In praise of subs, by Matthew Syed

Goalkeepers are undervalued and invisible heroes

MATTHEW SYED

From The Times May 30 2017, 9:00am

Last week, I wrote a feature about the Lisbon Lions centred on Stevie Chalmers, my wife’s great-uncle, who scored the winning goal in the 1967 European Cup final. The article charted the thrilling back story of Celtic’s victory over Inter Milan and the solidarity between the team-mates that underpinned it.

But there was a howler in my copy. Near the top, I had identified the wrong person as having set up the goal. This was probably the most famous assist in Scottish football history, a powerful shot from the left, but I had named the wrong man (Tommy Gemmell rather than Bobby Murdoch) as having made it. It was the kind of error that would have provoked dozens of letters, a printed correction, perhaps an irritated email from the sports editor. And yet the mistake never made it into print.

I was saved by a brilliant sub-editor. He had not only picked up this mistake, but another, smaller one too. This is the daily job of subs, sparing the embarrassment of writers, sending questionable remarks to the duty lawyer, and safeguarding the most important commodity of any newspaper: its credibility. Sub-editors get noticed when they allow a mistake to get through. Most of the time, day after day, often against the tightest of deadlines, they patiently, and invisibly, sustain the entire business model upon which newspapers depend.

I was thinking of all this in the context of the role of the goalkeeper in football. For they too rarely get noticed when they have a terrific game. The most outstanding players in this crucial position are masters of positioning, standing at precisely the right angle and distance from the line to minimise the available space either side. Through comprehension of time and space, they force the strikers to hit harder and with a narrower margin for error, which means that the shots often go wide.

I remember interviewing Peter Shilton in 2007, and the former England goalkeeper, who played a record 125 times for his country, talked about a match in which he had played so well, narrowing the angles, intimidating the strikers, that there were only two attempts on target. “I had one of my best games,” he said, “but I don’t think I was mentioned in a single match report.”

Yet the moment a goalkeeper makes a mistake, he hits the headlines: a dropped cross, a shot that squeezes through his legs, a punched clearance that lands at the feet of an opposition striker. These are guaranteed to make the highlight reel and trigger the wrath of pundits, most of whom were outfield players. When Robert Green, the England goalkeeper, let a shot from Clint Dempsey, of the United States, through his crumpled body at the 2010 World Cup, Newsnight very nearly opened on the story.

Green allows a shot to slip past him at the 2010 World Cup, a mistake which defined his international career

MICHAEL SOHN/AP

Doesn’t this explain the systematic undervaluation of goalkeepers? Of the 100 most expensive transfers in history, only one is a goalkeeper. If Manchester City sign Ederson from Benfica for about £35 million, as expected, he would become the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, but at less than half the price that Manchester United paid for Paul Pogba. Only one goalkeeper has won the Ballon d’Or since its inception in 1956 — Lev Yashin, of Dynamo Moscow and the Soviet Union, in 1963. When Manuel Neuer made the shortlist in 2014, he was the first goalkeeper to make the last three for almost a decade.

This is, on the face of it, extraordinary. Goalkeepers are pivotal to the success of any aspiring team. Is it any coincidence that Sir Alex Ferguson secured his greatest achievements when Peter Schmeichel and later Edwin van der Sar were in the Manchester United line-up? I once spent a weekend watching recordings of games from the treble-winning season of 1998-99 and the mastery of Schmeichel, and the resilience he transmitted to the side, was subtle but, by the end, unmistakable. The Dane blocked, parried and roused, and added almost unbreakable mortar to a fabulous back line.

Like great sub-editors, then, goalkeepers are the bulwarks of the operation. Brian Clough, one of the few managers who grasped that while a save may not be as eye-catching as a goal, it has the same net effect on the scoreline, put it simply. “With Shilton in goal it gave everyone more confidence,” he told Duncan Hamilton, who wrote a book about his time covering Nottingham Forest during their glory years. “It spread through the side . . . the defenders felt safer, and the forwards thought if we could nick a goal there was more than an evens chance that the opposition wouldn’t score at the other end.”

Neuer, the Bayern Munich goalkeeper, made the shortlist for the Ballon d’Or in 2014 but a goalkeepers’ inclusion is rare

CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES

While strikers and columnists get the glory, it is the goalkeepers and sub-editors who keep them in business. The latter are undervalued, not because they are any less important, but because of the perceptual imbalance within which they operate. Goalkeepers are noticed disproportionately for the goals they concede, but not for those they stop, just as subs are conspicuous for the occasional error they let through, rather than for the thousands they prevent. Let us call this the “visibility gap”.

It is not coincidental that the position of goalkeeper has attracted many iconoclasts. Albert Camus, the author, played for the Racing Universitaire Algerios junior team, and stated: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.” Pope John Paul II played between the sticks for Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, and Vladimir Nabokov, the author, did likewise at Cambridge. Niels Bohr, the quantum physicist, played for Akademisk Boldklub, the Danish team.

The significance of the goalkeeper is, if anything, growing. A modern one is expected not only to stop the ball, but to clear with both feet, distribute with aplomb, and (under some managers) step forward into a quasi-sweeper role. Over the past 25 years, since the banning of the goalkeeper handling the back-pass, we have probably seen the most rapid evolution in the role. As Shilton told me: “The goalkeeper is sometimes thought of as a simple job compared to an outfield player, but there are so many different dimensions you have to master if you want to be world class.”

And yet goalkeepers will, I suspect, continue to be undervalued, just like so many other professions that suffer from a visibility gap. The security services, for example, are rarely commended for the dozens of terrorist plots that they foil, but are invariably condemned for the one that tragically happens. Likewise, wicketkeepers do not tend to receive plaudits for the hundreds of times they safely cup the ball, but get berated for the one that slips through for byes. Different jobs, with hugely different significance, but each characterised by the same essential contrast.

The lesson, perhaps, is that we need to learn to value (and reward) the prevention of negative consequences, just as we esteem the creation of positive ones. If we could do that, it is not only football that would change in all sorts of benign and philosophically interesting ways, but the wider world too.


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CFJ 52 minutes ago

Thank you for a very perceptive piece.

Can I add social workers to the list of those who, when they get it right (almost all the time) are only doing their jobs but are pilloried if they make a mistake.


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sultan 2 hours ago

Today's strikers, despite training and practising 6 days a week, often seem to shoot straight at the keeper!

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Martin Townshend 3 hours ago

Some jobs are measured in black marks and others in gold stars. As you describe, in the former job type, the perception is that best one can do is to avoid being awarded any black marks. Normally all the glory goes to those who have the potential to be awarded gold stars.

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dilys syed 3 hours ago

Brilliant article. Perhaps the lack of comments is also a reflection of how little goalkeepers are noticed and appreciated!

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Keith Hawes 2 hours ago

@dilys syed Sadly true

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Chris Roman 23 hours ago

A good point Mr Syed. The modern keeper is supposed to be the defensive everyman but of course the more there is demanded of him, the more opportunities there are to fall shot of expectations. Ask Man City about the one they let go and the one they will replace this year. Surprising though this piece does not mention Tommy Lawrence who was really the father of the goalie/sweeper role. It allowed the defenders to take a higher line and compensated for the lack of pace of Ron Yeats.

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