Football: Keeper of the secrets: Stephen Brenkley meets Alan Hodgkinson, the coach with an influence in both camps

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER else today's FA Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Oldham brings, much back-bending practice for the goalkeepers seems guaranteed. No less an insider than the United manager Alex Ferguson, exhibiting a mischievous drollery which was almost Dalglishian, has predicted goals and plenty of them.

Precedent suggests no other course. Since Oldham were promoted in 1991, they have played Manchester United seven times. The sides have shared 28 goals, of which United have scored 20.

Enter Alan Hodgkinson. He is the goalkeeping coach to both clubs. He visits Manchester each Monday and Oldham each Tuesday. His dream tie would probably be stylish, full of open and attacking football throughout, and would be goalless after the first game, the replay, extra-time and several hundred penalties and doubtless be decided on the quality of the saves which foiled all the expansive attacks.

'I hope for nothing else than for both my lads to have good games,' he said after a training session last week at Sheffield Wednesday, the other English club he advises. 'That's what I always want, no matter who wins or loses. You must never forget that goalies can take everything, miss one cross in 90 minutes and carry the can.' Hodgkinson is not of a mind to let you forget. He is a preacher of good technique in all departments of the game but his coaching mission is to ensure that his charges protect their goal at all costs. 'If they can come off without letting in a goal then they've done their job,' he said. 'That's what I tell them it's all about.' He talks about the importance of clean sheets with more zeal than the head chambermaid in a five- star hotel.

Hodgkinson, as perky as you imagine all old-time keepers to be, played for 17 seasons and in 576 League games with Sheffield United and was capped five times by England in the Fifties and Sixties. He established himself as a goalkeeping coach 12 years ago by offering his services to clubs and was inundated with replies. He has rarely had a day off since.

Of course, he is aware of the peculiar nature of his involvement in the match at Wembley today but is reluctant to forecast the result and certainly will not countenance the suggestion of a goals feast. He remembered the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final second leg encounter between Wednesday and Manchester United when Wednesday were overwhelmed. That was not, he conceded, a good night for Kevin Pressman in the Yorkshire club's goal.

Hodgkinson is clearly an admirer of the Manchester style and of their keeper, Peter Schmeichel. 'There are three main things you look to work on in a goalie. You've got to have the shape and the presence, you've got to have the mobility and you've got to have a good first touch. It's as important in a goalie as in an outfield player. Peter's got the lot. He's a fine keeper.'

Not that Hodgkinson, who never received a single goalkeeping lesson throughout his entire playing career, was remotely disparaging of the Oldham keeper Jon Hallworth's gifts. He likes lads who work hard and goalkeeping, in the repetitive nature of the tasks he sets his charges to perform each week, is hard work.

Increasingly, the custodian also has to possess profound tactical awareness and the ability to kick like a donkey with both feet. Hodgkinson is sceptical about the back-pass law and is concerned that the first question he is asked by too many managers pursuing a keeper he has recommended is: 'Can he kick?'

All the essential attributes are practised in his weekly sessions. He is also specialist coach to Rangers and to the Scotland team. He has run courses all over Scotland for a decade and likes to think he has been partly instrumental in the gradual reduction of jokes about Scottish goalies because Scottish goalies are no longer a joke.

'I won't be at the Wembley match because I'm in Scotland,' he said. 'And while I wish both the boys well, and Rangers in their semi-final too, I wouldn't dream of giving them tips about each other. Confidentiality has to be part of my trade. I would never ever discuss one of my goalies with the manager at another of my clubs. I really want them both to do brilliantly, even if somebody has to win.'

If Hodgkinson is a fan and friend of Schmeichel, he is still anxious about the number of foreign keepers in the English game. It represents an end to what once seemed like an interminable production line of magnificent English goalies - which included Hodgkinson - and he would love to help its return by improving technique generally.

'Clean sheets, that's what I stress to all my boys, clean sheets,' he said. But he knows, even if he is not saying, that Wembley will not be swathed in them today.

(Photograph omitted)