Mike Nevin Ident

AS a child, one of the first football books I read was Goalkeepers are Different, Brian Glanville’s superb novel about the life of a professional goalkeeper. The story follows Ronnie Blake, a rising star, through from apprentice to first teamer, cheating injury and rejection to eventually fulfil the dream of running onto the pitch in front of a roaring Cup Final crowd.

At the same time, I developed an obsession with goalies per se and Liverpool FC’s own great Ray Clemence. Ray kept goal for the Reds throughout my formative years, until his sudden departure when I was pushing 14 in 1981. That’s a long, long time through childhood and adolescence. It was like a death in the family when he departed for Spurs.

To this today, when I think “Liverpool goalkeeper”, my mind’s eye conjures a gloveless Clem, his angular features and collar-length straggly hair wearing a green shirt decorated only by a white Liverbird; and an emphatic Number 1 on his back, with red shorts and red socks.

None of these fancy ‘keeper kits of the modern day.

Clemence was the perfect goalkeeper. A sweeper-keeper; literally the last line of defence; lithe as a cat, and the safe hands of an expert slip fielder. He had a beautiful left-foot too, but no-one really spoke of his ability on the ball in those days. The Kop loved him because he kept the ball out of the red nets.

Two saves, advancing from his line to narrow the angle, arguably won European Cups in Rome and Paris.

As a kid, we would read of the 1960s exploits of England’s great Gordon Banks and the legendary man in black, the Russian keeper, Lev Yashin. Later, West Germany’s imposing figure in goal, Sepp Maier wrapped the first massive modern goalie gloves around the 1974 World Cup.

As the 1970s took hold at home, Pat Jennings and Peter Shilton blossomed into world-class keepers and a great fondness was held for characters like John Burridge and George Wood (Arsenal and Everton). To a man they received a rapturous ovation at Anfield as they ran towards a packed, standing Kop, normally before the start of the second-half.

At Anfield in 1981 when Joe Corrigan was felled by a bottle of brown ale thrown from behind the goal, the crowd — out of respect for the Manchester City man — chanted relentlessly, “Oh, get the bastard out” as a self-policing Kop sought out the culprit. This was at a time when violence was ten-a-penny and abusing the opposition was integral to home advantage.

Goalkeepers then were not only deemed different; they assumed deity. Somewhere between then and now, I believe we’ve lost a little bit of love and appreciation of the man alone in this team game.

At the same time, I think fans and pundits alike struggle to understand and savour the art of goalkeeping. Listen to any commentary and you’ll hear flying athletic leaps and fingertip diversions described as “smart” saves. Watch a goalkeeper dive left or right and hold on to a well-struck shot and be told it’s “one for the cameras”, as though marks for artistic impression are added to a crucial three points preserved.

An old North-West of England, Granada TV football show, “Kick Off” used to feature “Save of the Month”. Now it’s all goals, goals, goals. When I was a lad (sounding like the wool off the old Hovis adverts here) you would see weekly replays of Banks’ “save of all time” from Pele at Mexico 1970 and Jim Montgomery’s cup-winning double-stop which won Sunderland the FA Cup in 1973.

Which famous stops do the kids remember these days? Barely any of them see the light day once the Premier League highlights are canned each week. Who’s arsed about smart saves?

This piece isn’t meant to be a defence of the maligned Simon Mignolet, but the label “good shot-stopper” is convenient damnation with the faintest praise. Like stopping shots going in the goal doesn’t matter. Whether he’s any good at that is another debate and probably the one the armchair experts should actually be having.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 27, 2016: Liverpool's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet in action against Tottenham Hotspur during the FA Premier League match at White Hart Lane. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It’s fair to say also that the Belgian has struggled to be decisive coming for crosses and alleviating pressure on his defence; although this season he was showing signs of addressing the failing, with a more aggressive approach and stellar punches.

Instead his replacement, the tyro Loris Karius is lauded for his “starting position” and his ability on the ball. Of course the game has changed and Liverpool want to compress play in the opponent’s half, but if standing 40 yards from our goal and spraying passes from the deepest position on the field is what Kopites drool over, perhaps Jürgen Klopp should get on the blower to a Los Angeles lad with a low forehead. At 36 he’s the right age for a ‘keeper.

Before you get too upset — and I know some of you do — I’m only messing.

For me, Karius has to continue in goal against Manchester United. Having watched him at Swansea, resembling a Subbuteo goalkeeper on a stick, being thrust outwards and then pulled abruptly back in retreat, I’m pretty nervous at that prospect.

However, I can’t see the point of bringing Mignolet back in. There’s no guarantee Simon doesn’t make an error the haters would never forgive, or that Karius actually flops under the Anfield lights. In any case, the unforgiving Anfield throng have already done for Mignolet long-term. It’s early days for young Loris but I fear for him if his inexperience and liking for his goal-line get a panic stricken crowd on his back.

Let’s face it; we stopped loving our ‘keepers years ago.

Until recent times, the Club’s telegraphic address was “Goalkeeper Liverpool”. If there was such a thing today it would probably be changed at the fans’ request to “Knobhead1”.

Bruce Grobbelaar, despite a career as chequered as his persona, was afforded the patience of a collective saint behind his goal. He would drop clangers aplenty, which would be crucified by all and sundry today, but was recognised for an unparalleled command of his penalty box and beyond.

Nicknamed “The Clown”, whether Grob was “good with his feet” is open to question. He liked a dribble and served out his share of potential coronary moments, but his most obvious quality lay in his reflexes — making the saves; the good shot stopping and that…

Before Pepe Reina came along to bustle into conversations about Liverpool’s most reliable  ‘keepers, we had a fair few of goalies who left with reputations tarnished by the mad spells and moments suffered by all the bar the very best. Even Reina ended up with leaving under a supporter cloud when he bulked up and spent his last year with glue on the soul of his boots.

A young David James settled down to have two excellent seasons under Roy Evans but left under a “dodgy keeper” cloud after he publicly put his poor form down to overplaying the Nintendo. A new concept, perhaps to those raised on the hero of yesteryear Elisha Scott.

It’s also doubtful the notorious Irishman of the foul tongue would’ve been into Jamo’s liking for the London club scene and Armani suits. But I’d like to have listened to him turn his venom from Parson Jackson at centre-half onto the Kop. Elisha would’ve fucking laced anyone who threatened so much as a half-hearted jeer.

The fact is that, all the Spice Boy nonsense aside, David James was a bloody good ‘keeper for a while and playing in World Cups at the age of 40 was testament to that. He certainly didn’t deserve the Kop’s ironic applause; a particularly mean-spirited “gift” which has been passed on to our recently deposed “Flat Nosed” Belgian.

A few years on Sander Westerveld won a treble but eventually tested the patience of Gerard Houllier. The fans sang “he’s Dutch and we like him very much”, but only because it rhymed and not many recall his stay with much affection — despite the medals.

The Big Pole in our Goal, Jerzy Dudek suffers too from the notion of the Miracle of Istanbul; as though the most remarkable reflex save in recent football history and saving pens and psyching out Andrea Pirlo and Andrei Shevchenko were some kind of ordained acts administered by the spirit of the old Polish Pope and a beleaguered Catholic Church.

Dudek’s man-of-the-match display also won a League Cup final for the Reds but few fans would rank him among the greats. His medal drawer set against Liverpool’s recent trophy-winning history suggests he might have a case in telling some of our fans to try and remember the good times. I would happily buy him a pint and then go to communion with him.

Maybe we should all just lighten up about our goalies.

Try inviting Diego Costa round for the weekend to stamp on our hands, smash us in the face, and bend back a finger or two. Failing that, we should all have a dive and a roll around the garden and see how the Mrs reacts to us traipsing mud all over the carpet. Then try eating your dinner or put a record on wearing a big foamy pair of Sells.

Have a little sympathy and learn to appreciate the unique, underappreciated skills of the madman in the gloves stood in front of us, whether he’s a fresh-faced German lad with a big fuck-off quiff, or a trembling chap from the Low Countries with a concave conk. They both want to win — for us and for Liverpool.

Goalkeepers are indeed different, and we need to learn to love them and their quirks all over again.

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