Gazette: Historical Notes

Britain in goal - not spectacular but safe
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The Independent Culture
MY DAD had played in goal when he was at school: "always good with my own company", he said. In a country family of seven brothers, his two nearest in age died very young and he was used to getting on with things on his own.

At the age of eight he suffered paralysis and nearly died from what people came to believe was polio. Over a period of weeks he fought a lone and fevered battle with the question of whether he was to drop off this mortal coil. The family and town doctor didn't expect him to survive. When he did, by their and his own reckoning, he had been those few yards beyond normal experience.

He liked goalkeeping for its occasional spectacular moments. At such times you went through the air knowing you were going to save what, to team mates and opposition alike, was an unstoppable shot bound for the corner of your net. The co- ordination of mind and body was enough to make you smile, even laugh, as you experienced it. But, overall, it was best not to flaunt things. They had to be done properly; in other words not overdone. The best keepers were "spectacular but safe".

In British goalkeeping the first half of the Thirties was the era of Harry Hibbs of Birmingham City. Over five years Harry won 25 caps for England, seeing off all challengers for the position. His first international came the year after some major shocks to the system. As if the Wall Street Crash was not enough, England's first defeat abroad had deepened the depression. It was one thing to be beaten by the Scots - 22 times since the countries had first played each other in 1872 - but it was quite novel to be humbled by the "continentals". In the game we had invented Spain did the dirty, 4-3 in Madrid.

This was equivalent to bullfighting's finest rolling up at Wembley from the estancias of Castille to be humiliated by a squad of upstart toreros from the backstreets of Huddersfield. Previous English excursions abroad had been largely confined to taking the steamer across the Channel to France or Belgium. We took our own match balls to counter the likelihood of foreign jiggery-pokery. How the Spaniards had managed to win was a source of national perplexity.

Hibbs was cannily suited to handle the uncertainties of the epoch, a man to lift the spirit by steadying the nerves. The weighty Encyclopaedia of Sport I received one Fifties Christmas - published by Messrs Sampson Low, Marston and Co for the children of the kingdom, dominions and empire - cast its magisterial gaze back a quarter of a century to approve his style as a subtle variation from that commended by my father. Harry was "safe rather than spectacular". At five feet nine inches, he was "on the short side for a goalkeeper" but compensated by his brilliant positional sense. As the ball was fired in he "gave the impression that forwards were shooting straight at him".

There was something very British about this knack. It was a part calculated, part natural detachment from the turmoil beyond and one which enabled ultimate control of it. Britain in the 1930s had withdrawn into itself, in an understated version of the old glories of "Splendid Isolation". As Harry surveyed the scene from his goalmouth, the nation observed gathering continental chaos. Hitler and Mussolini, in their uniforms, strutted and pranced around. Britain did not have the faintest idea what to do. This could not be easily admitted, least of all to ourselves, so it was important to conjure up the sense of a nation being quietly "there", in the right place should the need be. Hibbs personified the being there. Like Britain, he was also particularly good whenever required to face the strutters and prancers.

Harry's skills were most marked, said my encyclopaedia, "against a continental side which included a showy keeper".

Peter Chapman is the author of `The Goalkeeper's History of Britain' (Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99)