Football: Walker proves the exception: Jasper Rees on why myths and maths bar ex-goalkeepers from management

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FOR THE first time in you- wouldn't-like-to-guess-how-long, a football team run by an old goalkeeper is the best in the country. It would be less surprising if Mike Walker, the manager of Norwich City, was not any old goalkeeper, but he was. He made nearly 700 appearances for various clubs on the lower rungs.

Usually only the very best keepers get even the slightest whiff of a chance to coach and/or manage a whole squad. Peter Shilton, player-manager at Plymouth Argyle, Ray Clemence, joint coach at Tottenham, and Dino Zoff, of Lazio, were probably the three best practitioners between the sticks during the 1970s and beyond.

Why are there so few others in Britain and elsewhere? In this country most of the many reasons are rooted in the obdurate conservatism of the British game. But first the strictly logical explanation: 'There are so few coaches who were goalkeepers because they are proportionately fewer,' Zoff says. 'There's ten to one, isn't there?' Shilton says, but then adds that 'there are more midfielders and defenders in management than wingers and strikers.'

There is more to it than mathematics; there's human nature too. 'After standing between the sticks all those years and getting peppered with shots,' Shilton says, 'most of them have had enough.'

'Goalkeepers are supposed to be stupid,' says Don Mackay, a veteran of 300 games in Dundee United's goal who is now a qualified SFA coach and manager at Fulham. 'But what kills that myth stone dead is that you've got to be stupid to be a bloody football manager. Goalkeepers have had enough sense when they were playing to say, 'We've been shot at, we've been kicked at, we've been spat at: who'd want to continue into management?' '

Mackay did, so much so that, when he couldn't land a managerial post in this country, he took on a Danish Fourth Division club in order to gain experience.

For the most part there seems to be a knee-jerk discrimination against goalkeepers who want to do more than specialist coaching. 'It's always suggested that goalkeepers don't make good managers because they don't know anything else about the game,' says Walker, who holds an FA coaching badge.

'The major reason is prejudice,' Mackay booms. 'One Premier League manager always used to say, 'The one thing about goalkeepers, Mackay, you can never win bloody games for us; you can only stop us losing.' '

'When I was a goalkeeper,' Clemence says, 'goalkeepers supposedly were finished when they were 32, 33, and were at their peak at 27, 28. Once Pat Jennings, Peter Shilton, myself, Phil Parkes and Joe Corrigan came along and all played to 38, 39, 40, now all of a sudden goalkeepers don't reach their peak till 35, apparently. So until something is disproved people will always think otherwise.'

In football, disproving takes time. Shilton's unique track record cleared his path into management; most serve a long apprenticeship. 'There are a few goalkeeping coaches going about,' Mackay says, 'but they've had to work right from the bottom, from youth level.'

The qualities that help a man to stick being a goalkeeper are precisely the ones that help him to endure the reverses usually suffered by managers. 'The attributes of goalkeeping basically are involved in management,' Shilton says. 'Most goalkeepers are quite strong characters. You have to take the ups and downs; you have to be able to accept responsibility.'

The more you think about it, in fact, it is hard to imagine a more detailed preparation for the pressures of running your own side. But there's more to it than carrying the can. What about tactics? 'Tactics are the same for me as for everyone else,' Zoff says. It is a bold claim but all keeper-managers are adamant they know outfield play well enough to coach it.

'Most goalkeepers know how their defence should function,' Shilton says, 'and being in goal you do see what strikers can do to hurt your defence.'

'One of the drawbacks of a keeper,' Mackay reckons, 'is their ability to demonstrate things that you have to do with younger players, but if you do your job properly, there's always people round about you who can do these things and demonstrate them for you.'

You would have thought that any side coached by a keeper would more than likely be an adherent of route one. Route one, after all, usually starts at the boot of the man with a one on his jersey. But Norwich are among the last passing purists in the top flight. Spurs still adhere to their old tradition. And Shilton has been praised in Plymouth for scrapping the long-ball game which effectively sealed the drop he arrived too late to prevent.

'If you want good attacking football,' Walker says, 'if you want players to take people on, if you want good passing movements, then you can coach that - it's not a problem.'

Will his example open doors for more goalkeepers? 'Hopefully,' he says. 'If that encourages more of them to take it up, or gives more confidence to chairmen who appoint managers, then I would think that that's right.' Mackay points to another catalyst for change. 'With the new rule coming in, most goalkeepers are going to have to be more adept on their feet, and then maybe you'll see more goalkeeping managers.'

At a time when the game needs to show it can evolve, who better to lead the way than a club that sells its best assets and is managed by a keeper whose career no one remembers?

(Photograph omitted)