Football: When penalties hold no fear

Stephen Brenkley talks to two keepers with destiny in their hands
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The Independent Online
THEY have been to dreamland and they liked it. This is a place to which goalkeepers traditionally pay a brief visit upon saving penalties and when such moments embrace both keeping your team in the FA Cup and overcoming substantial previous misfortune you are probably headed for the castle on the hill to boot. Hans Segers and Alan Kelly have been sharing the joint since the passionate ties which saw their teams progress to within 90 minutes of Wembley.

Segers (left), in only his second match for Wolves, kept out a last-minute spot-kick from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to preserve his side's one-goal lead at Elland Road. He joined the First Division club from Wimbledon in September 1996, but for much of the time his career faced potential ruination. Accused of match rigging together with Bruce Grobbelaar and John Fashanu, he had to face two trials before they were all cleared. He was then forced to bide his time in Wolves reserves, wondering if the chance would arrive to re-establish his worth.

Kelly (right), in and out of the Sheffield United side all season, saved three penalties in their replay shoot-out against Coventry. This was fairy- tale stuff and the more remarkable since he had not saved a single penalty for five years - the last time they were in a Cup quarter-final shoot- out, against Blackburn Rovers. They went on to lose in the penultimate round.

HANS SEGERS had made up his mind. He had watched the video and carefully weighed the evidence of the likely direction of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's penalty. "It had to be the left and once you have made your choice there is no going back on it," he said. "I guessed right. The height was OK and I'd saved it."

In that moment, Wolves were through to the FA Cup semi- finals and Segers was a goalkeeper and a man restored. He had already produced a couple of alert saves but it was the last-ditch penalty for which he will be remembered. The match- rigging scandal in which he was implicated might have ended his career but Segers never forsook his belief that he would one day return to the big time.

"I had good days and bad days while it was all happening," he said last week at Molineux as he was once more the avid object of media attention, though this time, as he courteously pointed out, for all the right reasons. "But the sort of thing that happened makes you hungrier and stronger. In my mind this is what I was hoping for."

Segers, 36, has spent 14 years in England since arriving at Nottingham Forest from PSV Eindhoven and has not been beyond the Cup quarter-final until now. Throughout this season, as he had been throughout last season, Mike Stowell was the Wolves number one goalkeeper. Not long before the match against Stoke City on 4 March, Stowell went down with gastroenteritis and Segers was drafted in.

The Dutchman performed adequately but even then Stowell might have been recalled had he recovered in time for the FA Cup tie three days later. He did not and Segers rolled back the years. He has been in the team since and despite the length and breadth of the Wolves squad is deemed to be nothing other than a certainty for today's match.

"I had virtually two years out of the game and nothing can replace that," Segers added. "But it doesn't get any better than this and the semi-final match against Arsenal is unquestionably the biggest of my life. I feel as though I'm keeping as well as I've ever done. I still organise defences and I still feel very quick on my feet."

Segers has a book, The Final Score, being published in two weeks. It might have said it all but now it might require a chapter added about Wembley.

ALAN KELLY was severely untroubled. It had been five years since he had guessed right for a penalty. In that time one of those he had conceded went in virtually off the underside of the bar and if that was happening, he had thought, he was destined never to save one again.

But that night last month, come the shoot-out with Coventry, he was strangely assured, not nervous, somehow approaching serenity. It was as though he knew he was at last going to make saves, he said last week as he tried to recover from a rib injury and take his place in today's semi-final against Newcastle.

"I was very calm," he said. "Dion Dublin took the first one and I decided to go left as early as I could. In the end it seemed like slow motion and as I was diving I just knew that I was going to save it. David Burrows took the next one and as it happened I'd seen a repeat on television that week of Record Breakers featuring him as the player with the hardest shot. Somehow, I felt he would blast it. I went right, his shot went hard to the middle and I was able to stick out a hand.

"I nearly managed the same from the other way with the next one. And then came the last one from Simon Haworth. A feeling came over me and I just knew I was going to stop it, just knew it. It was some occasion but as a goalkeeper you're in a no-lose situation in some ways. You can be the hero but not the villain."

Kelly is only 29 but is still accorded veteran status. He is the son of Alan senior, who kept goal for Preston in the 1962 Cup final, the brother of the Oldham keeper, Gary, and made his own debut for Preston as a 17- year-old. "When I got to Sheffield they thought I was 30-odd then. One of the lads put up a photograph on my second day with a note saying I really was only 23. There's a good mood in the camp after recent happenings but the players have responded well. This is a big week on league and Cup fronts."

Kelly began the season out of the United side, giving way to his long- time friend, colleague and rival, Simon Tracey. He was back in by December, out again because of injury and recalled just in time to grab his share of the glory in both ties against Coventry.

It is a mystery that Kelly has not been a Premiership target. If United do not go up it is one surely to be resolved, particularly as he now saves penalties as well.