weidenfeller will return to the fold as no.1, as and when his ill-timed injury clears up. But, one day soon, it’s more than probable that Mitch Langerak will prove a worthy successor to this pair of venerable veterans.

1 Response

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