They're not the "characters" we've been told they are, claims Matt Nation
Dave Lee Travis used to host a Sunday morning radio show in which he complimented every caller on having a sense of humour “every bit as warped as mine”. The caller would then assure DLT that this couldn’t possibly be true, DLT would then, pricelessly, call him a “pilchard”. And with hardly a thigh being slapped, this naked self-promotion gradually led us to believe that DLT was the funniest man in Britain.
DLT’s spin doctors, or whatever they were called then, must have been moonlighting at the FA, since DLT’s self-promotion to the status of comedian laureate coincided with the equally mystifying idea that you had to be out of your tree to be a good goalie, or any goalie at all.
Goalkeepers, and only goalkeepers, were suddenly the “characters”, the ones who make the jokes about the streaks of dried washing powder on the kit, the ones who would start a scrap in the chip shop, the ones who would set the chairman’s newspaper alight while he was reading it.
For many years, it was Sepp Maier who was held up as the flakiest of them all. However, his madness appeared to be based exclusively on a pair of over-sized gloves and a quarterly photo with the ball stuck up his jersey. And even then, it was only at the training ground; in all the finals he played in with Bayern and Ger-many, he was about as dippy as a Harvard grad-uate at a job interview.
If Maier’s madness was fraudulent, at least he was giving it a go. The eccentricity gene that is commonly be-lieved to prevail in all inhabitants of the British Isles appears to have always given the men be-tween the sticks a particularly wide berth. Although it’s otherwise impossible, if not illegal, to say a bad word about him, Pat Jennings, for example, always came across as wan-ting desperately to swap his green jersey and goalmouth for a chunky sweater and a rocking chair and the chance to tell stories about fishing smacks. Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton allowed themselves to be embroiled in a love triangle of indecision, with libertine Ron Greenwood at the apex, and you didn’t hear a peep out of them; no spitefulness daubed on walls, no contract beatings, no pints of beer over the head, nothing except the silence of mollification.
Bruce Grobbelaar had lots of very good games, a few spectacularly bad ones and once gave an interview for Football Focus wearing a cap with a three-dimensional duck on top of it. John Burridge apparently watches televised football wear-ing his kit, just like a lot of grown men do. Even the incontro-vertibly extrovert Peter Schmeichel was nothing but a bullying old crosspatch who hollered so much only because he knew he could fill in everybody he was hollering at.
The list of stodgy keepers is probably endless since, as Mr Glanville once pointed out, they are not mad, they are just different. This difference probably stems from always being the most vulnerable member of the team, a status that has been reinforced since the changes in the back-pass rule. We’ve all seen goalkeepers quaking when the ball arrives at their feet, with their little faces wearing the look of a child sitting on Santa’s knee for the first time. And it must be awful: if I were a professional footballer who couldn’t actually play football, I’d be rolling my eyes, frothing at the mouth and out-madding the most desperate of draft-dodgers if it meant that attention would be distracted from my inadequacy.
There have only ever been two genuinely padded-cell rabid goalkeepers. One was Ramon Quiroga, the Peruvian El Loco, who used to jump on opponents in the centre-circle at a time when goalies had to fill out a chit in triplicate before leaving their six-yard box. The other was my Uncle Len, not because of anything he did on the pitch, but because he used to recite Harry Worth sketches to me when I was a kid, and then belt me if I didn’t laugh.
The rest of them have to make do with “you don’t have to be mad to work here” stickers on their dressing room pegs and with the celebrity bit-part status that I once heard a pub drummer admit to, which could equally apply to goalkeepers: “I just bang about at the back and try to keep it all together.” Goalies can’t afford to be detached, they can’t afford to go off and do solos, otherwise they’ll lose their job. They may think they’re Keith Richards, and they may tell their kids that they’re Keith Richards, but we know, and they know, that they’re really Charlie Watts.
From WSC 158 April 2000. What was happening this month