Harry Mottram in Dodgy Keeper

In 2008 Stretchmark Theatre produced the one man show Dodgy Keeper. This is an essay written at the time on the theme of goalkeepers, goalkeeping and dodgy goalkeepers in particular.

Goalkeeping and dodgy goalies

As Joe Royle once said, “all goalkeepers are mad.” Nobody except a fool, a lunatic or an eccentric wants to go in goal. You need to be one stud short of a boot. Not all there. Just look at Petr Cech (Chelsea). His skull is a patchwork of titanium – anyone normal would choose a slightly less physical sport following such head injuries – but not the iron man. And there was (and is) John Burridge whose career as a professional keeper lasted three decades – with a long list of injuries caused by the boots, elbows and knees of colliding strikers. Ouch.

Sylvester Stallone as an unlikely keeper of the sticks

So why go in goal? Well… due to the unpopularity of the position, you’ve got a good chance of having a game. First name on the team sheet, the keeper is the foundation of every team. True, they are cursed, criticised and condemned when things go wrong – and sacrificed like David James was for England. Treated as the fall-guy when the team is beaten by a freak goal – but in contrast is praised, pampered and prized when penalty shoot-outs are won. And it’s not unknown for a goalkeeper to score at the other end. Peter Schmeichel managed to net 13 times at the other end during his career in the Premiership. That’s more than many outfield players.

Fatty Foulke

But unlike many outfield players, the keeper only has to make one mistake to get noticed. You need a thick skin, a strong nerve and a maturity of character to see you through the mental and physical challenges that the position throws up. Which is why the keeper is often older than most of his or her team mates. Pat Jennings was 40 when Norman Whiteside joined the Northern Ireland squad at 16. Talk about men and boys. What on earth could they have found in common to talk about?

Pope John Paul II had previously played in goal in Poland

Why is it that the term “dodgy keeper” has become so universal an insult, when no other member of a football squad attracts such a label? Is it because that keepers are virtually the only player who could possibly influence a game? Well they think they can – but as in the case of Bristol Rover’s Esmond Million, that wasn’t as easy as it appeared. With their fabulous wages, you’d think they wouldn’t be tempted – but since the great Edwardian dodgy keeper, Happy Jack Hillman, the temptation is always there.

So who were the dodgiest keepers of all time? Well, there’s been a few candidates over the years. Jimmy Warner for Aston Villa was thought to have fixed the cup final against West Brom a century ago, while Dick Beattie of Portsmouth was involved in a betting syndicate. (And according to The Sun, so was Bruce Grobellaar). El Loco, the Columbian goalkeeper of the 1980s, did a spell in jail over a kidnapping while N’Kono of the Cameroun was banged up after he tried to use witchcraft to sway a game in the African Nation’s Cup. And then there are keepers like Mark Bosnich, who were considered dodgy for rather more recreational drug-using reasons. Or how about the late pope, John Paul II (Poland before the war), who had him upstairs on his side? Wasn’t that a bit dodgy?

Esmond Million

It all rather comes back to the original question of why go in goal in the first place. Perhaps, some of these lofty gents felt they needed a bit of extra financial rewards for al the insults they suffered and all the knocks that they took. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the craic. The thrill of knowing something about the game that the rest of team couldn’t guess at.

Peter Bonetti in action

Why? Why would anyone want to go in goal?

When outfield players run free and roam, the field in search of booted ball,

Nameless in space and place, clear fifty yards from responsibility’s call.

Their sharpened shouts of ‘pass and move’, ‘man on’ and ‘boot it long’.

Absolve these running puffing players, of any fault or any wrong.

Not for them the fear of one mistake, that costs the team a vital game,

The ‘keeper’s howler’ remembered, red-faced, in head-bowed shame.

For who would stand in sleet and fog, awaiting the captain’s call,

To leap and catch the half-scuffed shot, the skidding, muddied ball?

Or meet the sweating, reddened striker, boots, laces, flying mud,

Skinned, shinned, kicked and crunched, flesh torn by tearing stud.

But… to punt the ball from length to length and see it arc in greying sky,

Or clear the through pass back up field or punch a header high.

And flying flick that certain goal, past painted post, arms outstretched,

And reap the cheers, blokish hugs, and pints bought in respect.

Arh! Yes.

For every keeper knows that certain moment in their white-lined land,

When they rise, and grab the vicious volley,

And seize glory in both hands.

Harry Mottram