Outfield players in goal is one of football’s great unexpected joys

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The steady increase in the number of permitted substitutes has made one of the most exciting parts of the game an ever rarer occurrence

15 June ~ As a teenager growing up in the 1970s, there was one sight guaranteed to trigger feelings of excitement and anticipation: a hobbling goalkeeper, shaking his head ruefully in the direction of the bench and slowly peeling off his green or yellow jersey. This could only ever mean one thing. Since there were no substitute goalkeepers in those days, an outfield player was about to take his place and, more often than not, turn out to be a really terrible keeper.

Entertainment was guaranteed, either in the form of an avalanche of soft goals, flapping arms and poor positional sense or against-all-odds heroic resistance. It was all very relatable – as though one of us had been plucked from the terraces and told to play at the highest level.

The past is littered with temporary keepers exceeding expectations. Bobby Moore superbly saved a penalty in a League Cup semi-final against Stoke in 1972, although the impact was slightly softened when a relieved Mike Bernard netted the rebound. There was Manchester United’s Alex Stepney, bizarrely dislocating his jaw while screaming at his defenders (an injury somehow avoided by one of his successors, Peter Schmeichel) and being replaced by midfielder Brian Greenhoff, who kept a clean sheet.

Vinnie Jones made a decent fist of it despite letting in a couple of soft goals when Wimbledon played Newcastle, and Robbie Savage only conceded two for Derby against Reading, although he was helped by Shane Long missing a spot-kick. One of the papers hinted that he had missed on purpose rather than risk the humiliation of having a penalty saved by Robbie Savage.

But my favourite example of stand-in goalkeeping heroics came in the televised Division Two game between Blackpool and Preston, towards the end of the 1972-73 season. Preston’s Alan Kelly took a knee to the face after conceding a goal after just four minutes and was replaced between the sticks by Hugh McIlmoyle. Known as one of best headers in the game, McIlmoyle showed a highly individual approach to the task.

His method of countering Blackpool manager Harry Potts’ tactic of bombarding him with high crosses was probably unique among goalkeepers. Instead of trusting his handling, McIlmoyle frequently took to heading the ball clear. It worked. He only conceded once in his entire 86 minutes, to a shot along the ground, and a frustrated Blackpool scraped a 2-0 win. (The Blackpool Gazette headline writer, possibly destined for a career in spin doctoring, headed the match report with the words Pool Show No Mercy.)

But goalkeeping substitutions were not always so successful, as fans of Newcastle will know. Their game against West Ham in 1985-86 is remembered for Alvin Martin’s hat-trick, scored against three different keepers. The first was Martin Thomas, himself brought in to solve a goalkeeping crisis, who lasted until half time.

After picking up an early injury and letting in four goals, he understandably failed to appear for the second half, with new boy Chris Hedworth, a centre-half, taking over the green jersey. Seventeen minutes later, Hedworth was writhing around in agony on the turf after colliding with the post in the act of conceding goal number five.

Enter Peter Beardsley. Not what you would call a natural-born goalkeeper (apart from everything else, he was just 5ft 8in), Beardsley was soon gathering the ball out of the net with alarming frequency. In the space of three glorious minutes, one of the best footballers of his generation watched three goals fly past him – and narrowly avoided a fourth a few minutes later when a close-range header hit the bar. For the neutral, it was great to watch.

Then, in 1992, the FA sucked one of the great joys out of football, by introducing the rule that a goalkeeper had to be named on a three-man bench. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse and a ludicrous seven subs (one of which is almost always a goalkeeper) can now be found on the heated seats of Premier League dugouts.

Thankfully, the outfield player taking over in goal is not completely missing from the modern game, but it does take the unlikely occurrence of having two goalkeepers going off injured, which is how John Terry ended up between the sticks for the final minute at Reading in 2005. It was a (very) brief reminder of yet another of the great things that football has lost. Dave Roberts

This article first appeared in WSC 364, June 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here