Keller the keeper of team ethic in an era driven by cult of personality

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The Independent Online

If there is one thing that really annoys Kasey Keller, it is goal celebrations. Given that it is his job - as the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper - to prevent such occurrences it is hardly a surprise. After all, they have been a little too frequent of late, last weekend's clean sheet against Newcastle United notwithstanding. But his enmity runs deep applying, perhaps, even to his own team. "Nothing drives me more crazy than when a guy beats seven others, squares it for another guy to tap in and it's that guy who's running around like he did everything. He just stood there in the right place and got the ball!"

If there is one thing that really annoys Kasey Keller, it is goal celebrations. Given that it is his job - as the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper - to prevent such occurrences it is hardly a surprise. After all, they have been a little too frequent of late, last weekend's clean sheet against Newcastle United notwithstanding. But his enmity runs deep applying, perhaps, even to his own team. "Nothing drives me more crazy than when a guy beats seven others, squares it for another guy to tap in and it's that guy who's running around like he did everything. He just stood there in the right place and got the ball!"

For Keller is, above all, a team player. The cult of personality in sport appals him. As does the media's desire to deify or demonise. "Either you're the greatest player ever or you're the worst," he says. "And being told either can't help you." Tottenham have been sinners of late - with the topsy-turvy 3-4, 4-3 and so on games of last month - although as Keller rightly points out only one of those matches ended in defeat even if they were all "a little crazy".

"The key thing is it's a team sport and the key to a team sport is winning," he argues. "Someone makes a mistake, someone else covers - you win the game, then who cares? I gave up a bad goal at Leicester this year and we scored two goals, Mark Schwarzer [the Middlesbrough goalkeeper] gives up a bad goal in the [Carling] cup final and they win 2-1, who cares? It's a team game. These things happen but you're team wins. And that's the most important, regardless."

A 34-year-old American - born in Washington state - now back in London, where it all started for him at Millwall in 1991, via Leicester City and Rayo Vallecano in Spain, Keller is well-placed to sum up the attitude the British - and their media - have to sport. "Sometimes you feel the slant is more toward the negative than the positive," he says. "It's always 'yeah, but the keeper should have done this or that' It's never just 'well done' [to the scorer]."

Perhaps it is that slant which breeds a growing selfishness he has identified in sport. "They [some players] are not doing what's in it for the team but for what's going to raise their profile and get them a better contract or more fame. As opposed to saying 'this is what the team needs and this is what I'm going to do'." It's why he respects Thierry Henry so much. "He's a guy who's the leading scorer and leading assist on the same team. To me, that's impressive," Keller explains. "His job is to score but also if someone has a better chance to tap in he's not thinking 'well, I've got to look after my stats'. I think that's rare these days."

Talk of north London neighbours Arsenal draws inevitable, uncomfortable comparisons. "What makes it all the more difficult for our supporters is their tremendous success. It makes it doubly frustrating," Keller says. That frustration stems initially, of course, from another of Tottenham's "rollercoaster" seasons.

"Very draining," Keller admits. "When you find yourself in a relegation position at a club the size of Tottenham [as they did at Christmas] it's difficult." It was also a new experience for Keller who despite having been at so-called yo-yo clubs never faced such a fight - apart from, once, during his spell at Millwall "and that was only at the worst time - the last day of the season". "These things happen and it's how you react," he says, citing heavy defeats suffered by Real Madrid and Manchester United in the past. Spurs reacted commendably well putting a run together which shot them clear and towards the perimeters of European qualification. "You have to just control the controllables, perform as well as you can," Keller says.

The same applies to expectation - "here you are even supposed to lose with style" - and speculation which constantly pursues Spurs, partly because they have still to announce just who the manager will be. "It's really been an up-in-the-air season with people on edge," Keller admits, "so it's a real credit that when we've found ourselves in awkward positions, people haven't crawled into a shell."

A new goalkeeper is also set to arrive with Tottenham openly pursuing Leeds United's Paul Robinson. "Once Neil Sullivan left, it was always inevitable the club, at some stage, was going to find someone," Keller states. "A club the size of Tottenham is not going to say 'we're happy with this guy but if things go horribly wrong there's isn't anyone else'. There needs to be competition and I expected it."

Not that Keller - a natural sportsman who nearly pursued a career in American football - will surrender his place. "I hope that it's a case of 'yeah, someone's coming in but you're doing great and until you're not doing great...' I came in under the same premise." Indeed he did - after leaving Spain three years ago, because of the change in the number of non-EU players permitted, he was sitting waiting to sign for Besiktas in Turkey when Spurs called. It was an easy decision. "I had great success at Leicester but it's not the size of club that Tottenham is," he says. "But I didn't just come in and they handed me the job. So I'm hopeful that when somebody does come in that I'm shown the same courtesy. Look, it's mine to lose and that's what I've been told and you have to respect that."

A strong finish to the season is vital - both for him and the team. "And if I screw up, I'll be the first to hold my hand up and say 'I had it and I let it go'." In fact, in the time he took to dislodge Sullivan he lost his status as the United States' No 1 to Brad Friedel and with it his place at the 2002 World Cup. "But my goal was to come back [to London]," he says, now living in the city, in Muswell Hill, to immerse himself, his wife, Kristin, and two young children in its culture.

A "stable lifestyle" he says is the key to success - and sanity - in sport, especially for a goalkeeper. It is a team game but, of course, his position is the most individual within it. At times, the keeper really is on his own, especially when he errs. "There are times when you are solely to blame and there are times when it's percentages," Keller says. "It's frustrating," he adds. "There are plenty of times you want to dig a hole and jump in and plenty of times when undue criticism is heaped on you.

"The fastest the clock ticks is when you've made a mistake. Time flies. If you're 1-0 up after five minutes then it's the slowest game of your life."

Time, he hopes, will drag today when Spurs visit Old Trafford, a stadium where they haven't won since the late 1980s, and Keller comes face-to-face with fellow American Tim Howard. When his friend joined United, Keller admits, it was a big surprise. "Not because I didn't believe he has the ability, but because he was given the opportunity. I think myself, Friedel and Marcus Hahnemann [at Reading] made it easier in the mindset where a club like Man Utd can say 'we're going to take this American keeper and everyone's not going to go crazy even though no one knows who he is'. Tim's done great and I'm a bit envious, obviously, that it wasn't there when I was 24 - but credit to him and it'll only help the game at home."

Home is where he will return when his Premiership career is eventually over. "I would feel a little ashamed, being one of the first [American to play abroad], if I didn't go home and help out," he admits. Keller will probably play in the Major Soccer League - burgeoning again - before going into coaching or maybe pursuing his interest in music. And there is the little matter of finally finishing his university degree, 14 years late, and educating his children in American sports. "It's rugby and netball right now," for his son and daughter.

More than anything else retirement - when it finally comes - will bring freedom to someone who is obviously highly articulate and thoughtful. "The worst thing about being a professional footballer," he says "is having so little control over your own schedule. I want to be in a job one day where I can say 'my friend's getting married this weekend - and I can plan it and attend'." But until then his focus is on one thing: the team.

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