Robert Green: Who'd be a keeper?

The embarrassments of Paul Robinson and David James have only highlighted how vulnerable goalkeepers are to public ridicule. Robert Green, himself an England keeper, reflects on the ups and downs of life between the posts
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The Independent Football

Since I became a goalkeeper at the age of seven, the questions that I have been asked the most are: "Are you mad?" and also "Why did you become a goalkeeper?"

The answer to the former is "Obviously" and to the latter "Because I can't run" (if you need a reference point, watch me close down Dave Kitson against Reading last Saturday to concede a penalty). Besides the seeming obviousness behind the questions, there is an underlying issue that people who are not goalkeepers cannot see the attraction of being the last line of defence – standing around in the freezing cold, waiting for someone to break one of your fingers or nose with a lashed shot or stray boot.

I can understand these views and for an outsider it is a fairly true reflection on the life of a goalkeeper. But from the inside looking out it is a lot different. To me there is no better feeling on a football pitch than seeing the crowd go up in anticipation of a goal only for a late fingertip save to deny them their delight. Or the sigh of relief from your team-mates as you go in among a crowded penalty area to claim a cross in the dying seconds of a close-fought win. When West Ham beat Manchester United to stay up in May, I can still remember James Collins crying, "Catch it, Greeny" like a schoolgirl during the final minute at Old Trafford.

There are many highs – these are mostly denying others theirs – but there are definitely lows. A major cause of these is that making mistakes as a goalkeeper will almost certainly result in a goal. Any error is thus scrutinised and, at the highest level, can result in intense, sometimes personal criticism. Paul Robinson, like David James and David Seaman before him, suffered that after the England v Germany game. The best response is to go out and perform the next time, as I am sure Paul will today.

It is not, though, the criticism of press or public which hurts most after a mistake, it is walking into a dressing room and looking at the players who have given everything, but to no avail, after you let one through your arms and cost the match. I am not sure there is a lonelier place on the planet after a goalkeeper makes a mistake. There may be 10 team-mates on the pitch and thousands of supporters in the ground, but I can assure you that for a few seconds you wish that you could disappear.

Mistakes at home can be a lot worse than those away from home. There is a lull in the atmosphere when you concede at home and for the time it takes for the opposition to stop celebrating and the game to restart, thousands of judging eyes on you is not a nice feeling.

Playing for Norwich during a particularly bad spell, after making a costly error I remember getting the same empty feeling, which was compounded as it was not only greeted by silence, but then a loud "Tut" as a full house clucked their disapproval. It felt like a dagger to the gut. Although immediately after it is gone, another mistake is not an option and it takes twice the concentration to keep focused on the present.

It is often said by players that fans do not understand playing the game. If this is the case, outfield players certainly do not understand playing in goal! I am sure, like every other goalkeeper, I have had countless arguments with centre-halves, midfielders, forwards, fans, stewards, the bloke in the newsagents and pretty much everyone about pretty much all things goalkeeping. I could certainly sympathise with a tale in Neil Warnock's book when he starts criticising Seamus McDonagh after a game. At the time Warnock was manager of Scarborough, McDonagh, now a goalkeeping coach at Aston Villa, was winding down a career in which he had played in the top flight with Everton and won 24 international caps. They are on the team bus driving away from a 3-0 defeat at Swansea and Warnock says to McDonagh: "I think you'll be a bit disappointed with a couple of the goals". McDonagh, according to Warnock, then "stood up and went ballistic for about 15 minutes. I've never had a bollocking like it before or since in all my time in management." McDonagh began his tirade with the words: "What do you part-time bastards know about goalkeeping"

I think this lack of understanding is down to the fact that other people can only see an incident from the point of view of an outfield player. Having never wanted to play in goal or understood the mentality needed to be a goalkeeper, why on earth would they understand what drives a goalkeeper to make certain decisions. Very rarely, if ever will you see or hear a playing member of the goalkeepers' union not defend a fellow member for a decision they have made or berate them for a mistake they have committed. This is because they understand the dynamics, difficulties, and pressures of the job.

Goalkeeping by nature is an individual thing – what works for someone in a warm-up or training may not work for another. Dealing with the pressure is a similar thing.

By nature it is very easy as a goalkeeper to become obsessed with things such as your technique, facts, stats, and the opposition. There is much more thinking involved compared to the instinctive role of an outfield player. As a way of coping with things like this, I try and switch off as much as I can away from football. I will not watch any football away from the training ground and pre-match tactics. This allows me to turn off mentally from the pressures of a game.

When I first started playing for the Norwich first team I would not be able to sleep before or after a game, running replays of games in my head and getting worried about making mistakes. I remember often being sick with nerves in the dressing room immediately before running out on to the pitch.

As I have got older I have learnt to deal with these nerves and use them as a motivational tool in match preparations, thinking of positive ways I can affect the team and the course of the game. I have also found that not caring so much about the consequences of my actions in a game helps brings out positive actions rather than negative reactions. Thinking consistently of 30,000 people's emotions riding on my every move is enough to scare anyone stiff. Each step up I have taken during my career the stakes have got higher, but as they have risen, my ability to switch off and pull myself away from worry has improved.

Between the sticks and in the firing line: England goalkeepers always end up carrying the can, but what about the games they save?

* DAVID SEAMAN

Released as a teenager by Leeds, he worked he way up to win 75 caps, producing a series of exceptional performances to help England to qualify for the 2002 World Cup finals. He will be remembered, however, for conceding Ronaldinho's 40-yard free-kick in the quarter-final defeat to Brazil in Japan.

* DAVID JAMES

Succeeded Seaman but never quite escaped the 'Calamity James' nickname he was tagged with at Liverpool, not least because of high-profile errors against France and Austria. At 37 he remains a fine athlete, is back in the squad, and may yet have last laugh by adding to his 34 caps.

* PAUL ROBINSON

Replaced James in 2005 and is in line to win 28th cap tonight. Pilloried for his air-kick in Croatia, and the error against Germany, but what about the saves he has made? Does no one remember him denying Argentina in Geneva, and John Hartson in Cardiff during World Cup qualifying?

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