The Goalkeeper’s History of Britain

John Williams comes off his line smartly to grab a chunk of goalkeeping history

I’m not sure how it is with you, but when I think back to childhood footballing days, things seem decidedly hazy. Detailed accounts of the hours we spent playing and watching are pretty much beyond me now.

More’s the pity. Childhood football memories, lavishly and lovingly recalled, are now the basis of complex treatises on the decline of organised religion, the rise of post-war individualism, the recent commercialisation of football or the failings of familial bon­ding. A number connect all of them. Some are also linked strongly to club affiliation – Nick Hornby on Arsenal, Colin Schindler on Man City, Alan Edge on Liverpool and, more recently, Nick Varley on Leeds.

Most of these accounts ride the nostalgia wave for a time when lads played happily till dusk between coats for goals and gathered at matches on the terraces or, better, in the Boys Pen, while fathers and uncles tried desperately to make sense of what exactly it is that ties them to their sons and them all to football. We await the arrival of the first real female football confessional, but it can’t be too long coming.

Peter Chapman’s entertaining and inventive book has things in common with all the above. It draws on personal accounts and boyhood hopes, but it also has a much wider canvas, namely a reading, no less, of our recent social history drawn from the doughty British goalkeeper’s penalty area. For this reason it has a kind of JG Ballard feel of post-war awakening and decline.

When did it all start to go wrong for the British? When keepers left their goal-lines to play around with angles, of course, and when the quiet steadfastness which characterised British goalies of the 1930s began to give way to signs of continental flashiness and a less distinctive role.

On this, Chapman is both perceptive and illuminating. For example, Birmingham’s international keeper of the 1930s, Harry Hibbs, shows the natural detachment, the splendid isolation and sense of being in the right place at the right time, which sums up British phlegm in the face of the rising aggression of Germany and Italy. His successors Frank Swift and Bert Williams are innovators in their own way – Swift pioneered throwing the ball out, something he had picked up from water polo – but are nevertheless similarly unspectacular, brave and sure. Charlton’s uncapped Sam Bartram is widely condemned, with gentle but insistent xenophobia, for his “flashy” con­tinental affectation.

Solid and reliable England cap Gil Merrick (nicknamed “the clutch” for his origins in the motor midlands) seems the model of the British post-war man. He is dark and sleek, “one of the few goalkeepers in the Football League,” we learn in a Wembley programme, “who has a mous­tache.”

While Nat Lofthouse is terrifying edgy for­eign keepers on crosses in the early 1950s, our own breed stand firm. Merrick is “the man at the back”, our response to a changing and threatening world in which our football and political pre-eminence is slipping; one in which if you leave your line you had better make sure you can get back. If the British can no longer promise, “to win every title on offer abroad, then at least [we can] stay unbeaten at home”.

Puskas and his pals finally put that particular myth to rest in 1953 at Wembley, putting six past the hapless Merrick. But the Austrians and others were already ridiculing our methods, our lack of tactics, even our kit. By the early 1960s the “desperate courage” of our goalkeepers, a phrase coined by Bill Shankly to describe Ray Clemence, was rendered less effective, as barging and charging were outlawed.

Yashin now cast his dark shadow. Later, the four steps rule and the need for goalies to kick means they are relied on less and less to bravely create calm out of chaos in the penalty area war zone. Now they are more foot soldiers, simply part of the defensive shield. Chapman describes well how the new kicking game eventually retires even Peter Shilton.

Shilton is a man of his Thatcherite times, an obsessive driven by an almost inhuman drive for perfection, and by cash. By the 1990s keepers are reduced more and more to performing shot-stop­pers, the potential heroes and TV celebrities of penalty shoot-outs and the bearers of increasingly outrageous garb. By this time we all knew things had changed, and not just for the goal-tenders.

You may prefer, of course, not to try to interpret the end of history via an account of the journey from Hibbs to Seaman and the current foreign crop in England. Indeed, the Arsenal man actually seems more a figure of the 1930s than one truly at home in the media-saturated and cosmopolitan 1990s.

You may also balk at the “I saw the 1970 game ag­ainst West Germany in a bar in Casablanca” school of football reminiscence. I’m with you on that, and there is more than a bit of it in Chapman’s tale. But, importantly, he is also a goalkeeper himself. This probably accounts both for his stout defence of Peter Bonetti in León and for his wonderful description and explanation of the Banks save in Guadalajara.

Personally, I used to be with Alan Hansen on goalkeepers: I expected them to save everything. Now I’m not so sure. As Chapman points out, they certainly used to symbolise endurance. They were the men who simply had to get on with it no matter the flying torsos, the elbows and kicks.

These were silent British stoics who, insanely, tried to hold the ball, not punch it back into untold danger. Like Britain itself, they were quiet defenders of the status quo. Their time, post Peter Schmeichel and his mates, may well be done. You tell me. Great book.

From WSC 150 August 1999. What was happening this month