Life on the line: How do goalkeepers cope with the punishing psychological toll
21:30 GMT, 24 August 2012
Crazy, you say That was the general assumption. Well, crazy or plain stupid. Once, if you were delving into the football world to ask what went on in the mind of a goalkeeper, then you had to be prepared for a barrage of one-liners.
Then came the tragedy of Robert Enke and a disturbing account of his personal turmoil by Ronald Reng in the award-winning book, A Life Too Short, and their art was cast in a different light.
Goalkeepers are different, that’s beyond dispute, and, in the modern age, where each game is recorded, replayed and analysed in minute detail, they are relentlessly exposed to criticism, even ridicule, on an impossible quest for perfection.
Blunder: The normally reliable Petr Cech cost Chelsea a goal in their 4-2 win over Reading in midweek
They must master their own minds if they are to master their craft. It is about more than stopping shots.
Some cannot deal with the stress and fail, others develop their own eccentricities to get by. But that does not stop insecurities eating away.
Sometimes they hide behind masks, sometimes they erupt furiously — like Paddy Kenny’s voicemail pursuit of Rob Green — and sometimes those insecurities get to the very best.
‘I’ve had my doubts,’ said Edwin van der Sar, looking for all the world like a man who never has. ‘Can I do it Can I achieve what people expect Can I keep a clean sheet Can I help my team
‘Say there’s a free-kick, how far do you go over from your post to help your team You know nine out of 10 will go over the wall, but if it goes over the wall it’s not your fault. What if he puts it in the other side, by the post, then it is your fault.
‘It’s all a mental game. Do I move another 10cm from the post because they have someone with a great curl I might need those 10cm, otherwise I won’t make it. Or do I focus purely on myself because if the ball goes in that side, nobody will blame me Are you going to help your team Or are you going to choose to help yourself These are the decisions you have to make all the time.
‘I read the Enke book and I could relate to a lot of things I read.’
Van der Sar’s name appears regularly in A Life Too Short because during Enke’s time at Barcelona, goalkeeping coach Frans Hoek, wanted him to play like the Dutchman and dominate the pitch beyond the confines of his penalty area.
Tragedy: Robert Enke killed himself
‘Be like Van der Sar’ was the message. Be something you’re not. If your goalkeeping coach cannot relate, who can The manager Unlikely. The manager has his own pressures.
‘When people say, “Dave, you had a bad ’un”, they’re usually talking about my game against Norwich,’ said Dave Beasant, rewinding 20 years to a 3-2 defeat for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
‘I shouldn’t have played that day for a start,’ he added. ‘I’d been sick in the morning, but we only had a young kid on the bench so I played.
‘My head was swimming. I couldn’t concentrate and I couldn’t see properly and the physio’s giving me stuff to sniff to clear my head.’
Two shots slipped through his hands into the net and the third was tapped into an open goal after another misjudgment.
‘It can be harsh in the dressing room, but it’s man to man,’ said Beasant. ‘And there’s no-one in there who’s never made a mistake. Next week it could be one of them.
‘What’s important is that anything like that stays in the dressing room. You need your manager to back you when he leaves the dressing room.
‘Our manager was Ian Porterfield and he didn’t say a word to me that day, but I’m back home, watching News at Ten, and it more or less said I’d been sacked.
‘The manager had been put in a corner by the media and didn’t know how to handle it.
‘My confidence was shot. I wasn’t even confident of walking in the street. I stood out anyway because of my height and I thought everyone would be saying, “There’s that goalkeeper who has been sacked”.’
Beasant went on loan to Grimsby, where he performed well and was back in the Chelsea team before the end of the season . . . after Porterfield had been sacked.
Jim Leighton was another scarred by his boss when dropped ahead of the FA Cup final replay in 1990 after a poor display in the first game.
A decade later, he revealed in his book, In the Firing Line, how he would never be able to forgive Sir Alex Ferguson.
‘Ferguson’s decision shattered me,’ said Leighton. ‘What also soured me was his lack of support both before and after that event.
‘He distanced himself from me when I was trying to pick up the broken pieces of my life and never offered any encouragement.’
This week, at Stamford Bridge, Petr Cech and Adam Federici made mistakes on a par with Beasant’s.
Fumble: Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici has made two mistakes in as many games in the Premier League
For Federici it was a second in five days, yet Reading manager Brian McDermott backed him unequivocally. ‘I’m not concerned about him at all,’ said McDermott. ‘He’s got a fantastic mentality. He’s not overwhelmed by the Premier League.’
Has he Can you be sure These days, the biggest clubs might have a support network including life coaches and psychologists but players are still reluctant to commit.
Team selection makes a goalkeeper vulnerable. There’s only one place and if the manager doesn’t like you, tough. Sound familiar, Heurelho Gomes Paddy Kenny
With this in mind, few confess. What if it gets back to the manager or races around football’s grapevine. Before you know it, you have confessed your way on to the dole. What kind of therapy is that
‘There’s a misconception that all footballers are very confident, but it is the opposite for most,’ said David James, writing in The Observer in March.
‘It is a great irony that in a game where we routinely talk of confidence on the pitch, psychological support off it is so appallingly neglected.
‘When I was going through a bad time at Liverpool I approached the club for some support. Back then, I was told, “Shut up and deal with it”. Sadly, I don’t think football has moved on from that position.
Lack of support: David James (centre) felt goalkeepers were not given the help they required
‘Even when clubs are forward-thinking enough to invite a sports psychologist into the fold, players are apprehensive. They are too worried about what their team-mates and management will think.
‘Will everyone think I’m mad What if he tells the manager about me What if it jeopardises my position in the team’
Goalkeepers are more likely to bottle it up, take it home and be hard on themselves (or their families) after a disappointing day in the goalmouth.
Millwall’s Maik Taylor is 40 now and far more skilled at handling these raw emotions than he was in his early days at Birmingham and Fulham, when he might stew for days after a poor performance.
‘I could be in a foul mood,’ said Taylor. ‘I’d sit there, not really wanting to speak and I’d like to watch the goals again. Maybe I could have moved someone into a better position. If it’s my mistake, I’d want to understand why.
‘Our errors lead to goals. You can cost your team and you don’t want to, but on the pitch you have to put mistakes to one side. You can take a lot of flak out there but, if you dwell on them, one mistake can become two or three.’
If you happen to love a goalkeeper, it can be even worse. ‘It doesn’t matter to me if the team win or lose as long as Maik has a good game and doesn’t feel bad about a goal,’ admitted Taylor’s wife, Zoe.
‘He learned to deal with it better as he
got older, but when you’re young, you’re looking for a long-term
career, every game feels like a gamble where you have to play well to
secure a future.
‘There’s no margin for errors.
‘I’m a midwife and I know what it’s like to have a bad day. I’d joke with him and say, “Did anyone die” or “It’s only a game”, but it’s also your livelihood and security.
Foul mood: Maik Taylor
‘One mistake on live television or a few days’ bad press and your name is dragged around. It doesn’t do you any favours in the long term and some of the fans can be vile. I’ve sat in the stands and heard some awful things. Even if I’m watching the telly and Maik concedes a goal, I’d plunge into silence because I’d know exactly what he’s thinking.
‘Sometimes I feel he’s so lonely out there. There’s no-one around him and no-one can make him feel better about making a mistake. And that hurts badly.’
Conversely, former Norwich keeper Bryan Gunn found his goalmouth a place of comfort after the death of his daughter Francesca.
‘I played at Blackburn in October 1992,’ said Gunn. ‘At the time, my daughter was dying of leukaemia and we lost 7-1. We had kept the news really close but within three or four days she had passed away.
‘For me and the players, we had lost three points, but we were all suffering from something else.
‘I made a crucial decision to get back playing as soon as I could and two weeks later ran out at Carrow Road, against QPR.
‘I ran into a goalmouth I had probably run into two hundred times before in my life, but I still remember the warmth and appreciation of the crowd that day. There was a different feeling inside me that day. We won 2-1.’
Despite that, he was still unsure when the youth-team coaches at Norwich suggested converting his son, Angus, from a midfielder to a goalkeeper.
‘I said, “You’ll have to ask his mother if she can live with another goalkeeper”,’ said Gunn. ‘It’s an individual discipline and you have to have a soulless mentality.
‘I thought I had a strong mentality when I started out, but that was in the days before every game was on TV.
‘Sometimes there was only the local pressman there. As I got older, I started to think about it more, going into games wondering if I might get dropped if I made a mistake because there was agood young goalkeeper to take my place and the manager might be influenced by bad press.’
After many years of isolation and vulnerability, there are some things only a goalkeeper will understand and this is where the ‘Goalkeepers’ Union’ comes in. It is a fabled brotherhood of the gloved, where everyone looks out for each other, although Kenny’s delight at Green’s torment this week suggests the union may be in ill health.
Perhaps it was a myth all along.
Enke’s book tells how he struggled to understand the ferocious intensity
and apparent unfriendliness of Uwe Kamps when he first moved to
Costly: Robert Green's opening day mistake led to Swansea scoring the first of their five goals against QPR
Kamps was first choice, fighting to keep his place ahead of the talented youngster signed from Carl Zeiss Jena and the survival instincts kick in when a professional competitor feels under threat.
Birmingham City’s teenager Jack Butland spoke with fresh-faced enthusiasm of the ‘GK Union’ ahead of his England debut (the 2-1 victory against Italy), earlier this month, promising Joe Hart years of friendly competition.
‘If we end up fighting for the No 1 spot, we’ll still be friends,’ he said: ‘Only one person can wear the shirt. If I’m on the bench, I’m going to support him. I wouldn’t try to hinder anyone’s performances for my own benefit. It doesn’t work like that.’
But not all keepers are so inclusive. Jens Lehmann could not work in a cosy relationship, as Manuel Almunia and Oliver Kahn discovered.
In the past goalkeepers like Bruce Grobbelaar and John Burridge repelled the occupational hazards with eccentric behaviour, performing bizarre exercise routines and engaging with the crowd.
Burridge was at Crystal Palace when he started to throw somersaults after his team scored. He once scaled the posts to perch on the crossbar.
There are fewer showmen these days. Goalkeeping is more serious and scientific, in step with the rest of the game. The individuals now channel their obsessions.
‘David James is a complex guy and we had
a love-hate relationship,’ said David Coles, goalkeeping coach for
James at Portsmouth and later for Rob Green at West Ham. ‘There were
days when I would walk off the training ground distraught.
Been here before: Green was at fault at the World Cup in 2010 when he cost England a goal against the USA
‘He would rip into me if he was angry. He would wear me out mentally and physically, but I had to stay with him.
‘Everything had to be just right. He would sit for hours studying his game and had his own psychological programme.
‘If he made a mistake, he knew.
‘I saw him play out of his skin in a goalless draw at Nottingham Forest and next day I told him he was magnificent. “Colesy,” he said. “My kicking was s***”.
‘He was never happy, but I wish I could bottle his desire to keep the ball out of the net and give it to the schoolboys.
‘Rob Green’s psyche is unbelievable, even after that mistake in the World Cup. We dealt with that in one day on the training ground and never mentioned it again.
‘There were days when it would raise its head. We went to Ipswich in pre-season and he got horrendous stick, but he played out of his skin. He came off, looked me in the eyes and said, “That showed ’em”.’
Psychology is vital. Brentford
goalkeeper Richard Lee became so riddled with self-doubt he almost quit
the game before deciding to learn more about his brain and the way it
Lee’s lowest ebb followed a mistake
during Watford’s 4-1 defeat in the Championship play-off semi-final at
Hull, in 2008. Having lost the first leg 2-0 at home, Watford scored
first at the KC Stadium, but Lee came out for a high ball, missed a
punch and Nicky Barmby made it 3-1 on aggregate.
Book worm: Richard Lee struggled after making a mistake but eventually put his experiences into words
It is by no means the worst blunder you will see from a goalkeeper, but it would not leave him alone.
‘It was a feeling of guilt,’ said Lee. ‘I felt the weight of those fans who had travelled to Hull, and Watford fans in general who were hoping to make it back to the Premier League.
‘It was a dreadful feeling.
‘I went on holiday in a zombie-like state, feeling numb with all the negative thoughts inside my head.
‘I didn’t want to play football. My whole life had been dedicated to this game. I’d rarely go out, I’d rarely do things a normal 23-year- old did, and yet I felt like this, like half of Watford disliked me, even though I tried to do my best.
‘The thing is, most people were fine with me, but I’d chosen the mindset that I was the most hated man in Watford, which I’m sure I wasn’t. It’s funny how the mind works in that way.
‘I woke up every morning that summer feeling guilt and it was no surprise I started the season as third choice. I just wanted out.
‘Aidy Boothroyd got the sack, Malky Mackay came in and I told him I didn’t want to play any more.’
Mackay talked him out of it, but it was Lee who took decisive action by delving into books, attending seminars and getting into neuro-linguistic programming.
He took control of his fears and rebuilt his career at Brentford.
Role model: Edwin Van der Sar
‘It changed my structure of thinking,’ said Lee. ‘I was able to let go of the negative emotion and come back to one simple emotion. I can only give what I can give.
‘Then you can look in the mirror and be proud.
‘The results have been phenomenal. As a goalkeeper I felt an enormous amount of pressure, but it was an internal creation. It was only because that was the way my mind worked.
‘When I played against Man United in an FA Cup semi-final (for Watford) I had this idea that I was filling in for Ben Foster, Ben had helped us get there and what would people think of me if we lost.
‘But you can flip it. I could be telling myself, I’m going to look back on this day when I’m 50 and tell everyone I played in an FA Cup semi-final live on BBC with all these people watching.
‘If we win I could be playing at Wembley.
‘Now I look back on the Hull game with pride. I played a good season and even that game was a good game apart from that mistake.
‘It’s a shame we lost and a shame we didn’t go up, but one mistake, one moment doesn’t define you.
‘A great game doesn’t make you a great person and a bad game doesn’t make you a bad person.’
Lee has written it all down in a book called Graduation, which young goalkeepers might want to slip into their glove-bag.
It sounds like they will need all the help they can get.