Keeping faith

Goalkeepers have always been slow to admit responsibility for any goal their team concedes, but the way they demonstrate this has changed across the ages. Cameron Carter charts the history of these complex blame-shirking gestures and what happens when it all gets too much for them

The Fatalist
If you consider footage from the 1960s and 70s, you will notice that the goalkeeper of this era is a more mild and resigned sort of person in the face of personal failure. After Georgie Best or Jimmy Greaves has sashayed round him and slipped the ball home, our isolated chum will invariably plod into the back of the net and simply tidy up his goal by kicking the ball downfield for the restart. It is as if he is thinking: “Well, this was bound to happen sooner or later. The ball is round, several people out there are intent on getting it into my net. I’m surprised this type of thing doesn’t happen more often.” There is no finger-pointing, no petit mort of the goalmouth lie-down, just a gentlemanly acceptance of the inevitable. Gradually, pioneering individuals such as Gary Sprake would introduce a bit of hands-on-hips action as an aperitif, but it was still a case of fumbling around for the ball afterwards and getting on with the game.

The Wounded Soldier
A very common position adopted by the man who cannot face his team-mates. Here, the goalkeeper lies flat on his stomach, waiting for his manager’s screams to die on the air and until his scary central-defender captain has wandered away for the kick-off. A variation on the completely prostrate position has the heels brought up towards the buttocks, signifying complete submission to the goal event. A further variant, the slow sinking to the knees, is best left to the experienced soft-goal conceder. David James, for one, has turned this reaction into a homoerotic art form. “Playing possum”, another related position in which the defeated keeper lies entirely inert, is viewed by behavioural psychologists as “a bit much”.

The Marionette
A lesser-seen response, characterised by wobbling legs and a clownish tottering dance on the goalline. Occasionally witnessed after a long-range screamer, the Marionette more often follows an extremely close-range header in lieu of an actual attempt to stop the ball. The perpetrator, by going flaccid, hopes to convey that the goal is an elemental force and has nothing to do with his hesitation over coming for the cross.

The Berserker

Nowadays, however, we live in a deeply litigious society. The new “culture of blame” goalkeepers – from Peter Shilton through Peter Schmeichel to just about everybody nowadays – greet every goal conceded with a writhing, ­painful fury directed at their entire defence. Glove-thumping, arm-­waving, stiff marching and bellowing are characteristic of this type, regardless of whether it is, in fact, any defender’s fault. This is merely a deflecting device to move attention away from where the ball is and who was actually nearest to it when it impregnated the net. Conjurors use the same basic technique while inserting a golf ball into your mouth while you’re telling them you work at a ­florist’s in Daventry.

French Lieutenant’s Keeper

An outcast, a pariah, the French Lieutenant’s Goalkeeper walks sightlessly to the edge of his area, a sea of noise all around him, and waits for deliverance from his private hell. He shows no anger, no remorse – but deeply ingrained on his face it is possible to remark the slow passage of pain through his body. Outwardly, he is calm. Inside, a torrent of self-loathing swells, which will culminate in his purchase of a Katie Melua album and a chocolate leather sofa on Tuesday afternoon. A classic example of this type can be seen in Peter Enckelman’s dead-eyed ramble upon allowing a defensive throw-in from his Villa team-mate Olof Mellberg under his foot and in. To many, the goalkeeper cuts a romantic, unknowable figure in this mood. To others, he is just wandering towards his 18-yard line to put as much distance as possible between himself and the seething hordes.

The Park Bench
“I sit and watch as tears go by…” sang Mick Jagger, as he sat and watched the children play, which you could do in the old days. Viewed at its best on a muddy pitch in an FA Cup third-round game, the Park Bench is the favoured position of the contemplative outsider. Here the individual seats himself in the goalmouth, knees up, hands clasped at the ankles, with a philosophical expression denoting an awareness of the cycle of life. Some even introduce an element of irony and self-deprecation into the look – best achieved on the more rough-hewn faces of a Steve Ogrizovic or Paddy Kenny – but this is not advisable unless you are quite confident of your place in the team, as many managers see a sense of humour in a goalkeeper in terms of an extra ten goals‑against per season.

Freudian Displacer
Angry at himself, his defence, or possibly his manager for putting him in this situation in the first place, the Freudian Displacer lashes out. Sigmund Freud states that when a man is told by his employer to dress as a milkmaid for Red Nose Day, instead of harming his career by ­confronting his tormentor, the victim swallows the bile and releases the tension much later by strangling the office hamster. Similarly, the boiling goalkeeper finds consolation in four main ways: kicking the post very hard (using the instep, not the toe), hacking a clump of mud into the ether, savagely hoofing the ball back whence it came, or, if in the prone position, beating at the earth that is our mother. It is terrible to witness a gloved adult beating at the earth in anguish, but we must remember that he is at least financially secure at the end of the day.

The Sweary Mary
The Sweary Mary may be used as a supplementary to another reaction or on its own. Having returned the ball upfield, the keeper confines himself to glowering and pacing until, succumbing to the unmasterable emotions within, he clearly mouths “fuck it” at the indifferent turf. Invariably this outburst is accompanied by a rather savage pecking movement of the head, suggesting a genuine distress that, in another situation, would be exhibited by soft weeping in a chair. It is much better to be seen swearing than softly weeping by your fans, because crying is viewed by the majority as an inappropriate response to conceding a goal. However, many of us who pay more than £40 for a ticket might like to see some real remorse now and then.

From WSC 241 March 2007. What was happening this month