The Outsider, by Jonathan Wilson

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The Independent Culture

In what is quintessentially a team pursuit, the goalkeeper is an anomaly, the one player left in isolation for much of the game, "aloof, solitary, impassive", in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, one of many literary figures to have stood between the posts.

Jonathan Wilson traces how goalkeeping evolved from being a despised position, the province of public school "funk-sticks" too cowardly to take part in the manly shin-kicking up front, to one often occupied by the most physically imposing men on the pitch.

The cast of characters often reinforces the image of the goalie as being slightly crazed or, in the case of David Icke, who progressed (regressed?) from the No 1 shirt at Hereford United to believing that mankind is being controlled by a secret race of reptiles, deeply crazed.

Yet this is far more than a ragbag of eccentrics; the ever-readable Wilson explores the psychological pressures of being cast in the role of scapegoat, taking the blame for other defenders' errors or forwards' inability to score, and takes an in-depth look at the theories behind penalty-taking and saving, concluding that it is the one situation in which the keeper cannot lose – if he keeps the ball out, he is a hero; if he doesn't, it was only to be expected.

Thought-provoking, full of interesting detail – did you know that the size of the goal hasn't changed since 1866? – this book scores on every level, though goalkeepers themselves might prefer another metaphor.

Published in hardback by Orion, £20