Few understand the appeal of playing in goal. It’s an acquired taste and in many ways a masochistic experience. You get battered regularly and find yourself in periods of dark isolation. You are the chosen one bestowed with the sacred power of hand use in a game whose exclusive selling point is the use of feet, you are the team freak by default. Such special pitch status means you are only one fumble away from damnation. You are the whipping boy, the scape goat, the hunchback of Notre Dam. Oh but the upsides! The spoils of battle, the glory of winning a penalty shootout or pulling off a miraculous reflex save to the acclaim of onlookers, that is why we do it, we are narcissists.
My own performances in goal (no higher than University level) were as much a reflection of my mental health condition and confidence levels at a given time than the result of a training regime. Successful goalkeeping is far more a consequence of good instincts and positive cognitive energies as it is refining yourself in to a “trained product” as Zlatan described Cristiano Ronaldo. My own flirtations with mental health problems probably best explain my own performances in goal. At my best I stepped on the pitch with a confident swagger, fearlessly diving at the feet of superior physical specimens to stop conceding at all costs. At my worst I was a yielding coward, a hesitant wreck that would claim a cross with the conviction and authority of a snapped Peperami. The worst thing about those periods is you know fatalistically what is coming, but you stand there duty bound paralysed by fear. You remonstrate with yourself, “CONCENTRATE! BE CONFIDENT!” but you know inside it’s futile. A dark sprite of malevolence within whispers, “you’re going to fuck up son, you aren’t up to this today”. At my lowest in my teens my centre back approached me and said “Josh, you used to be fucking crazy (in a good way), what happened to you?” To no longer be regarded as boarder line insane for a goalkeeper is the ultimate insult…
My experiences persuade me that goalkeeping can amount to a form of real mental torture. I watch goalkeepers at the top level in front of tens of thousands of scrutinisers with a sick curiosity. I simply cannot imagine how they cope, however habitual it may be. Admittedly the exhilaration of performing heroics to thunderous admiration is surely unsurpassable (unless you try the Adrian Mutu method), yet the lows must be horrendous. A goalkeeper is unable to hide in the comforting camouflage of ten outfield team mates in identical shirts. I seriously believe without wishing to express hyperbole, that the long term consequences of such lulls in form, or high profile mistakes, may lead to serious mental health disorders. Myself playing in front of 21 male peers and feeling fragile was one thing, but 60,000+, the world beyond, and the ensuing barrage of critical savagery from the national media is another thing entirely.
Make no mistake, Joe Hart is a fantastic goalkeeper, I’m something of a connoisseur on the subject. He has a dose of arrogance that is essential, he’s commanding, has fantastic distribution and absent David de Gea few can match his shot stopping abilities. For so long he was the darling of English goalkeepers, our Obi Wan Kenobi, our only hope, the exception to the rule that goalkeepers rarely peek until their early 30’s. Yet now he finds himself impaled on a scathing nationalist sword of condemnation. A victim of the age old rule of British sports journalism; build em up fast and smash them down as hard and fast as possible. There really does seem to be a cult of critical savagery against national football icons in our country. You almost sense the gleeful zeal as journos mentally mutilate the already confidence deficient. They behave like those despicable parents I recall in my youth who lambasted small children during games for failing to meet their own high expectations/personal fantasies. How refreshing it would be to hear a prominent national journalist ask, how can we support Joe Hart? Instead they react like predictable simpletons – the hall mark of their profession increasingly seeming to be stating the obvious, “ball go in goal, Joe Hart bad, did not stop goal, stop him play!”. If an otherwise exemplary driver was in a car crash we wouldn’t stand back and shout over to the beleaguered victim “fucking hell mate, you’ve made a right old mess of that, you are shit!”
Joe Hart’s fantastic ability is indisputable, even if currently lurking beneath a shaky surface. Yet all too often in football a residual serpent’s head rears up and exposes a cold dumb brute masculinity: careless, compassionless, unsympathetic and believes it virtuous to crucify in public in the pursuit of a survival of the fittest vision of a football dream team. They care nothing for long term perspective nor former service, they only demand to be instantly gratified with an impatience for anything less than perfection. The tale of the hyper self-critical German goalkeeper Robert Enke and his resulting suicide is a cautionary one. Although his death was not exclusively the result of football pressures it at least partly demonstrates how a normalised culture of criticism can lead to devastating outcomes, again vividly demonstrated in Clarke Carlisle’s documentary on football related depression. So we have two options: we can either collectively drop kick Hart whilst on the deck, or we can help pick him back up, restore his confidence and improve football’s culture in the process. We need only look at Aaron Ramsey this season for evidence that writing off a struggling player can be proved horribly short sighted.