WSC speaks to Watford’s Alec Chamberlain about how the game has changed for goalkeepers during his 20 year career

One of the effects of the blanket TV coverage of football is that every player’s mistakes are highlighted. Are keepers given too hard a time generally?
At the risking of sounding paranoid, I definitely think goalkeepers come under the microscope too often, especially in the Premiership and at international level as well. It’s there for all to see, every Saturday night you watch the Premiership and it’s dissected. Out­field play­ers come under criticism, but the commentators hang, draw and quarter you before it even gets to the expert. The advent of super slo-mo hasn’t done us any favours either because when you see things com­ing in real time I think that’s the only fair way to see whether or not the keeper could have done better. Slow motion makes things looks easier than they were in real time.

Does loss of confidence affect keepers more than any other player?
Certainly you can’t play in goal if you’ve lost confidence. It applies to outfield players too but it’s more obvious when a keeper has lost his confidence. At that stage sometimes it’s better to come out of the team for a while. Other times, it’s better just to play through it – when you’re not playing well that’s when you have to grit your teeth and hope you come out the other end of it. We are easy targets to some extent and if people want to get on to you and have a go there’s no hiding place.

What has been the effect of substitute keepers being on the bench for every game now?
There aren’t more injuries to keepers than there were in days when outfield players had to go in goal, so res­erve keepers aren’t getting more opportunities on matchdays, but it’s been a good thing. It’s something that will give keepers the chance to stay in the game longer because now you can bring on a sub keeper if you have to. You need two experienced goalkeepers at least in the squad fighting it out, and some Premiership clubs of course have three or four. The keepers aren’t missing out on match practice because most reserve games are midweek now. In our case Richard [Lee] has been able for most of this season to play in the reserves and sit on the bench for the match, so he’s been getting the real matchday experience, warming up in front of the crowds, getting the taste of it.

Fitness levels of players in general have increased over period you’ve been playing. Does this apply to keepers?

If you look at the shape of goalkeepers in the Sixties and Seventies and compare them to now you can see there has been a physical change. They have a bigger frame now and they are in far better physical condition. Sports science has improved that, the different training and changes to diet, everybody’s fitter. Keepers are stronger, which shows in their kicking – I know the Nike balls in particular are lighter but Premiership keepers kick the ball so far. Going back to the Seventies again, some keepers would struggle to make the halfway line even kicking it out of their hands. I remember Graham Taylor when he was at Watford saying that the biggest change in football since he’d been a manager was the improvement in the standard of goalkeeping across the board.

What difference have specialist goalkeeping coaches made since they came in? When you first started did you work with specialists straight away?
I was quite lucky when I started out at Colchester in that Mike Walker, who was first choice there, took me under his wing and would give me training drills to do and I learned a lot from him. I’ve had periods at most clubs where I’ve had specialist coaching at least one day a week but it’s only been since Kevin Hitchcock has been here at Watford in the past two years that I’ve had it day in day out. Obviously it’s beneficial because be­fore it would be a case of training with everybody else and doing all the same warm-ups, then have somebody smash five balls at me before either match practice or a proper game. Whereas now we go out at about 10 in the morning, get warmed up properly before we go and join in with the team, so it’s not the first time you’ve touched the ball that morning. It makes a big difference. If all the various drills we do don’t sharpen you up, there’s something wrong.

Do you have to train more as you get older? Can experience make up for ageing ?

I haven’t got to the point where physically there are things I can’t do, so I just keep up with the usual training. There are days when Richard will do far more than I will simply because I’ve played in all the games whereas Richard, at 20, can eat it all up really, the fit­ness side of it. It’s fair to say Kevin Hitchcock monitors it and if he thinks I’ve done enough he’ll leave it. But generally I do whatever the others are doing, which is important, firstly because I have to show I can do it and also it’s important for me to keep in shape.

What keepers did you watch when you were younger? Did you model yourself on any in particular?

Not on anyone in particular, I’ve always felt I just have to do the best I can. As a kid I used to support Peterborough United, so I used to watch the keepers there. One of them, with a Watford connection in fact, was Eric Steele and before that, Mick Drewery. They were the two I remember best. As far as current players are con­cerned, I admire them all because I know what they have to go through. That’s what annoys me a little bit about some supporters, where they just dismiss people at times. You hear “Oh, he’s rubbish, can’t catch a ball” and all the rest of it, but these guys are all good enough to play professional football. Nobody’s crap, no one’s a bad footballer. It’s a myth – they’d have been weeded out before they got to the stage of being a professional. Everyone has different qualities but they’ve all got enough to stay in football.

What difference has the back-pass rule made?
There’s no doubt that the back-pass rule is the single biggest change that’s happened since I started out. It was a big shock to the system for everybody when it first came in, and obviously you had to work on your ball control, but younger keepers now have never known a time when it wasn’t in place, so it comes more naturally to them at times. But sometimes no matter what you practice, people are put in situations they don’t want to be in. That’s where experience helps. It’s no good sometimes trying to play your way out, you’re better just kicking it out of play and regrouping. Although there was a big question mark over it at the start, I think it has improved football generally. The other day I was watching a video of Ipswich winning the FA Cup against Arsenal in 1978. The last few min­utes of stoppage time, when they’re passing the ball back to Paul Cooper in goal, he rolls it back, gets an­other back-pass, it looks ridiculous now, the Arsenal fans must have been pulling their hair out. People blank that sort of thing out of their memory. It has definitely improved the game.

Relatively few keepers seem to become managers. Is there any particular reason why this should be?

It’s the nature of the position. Although you do try and help and talk to defenders in front of you, generally speaking you are wrapped up in what you are doing yourself. A manager has to see the whole picture whereas we get perhaps one-eyed about things. But maybe that’s what makes us goalkeepers – we want to stand apart to some extent. Having seen how it works here at Watford, I think I could become a goalkeeping coach. It’s all down to finance now, whether clubs can afford it in this climate, but every goalkeeper who works with a coach will say it helps so I’m sure there will always be jobs there.

You’ve had spells as second choice at Watford. Would you have left if you hadn’t played regularly, or is it easier to accept being a reserve as you get older?

It’s very difficult to say. Kevin Miller had such a good season when I was first there that I didn’t have any argument about playing because he was doing so well and quite rightly got a move to the Premiership. Then it was question of who else came in, which turned out to be Chris Day from Crystal Palace. I felt I had a good chance to hold the position, once Kevin left. That’s no disrespect to Chris who I hope will continue to do well at QPR.

Is there a part of your game you’d like to improve?

Saving penalties has never been a particularly strong part of my game. It’s not as if I don’t think I’m going to save them but I wish I was better at it. I don’t think it’s harder for bigger keepers especially. Peter Schmeichel has a good record and he’s probably used his build to work a negative effect on the taker. Some say it’s down to luck but there are keepers who truly believe in the system they use. David Seaman is obviously good at it, Paul Cooper of Ipswich was renowned for saving penalties, though he was quite small.

What would you have done if you hadn’t re-signed at Watford for next season?

They would have needed a goalkeeper whether they’d had the money from a Cup run or not. If I hadn’t stayed, as much as I like to play for Watford, I’d have looked to carry on elsewhere. While I’m still fit and playing and feel like I can do a job, I’ll carry on and that would be the same next year, though obviously my first choice would be to stay here.

Chamberlain on file
Born March, Cambridgeshire
Joined Ipswich from non-league Ramsey Town
Colchester Utd, Division Four
1987-88 Everton, as understudy to Neville Southall
Luton Town, in the old and new Division One
Sunderland, Division One
Watford. Over 200 appearances; promotion from Division Two in 1998 and Division One in 1999

From WSC 195 May 2003. What was happening this month

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