On the First Day of Christmas: A List of Number Ones

“Number Ones”.  Goalkeepers, if you will.  Often seen as the loon-ball clown-princes of soccer.

When they do what they do well, they’re heroes.  Unlike forwards who can erase a succession of gaffes with a goal, one mistake and they’re in trouble.

What follows are some brief thoughts and memories on goalies and a selection of my favourites in the position.

‘Quirky’ Moments in Goalkeeping

Rene Higuita, lived the craziness by performing unnecessarily elaborate scorpion kicks and occasionally suicidal dribbles up-field.  He was the victim of a different type of insanity back in 1993 when he was imprisoned after running afoul of Colombia’s kidnapping laws.  As terrible as that may sound, Higuita actually aided in the release of an 11-year-old girl.  He only got into trouble when he accepted $50,000 from the her wealthy parents as a token of their thanks.  This was seen by authorities as a violation of a strict new law on profiting from kidnapping.

Jose Luis Chilaverts had a famous penchant for scoring direct free kicks, sometimes from ludicrously long-range.

Jorge Campos was known for being a half-decent forward and even played out the last season of his career in that position.  He also fancied himself as a fashion designer, though if his self-designed goalkeeper kits were anything to go by, the only person investing in his couture would be Timmy Mallett (if you’re not British, Google or YouTube).

Bruce Grobbelaar famously put off Liverpool’s Roma opponents during the 1984 European Cup final penalty shoot-out by biting the net and wobbling his knees, then got caught discussing match-fixing with an undercover journalist.

He then got cleared, successfully sued The Sun for libel, only for them to appeal and have the House of Lords bankrupt him by reducing the settlement to £1 and asking him to pay £500k in opponents court fees.  Your level of sympathy will hinge on whether or not you bought his claim that he was only meeting match-fixers, in an unprompted  personal campaign to gather evidence for the police.

Dave Beasant once infamously broke his own foot when a bottle of ketchup slipped out of his hand.  Given some of his more calamitous performances (to be fair, he also had good streaks) it came as a surprise to nobody.

While attending a viewing get-together for England vs USA in World Cup 2010, I embarked on the most enraged, expletive-laced tirade I’ve ever gone on in front of complete strangers in a private residence, when Robert Green displayed a grip like Teflon (other non-stick materials are available) in spilling a speculative Clint Dempsey shot over the line and costing England two points.

While being odd, or having calamitous moments and being great ‘keepers aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, here are my most fondly remembered goalies:

Donovan Ricketts (LA Galaxy)

As this is the season of good will to all men, I’m going to temporarily forget that Ricketts’ 2015 return to the Galaxy ever happened.

A charismatic player who would happily acknowledge the Riot Squad’s “Buffalo Soldier” rendition (spontaneously broken into whenever he pulled off a save) with an enthusiastic thumb’s up, the man sprung about the goalmouth like an enormous gazelle.

A consummate showman who deliberately made the simplest saves look spectacular, there was more to his game than just flash.  He was an intelligent goalie and skilled shot-stopper, who saved the Galaxy’s skin on numerous occasions.

He was also a sly bugger.  I still remember the knots in my stomach the first time he appeared to fall heavily after a save.  Writhing on the floor, he hastily hurled the ball out of play as physios rushed on to tend to his injury.  It was a time-wasting trick we’d become familiar with.  After being shepherded to the sideline, he’d quickly ‘recover’ and jog fresh and sprightly back onto the field.

A good run from Josh Saunders during a legitimate injury saw the Galaxy part company with the higher-paid Ricketts, such is the nature of juggling rosters in a salary-capped world.  Josh wouldn’t fare as well the following season and even though we’ve seen decent net-minders like Jaime Penedo and Brian Rowe between the sticks since, I don’t think any of them quite come up to the standard of Ricketts in his LA Galaxy prime.

Les Sealey (Man United)

I mention the late Les Sealey not as an amazing goalkeeper or superstar but as a hero of Man United folklore.

Anybody who followed United as far back as the early nineties, will know him as the hero of the 1990 FA Cup Final Replay.  In fact, if you don’t know him for that, you need to brush up on your United history.

My enduring memory of the classic first game was my Dad walking into the house.  He’d been listening to the match on the radio at work and had rushed home to catch the end of the match, which I was watching with my Mum, Uncle and younger borther.  Not realizing that extra time had started (it was 2-2 after 90 minutes), Dad walked in to see first choice goalie Jim Leighton bottle out on closing down Ian Wright, whose shinned shot put Crystal Palace up 3-2.

“Well that’s it…” he said sullenly.  Imagine his relief when he realized we still had half an hour left.  As usual, it was Mark Hughes who came up with the vital goal, tying the game.

Leighton was famously dropped by Fergie for the replay and saw the beginning of the end of his United career as Les Sealey played an absolute blinder.  United won 1-0 after a number of memorable saves.  As usual, the winner was scored by… Lee Martin.

(I’m suddenly aware that the last two paragraphs are probably the most “working class English” I’ve written since emigrating)

Sealey had a year as first choice, culminating in the 1991 Cup Winners Cup final victory and with Alex Ferguson’s job as United manager allegedly saved, he moved on to Aston Villa, before returning for a short spell as cover for some Danish bloke…

Peter Schmeichel (Man United)

Tall of stature, huge of hands, red of nose and red-hot of temper, Peter Schmeichel is quite possibly, the best goalkeeper that ever lived.

Perhaps I’m biased.  Perhaps it’s just rose-coloured glasses.  It cannot be denied though, that the chasm that was left after his departure in 1999 amounted to far more than the physical space between Man United’s goalposts.

Not until Edwin Van Der Sar joined from Fulham six years later, was the void adequately filled.

Signed in 1991 prior to shooting to fame in Denmark’s fairy-tale Euro ’92 victory (a tournament they technically hadn’t initially qualified for), Fergie described his 500k transfer fee as the bargain of the century.

If there was ever a blend of eccentricity, natural talent and quick witted-ness, Schmeichel had it.  He’d produce traditional athletic saves.  He was an expert at closing down oncoming attackers.  He would contort his ample frame into all manner of ad-libbed arrangements in the blink of an eye.  It wasn’t unusual to see him perform awkward-looking star jumps, his outstretched limbs frustrating a host of opponents.

Possibly his greatest save came against Rapid Vienna.  With Schmikes already airborne, a ball was nodded down towards the goal-line.  Somehow, the Dane managed to shift his position, almost turning upside down as his huge hand slid under the ball and looped it over the bar.

Schmeichel ruled his penalty area like a tyrant.  I don’t think I’ve seen a goalkeeper so commanding at plucking a cross out of the air (sometimes one-handed) but it was his attitude too.  So good was he at handling one-on-ones (Andy Gray often referred to it as “making himself huge”) that getting past United’s back-line was no guarantee of a goal.

Despite this, he didn’t receive these moments gladly.  Whether it was the legendary center-back partnership of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, or some other duo, the Great Dane thought little of angrily berating them when they gave up chances.  It was the only time his face and nose would be the same colour.

Then there was his penchant for coming up for corners late in games if a goal was needed.  This isn’t that unusual these days but Schmeichel helped pioneer the practice.  The majority of the time, he served as little more than a distraction for the opposing defence.  On occasion however, he would get a touch on the ball, none more famously than in a match against Rotor Volgograd.  He forced home a header to level the game 2-2.  Sadly, it counted for nought, as the game ended that way, eliminating United on away goals.

And I haven’t got into his monumental long throws that set off a Man United counter attack.

His departure finally came after the 1999 treble was secured.  He’d captained the team in the Champions League final – a game famous for United coming back from a goal down with two late goals.  Both came from corners, the first as usual featuring him in the Bayern Munich box.  He stayed in his goal for the second, then stole the show with a cartwheel as Ole Gunner Solskjaer netted the winner.

David De Gea (Man United)

Sorry Dave, you’re following Schmeichel on the list.  My apologies if my lyrical wax is running low.

When De Gea arrived at United as the most expensive goalkeeper in football history, much was expected.  Initially he didn’t deliver.  A Man United-supporting colleague of mine not-so-affectioanetly nicknamed him “Lambchop” for his enormous sideburns.

Voluminous though they were, they weren’t as large as his Premiership growing pains.

Coming from Spain, where football is more technical, less physical and huddling around a keeper on corners isn’t the norm, De Gea looked lightweight and flimsy in dealing with any kind of cross.  For about one season, he was a liability.  Anders Lindegaard even took his place for a while.  There were hints in his reaction saves however, of his potential.

Since then, DDG hasn’t looked back.

Over time, he grew into the role, learning how to handle a bustling and jostling English penalty area and quite frankly has been Man United’s star player since Fergie left.

Even as the team has struggled to adapt under new managers, De Gea has been a lifesaver on more occasions than I care to count.  However far from grace Man Utd fans feel we’ve fell, it would certainly have been uglier if he wasn’t there with his one-man show to make saves that he has no business making, often resulting in wins and draws the team had no business getting.

If there has been an impressive run or set of results since his second season, he’s typically been at the heart of it.  When Real Madrid came knocking and David De Gea was keen on answering, the team pulled out all the stops to keep him.

In my view he has been the most important player in the squad since 2013.

Did I wax lyrical enough Dave?

Mike Magee (LA Galaxy)

No disrespect to any other goalkeeper in the world, past or present but Magee’s single game in goal for LA Galaxy is now so ingrained in the club’s folklore that it just wouldn’t be right to do a post on goalies without mentioning him.

It was an away match against their bitter rivals, the San Jose Earthquakes in 2011.  Donovan Ricketts had gone off early with a serious injury.  Josh Saunders had got into a confrontation with world’s least favourite Cabbage Patch Kid Stephen Lenhart, who reacted to a hand brushing his face in a manner that would have made Sergio Busquets blush.

A red card was shown and LA Galaxy was all out of keepers. There were still 47 minutes to play.

This was very much Mike Magee’s breakout moment for the Galaxy.  It would coincide with a change in form that saw him go from drawing scorn from everyone from me to Corner of the Galaxy producer & host  Josh Guesman as a mediocre, frustrating journeyman-in-waiting, to an impressive clutch player and cult legend.

Today however, is about goalkeeping.  Needless to say, he kept the Smurfs onslaught at bay with an unorthodox approach to ‘keeping, most accurately described as “just get something in front of the ball”.  It was only a draw but Magee became the only Galaxy keeper never to concede a goal.

Within a year we were attributing deity like characteristics to the man.

Josh Guesman has apparently apologised to him in person numerous times since.

 

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