Fabien Barthez: The goalkeeper's fear of losing it

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Even though the Pope was a ferocious performer for his Polish seminary, and that most cerebral of novelists Albert Camus ached truly to master the art back in his native Algiers, goalkeepers have always had question marks placed against their mental stability. The writer Brian Glanville, for example, provoked scarcely a whimper of protest from the profession when he entitled a work Goalkeepers Are Different.

How different? How crazy? John Burridge, a much travelled English pro who played into his forties, had the alarming habit of dressing in his full kit, complete with gloves, before sitting down to watch Match of the Day. The controversial Bruce Grobbelaar left Liverpool's coaching staff aghast when he swung on the crossbar during his first game for the famous club, and they were not exactly reassured when he appeared on the field soon after that wearing a seagull-shaped hat pointing the wrong way.

None of this, however, quite prepared the football cognoscenti for the eccentricities of Fabien Barthez, the star French goalkeeper whose disastrous capers are threatening to destroy the last season of his Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

In recent weeks the flamboyant Barthez – a World Cup and European Championship winner with France and boyfriend of the celebrated model Linda Evangelista – has committed a series of spectacularly awful errors. In doing so, he has inspired various theories about his behaviour on the field. All of them are disturbing. Is he having a nervous breakdown? Is he suffering from existential alienation, like the hero of Wim Wenders's film The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty? Is he trying to impersonate Coco the Clown? The one certainty is that only a swift return to the form that made him a magnificent practitioner of arguably football's toughest trade can a) head off the complete collapse of his professional reputation, and b) rescue Ferguson's hopes of ending his career with a much desired second European Cup trophy.

In hugely important games the 30-year-old Barthez has been inflicting tragicomic mayhem on his own side. Against the crack Spanish team Deportivo La Coruña he made bizarre mistakes that let in two goals. Against Liverpool earlier this month he allowed the diminutive Michael Owen to leap above him for the decisive goal. Most excruciating of all was his Black Sunday at Highbury two days ago, when he kicked the ball directly to Arsenal's lethal striker Thierry Henry, his teammate in the French team, who, having recovered from his shock at receiving the ball in such a fashion, scored the easiest of goals.

Such mishaps have regularly ambushed the top goalies. Pat Jennings, the legendary Irishman who played superbly for Arsenal and Tottenham, was beaten by a ball that was caught in the wind after being punted downfield by his Manchester United opposite number Alex Stepney. Gary Sprake, a wonderfully gifted Welshman, would regularly betray the great Leeds United team of the Sixties with moments of lightheadedness. In one match, at Liverpool, Sprake allowed the ball to trickle through his hands and into the goal. Savagely, the man in charge of the public address system at Anfield played the Des O'Connor record "Careless Hands," as Sprake walked off the field with his head bowed.

But if goalkeeping is a treacherous business in which even Popes have to jettison the dogma of infallibility – and which once inspired Camus to say: "In one game of football I learnt most of what I know about life" – few muddied custodians have known the Calvary recently being experienced by the once exuberant Barthez. His descent has been nothing less than vertiginous. Last season he was considered the great bastion of Old Trafford, a fiercely committed and often astonishingly acrobatic presence as United's last line of defence. In fact, some pros feel that his current difficulties stem from the degree of his success last season.

On one famous occasion he dribbled the ball through the legs of an opposing striker. The Old Trafford crowd roared, and the TV cameras caught Ferguson smiling as an indulgent father might at the mischief of a favourite son. In football the term for such a manoeuvre is "nutmeg". It is a nice thing to see in a creative outfield player. In a goalkeeper it is at best a dangerous piece of exhibitionism, at worst a football illiteracy liable to instant punishment. The great Manchester United and Scotland striker Denis Law once said: "I like goalkeepers to mess about a bit, get fancy, because that's when they give me a chance. I'll run at them 40 times if it brings me one goal."

Against Barthez, opposing forwards are beginning to queue up. After the Deportivo disaster, he said: "I don't want that game to cast a shadow over my season. I want to put everything straight. For a goalkeeper the second season at a club is often harder than the first and you have to move beyond the bad times. Frankly, I feel as good as I did last year, but one thing is certain: opponents have started to get to know me, and they make me play a lot more. I get less chance to express myself in our build-up play, because there's always somebody putting me under pressure. I don't have the same time to control the ball, with players bearing down me."

The vital point that Barthez, the son of an extrovert rugby union player in the passionate arenas of south-west France, seems to have forgotten is that goalkeepers have one overwhelming priority. It is to stop goals rather than make them. Certainly many pros raised their eyebrows in the build-up to this season when Ferguson, normally the most hard-headed of men, allowed Barthez to spend part of one friendly game in the outfield. It seemed too much like a sop to the Frenchman's cultivation of a character role in the team, and possibly his yearning swiftly to replace his extravagantly expressive – but mostly superbly functional – Danish predecessor Peter Schmeichel in the hearts of the fans.

Says one old pro: "Alex should have kicked Barthez's arse the first time he tried that nutmeg routine. Great goalkeepers do not fiddle around like that. You would have had to put a gun to Gordon Banks [England's World Cup-winning goalkeeper in 1966] to get him to do something as daft as that. People remember Banksy for his sensational save against Pele in 1970. Barthez is good enough to concentrate on building that kind of legacy."

But then, if all goalkeepers were as rational and professional as Banks, not so many of them would be persuaded to do a job that can unravel in front of the world in a few traumatic seconds.

Even the good ones regularly have to run a gauntlet of scorn. The portly Liverpool keeper of the Sixties, Tommy Lawrence, carried the nickname "The Flying Pig" despite the fact that he was highly professional and was credited by the former England and Arsenal star and Manchester City manager Joe Mercer as being the first "sweeper-keeper" – which was to say that in effect he became a 12th outfield player. But always in strictly controlled circumstances and with too much fear of his fire-eating manager Bill Shankly ever to risk a nutmeg.

Few keepers paid a higher price for one bad afternoon than the talented Peter Bonetti of Chelsea. In Mexico in 1970 he stepped in for Banks, who was suffering from food poisoning, before the World Cup quarter-final with West Germany. Bonetti made some costly errors as the Germans swept back from a 2-0 deficit, and he knew that the nation would never really forgive him. (He was probably right. Moacyr Barbosa, the Brazilian goalkeeper who died last year, was still being vilified 50 years later for a simple slip in the 1950 World Cup final.)

Barthez's chances of redemption are rated somewhat higher by Nobby Stiles, who became a household name when he danced a jig of celebration at Wembley after helping England to their only World Cup win in 1966. Says the Manchester United legend: "Fabien need not be destroyed by recent events. He's a brilliant goalkeeper who just has to get his head down and concentrate on the basics of the job."

Stiles knows a little about the nature of goalkeepers. As a youngster at Old Trafford he played with Harry Gregg, the gifted but highly flammable Irishman. "Harry," recalls Stiles, "had the heart of a lion, not least when he rescued some of the lads at the Munich air crash, but when he blew everyone had to take cover. Mind you, he was never as barmy as Dave Gaskell."

Gaskell, a giant of a lad from Wigan, played in United's 1963 FA Cup winning team. He once earned a stern rebuke from Sir Matt Busby for dropping his shorts during a game. Stiles, however, remembers some less spectacular quirks. "Often," he says, "Dave would watch a high shot coming into his goal and make no attempt to save. He would just shout 'bar'. True enough, on some occasions it hit the crossbar and bounced out. Unfortunately, there were other times when it sailed straight into the net.

"He also had the irritating habit of throwing the ball out to you and shouting 'It's a wrong 'un' or 'It's a googly' – cricket terms describing a delivery loaded with spin. You'd go to play the ball and it would bounce entirely in the wrong direction and the crowd would jeer and Dave would stand there as happy as Larry," Stiles says.

This is something that Fabien Barthez, for the moment at least, should studiously eschew. It would be a crowning folly and something well beyond the power even of a papal dispensation.