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26 September 2018

They used to be mocked and shunned – but now goalies are going for serious cash

They sat on their own at the back of the bus, considered either stupid or mad. 

By Hunter Davies

All transfer fees in football are mad, always have been. They thought the world had gone potty in 1905 when the first four-figure transfer took place, Alf Common going from Sunderland to Middlesbrough for a fee of – oh lor, oh blimey, they couldn’t believe it – £1,000. The back pages declared it was the end of football as we knew it, the game ruined.

Over the decades, footballers’ salaries have also led to endless tut-tutting, even during this period of maximum wages. We experts on the terraces always knew there were back-handers – half a crown and a packet of Woodbine in their boots after the game.

At the moment, our highest-paid player is Alexis Sanchez of Man Utd, supposedly earning £315,000 per week. Or it could be per day. My eyes go glazed when these figures get trotted out. If I were a Man United fan, I would be thinking: what a waste of money. He was good at Arsenal, and did well to get out when he did.

What is surprising this season is that a hitherto modestly rewarded species of the football form has been changing hands for enormous sums: goalies.

Traditionally, goalkeeping was a rubbish job, the worst position on the pitch. In the playground you got put in goal if you were a lump, couldn’t pass or dribble. If no one would go in, you all had to take it in turns, which was horrible, ugh.

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Goalkeepers resented their lowly status and could turn temperamental, had to be handled with care. When I played on Sunday mornings for Dartmouth Park United, a dads’ team on Hampstead Heath, we had a goalie called Stanley who was useless, and weedy, not even a lump, but on his day he could be jolly brave and dive at the feet of the opposition lumps. But at the slightest hint of criticism, it was gloves off and he was away, in the middle of a game. We would plead with him, “Please, please, Stanley, come back”, running down Parly Hill after him and his wife. She always stood behind the goal, applauding his every save, sharing his own fantasy that he was the most brilliant goalie ever.

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In the professional game, goalies were mocked and ridiculed, if only behind their backs, as they tended to be enormous. They sat on their own at the back of the bus, considered either stupid or mad. The best they could rise to was as a “character”, such as Bruce Grobbelaar at Liverpool.

Pat Jennings, the excellent Spurs goalie, was neither stupid nor mad, but he was very quiet and a bit of a loner. I used to talk to him in the dressing room after games and he always said the same thing – his head was thumping. Having to concentrate for 90 minutes gave him the most awful headache.

Goalies know that if there’s one mistake, that’s it, you take the blame. Yet half the time they have no idea what is happening in front of them. Next time you watch a game from behind a goal, look down the pitch and what can you see? Bugger all. The bottom half has no shape or content, just flat figures on a horizon. Then wham, out of nowhere, the ball is in your net.

It is partly thanks to Pep Guardiola that the fashion now is for ball-playing goalies, who don’t just thump it as far as possible. This was always stupid, had me screaming. It is always at least a 50-50 chance that it will go to the opposition. Yet for at least 100 years, that’s what goalies did.

Modern managers want their goalies to pass it out from the back, not belt it up, to start a move by carefully throwing or gently passing the ball to one of their defenders. They have, therefore, to be able to survive being tackled, which not all can do. We have had some good larfs this season when star goalies have tried to be too clever and ended up falling over or losing the ball.

They have to have ball skills, to be able to pass intelligently and accurately, and the ones that can do so are at a premium, hence the sudden record fees for goalies. This season the previous world record has been doubled twice, both times in the Prem, with Chelsea paying £71m for Kepa and Liverpool £67m for Alisson. These days, goalies are not dumb.

This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis