Football: Given proves the value of goalkeepers

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The Independent Online
Brian Clough was one of the first to realise - he happily paid top dollar in wages and transfer fee for Peter Shilton in 1977, having pre-empted his sacking at Leeds by trying to do the same three years earlier.

In 1994, he wrote: "One of the stupidities among football directors has been their failure to appreciate the value of the goalkeeper. Even today some find it hard to believe the goalkeeper should be paid as much as the full-back. A good goalkeeper can save you 18 points a season... it can mean the difference between winning a title... or missing out."

It is not just directors, given Shilton's importance to Forest's success one might think every manager would also realise the goalkeeper is as important as the centre-forward. Not so.

Two seasons ago, Manchester United had Peter Schmeichel, Newcastle United had Pavel Srnicek. The Czech international is a good keeper, but is inconsistent. Had Schmeichel and Srnicek traded places in 1995-6 Newcastle, not Manchester United, would have been champions.

The same applies to Shaka Hislop, signed by Kevin Keegan to provide competition for Srnicek, and David James, whose crisis of confidence ended Liverpool's aspirations last season. Had Schmeichel played for either of them, the championship would probably have left Old Trafford.

Schmeichel makes mistakes, but they are seized upon precisely because they are so rare. Across a season he does not just make saves few keepers can, his ability and presence reassures his defenders. That eases the pressure on them - they know a mistake may be redeemed and thus make fewer.

Kenny Dalglish may have been a forward, but he knows this. At Liverpool, he inherited a notoriously gaffe-prone No 1 in Bruce Grobbelaar, but retained him for his acknowledged brilliance. At Blackburn, one of his first signings was Tim Flowers, with a record fee for a custodian. At Newcastle he has bought Shay Given, who showed his quality in Newcastle's 1-0 win at West Ham on Saturday.

Given may have been partially at fault for Barcelona's second goal on Wednesday night, but having made a string of saves to deny the Spanish side, his account was well in credit. At Upton Park, he was almost faultless, just one cross going astray which West Ham were unable to benefit from.

That was a minor error compared to the pluses. His first save came after just five minutes, leaping to tip John Hartson's header over the bar. Frank Lampard Jnr, Hartson and Steve Lomas were further denied before half-time as West Ham swarmed over a Newcastle side whose minds and bodies still seemed drained by Wednesday's triumph. This pre and post-Champions' League preoccupation and hangover may become a problem for Dalglish, this result notwithstanding. Manchester United are still adjusting after several seasons.

The visitors revived in the second period with Robert Lee recovering his now customary influence, but paradoxically, Given was more severely tested. The high balls, which could have posed something of a problem given his relative lack of height, were dealt with by Darren Peacock and Philippe Albert, but Given still had to save excellently from Stan Lazaridis and Eyal Berkovitch and brilliantly from Iain Dowie.

"When I saw his name on the team-sheet I feared the worst," said Ian Pearce, his former Blackburn team-mate. "I know what a good shot-stopper he is."

"It gives you confidence having a good goalkeeper behind you," added Steve Howey, who had another frustrating afternoon at the back of Newcastle's queue of centre-halves.

Given's arrival, together with Newcastle's greater resilence, gives them just claim to be title contenders. He appears nerveless; an incident as a 14-year-old, when he was taken off after a catastrophic mistake in a junior cup final, cured him of the problem according to his father and adviser, Seamus.

Shay said on Saturday he has some nerves before games, but not many. "Responsibility goes with the job," he said. "I just put that the Barcelona mistake behind me and got on with it."

Ludek Miklosko had rather less to do, unfortunately for him the one serious effort on his goal went in, although John Barnes' first-time shot, following good work by Faustino Asprilla, would have beaten most goalkeepers.

"I don't know what they did to deserve that," said Harry Redknapp, the West Ham manager, who in Berkovitch had the game's most creative player. What he did not have, in the absence of the injured Paul Kitson, was enough finishing power. When, Pearce, on his debut, was sent forward he looked what he was, a defender masquerading as an attacker.

Berkovitch departed early, having been kicked once too often. Four players were booked, three for fouling Lazaridis, and Lomas for kicking David Batty. This was the supreme irony as Batty had spent the game tapping ankles and niggling opponents, yet escaped. Maybe, when football next overhauls its disciplinary code, it should borrow basketball's law of "five fouls against the person and you're off", although this would need adapting as, in basketball, offenders are replaced.

In defeat, Redknapp found some consolation. Recalling last season's trials, he said: "At least I'm not sitting here with a crap team thinking: `Where do I go from here'." Which is fortunate given the answer is Highbury on Wednesday and Liverpool at home on Saturday.

Goal: Barnes (43) 0-1.

West Ham United (3-4-1-2): Miklosko; Pearce, Ferdinand, Unsworth; Breaker (Hughes, h-t), Lomas, Lampard, Lazaridis; Berkovitch (Potts, 71); Dowie, Hartson. Substitutes not used: Bishop, Rowland, Forrest (gk).

Newcastle United (3-5-1-1): Given; Watson, Peacock, Albert; Gillespie, Barton, Batty, Lee, Beresford; Barnes (Howey, 69); Asprilla. Substitutes not used: Rush, Ketsbaia, Tomasson, Hislop (gk).

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

Bookings: West Ham United Lomas. Newcastle United Barton, Gillespie, Lee.

Man of the match: Given.

Attendance: 25,884.

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