Shadow of the pit helps Dudek overcome the doubters and dream of Cardiff glory

The Liverpool goalkeeper tells Tim Rich that criticism will not alter his love of the game that stopped him going underground
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Always there is the shadow of the pit. For those sportsmen like Geoffrey Boycott, who but for their single-minded ability would have spent a life underground, the mines were a reference point. Whenever Boycott's career was in torment or whenever a team-mate dared approach him for advice, he would often think of the mining village of Fitzwilliam in the Yorkshire coalfield and exclaim: "It's better than going down the pit, lad."

Always there is the shadow of the pit. For those sportsmen like Geoffrey Boycott, who but for their single-minded ability would have spent a life underground, the mines were a reference point. Whenever Boycott's career was in torment or whenever a team-mate dared approach him for advice, he would often think of the mining village of Fitzwilliam in the Yorkshire coalfield and exclaim: "It's better than going down the pit, lad."

Had Jerzy Dudek followed his father into the mines of Silesia where they dig brown coal in one of the most polluted atmospheres in Europe, a mistake would have cost lives. On Tuesday night, Dudek made a mistake; a shot from Dimitar Berbatov bounced twice, leapt from the pitch and struck the Liverpool goalkeeper on the shoulder. The ricochet fell to a Bayer Leverkusen boot and Liverpool had won a Champions' League fixture 3-1 instead of 3-0. The headlines suggested Dudek had cost Anfield a chance of the European Cup.

"You have to appreciate what you are doing," Dudek reflected. "My father worked 30 years under the ground and I was ready to follow him because I never really thought I would be a successful football player.

"I was very close to being a miner. At the school you were taken down the mine twice a week to get work experience and when I was 18 you had the decision to make. Just before I made it, the chairman of the local club, Concordia, came over and said: 'Jerzy, we have one place at our ground for you. We will work you like a miner but we will work you at the stadium'."

It has been Dudek's fate to have made his rare errors on the biggest stage. Dropping Jamie Carragher's back-header at the feet of a striker might have been forgotten on Merseyside after a while, had the boots not belonged to Diego Forlan and had the goal not given Manchester United victory at Anfield.

"As a goalkeeper you have to learn very quickly to take the positives from any situation. Life is very difficult for goalkeepers right now because they have redesigned the new balls to make them lighter and swerve more. In a year or two's time, they will use a lighter one still because the attraction of football is all about scoring goals. It means every day will become more difficult."

Dudek makes arguments familiar to anyone who has put on a pair of gloves at any level of the game: that the pressure is always on a goalkeeper before kick-off because any mistakes mean every other player will have to work harder. Of course, the reverse is true when a penalty is taken. "Yes but how many times do you get the chance to save a penalty?" he protests. "At the beginning of my career it was very hard to understand why it was like that."

Dudek came very close to avoiding the bittersweet embrace that is a goalkeeper's life. He had begun between the posts but by the time he turned 13 the young Dudek was making his way as a left-back in his home town, 40 miles from Katowice in southern Poland.

"I was very happy there. I didn't want to go back in goal but the coach says: 'You have to go back - we have no available keeper'. Being a keeper is like being a striker, you don't need as much ability as you do when you are a defender or a midfielder; you have to do one thing well. My first coach was my younger brother, Dariusz, and we would practise throughout the school holidays because there was nothing else to do."

Perhaps wisely, Dariusz did not become a goalkeeper and now plays in midfield for Legia Warsaw. Jerzy's son, Alex, he laughs, performs everywhere except in goal. "Sometimes you don't deserve to be criticised but you are. The problem is that you accept that but it is difficult to explain to your family. They see the newspapers and they wonder what is going on. They look at you and say: 'Why?' You have to tell them that it has to be like this. Sometimes it is over the top but you have to accept it."

After Tuesday's match with Bayer Leverkusen, which - it has almost been forgotten - was the only victory by an English club in the Champions' League, Dudek received nearly two dozen supportive text messages. In tomorrow's Carling Cup final against Chelsea, Dudek will be pitched against another formidable keeper from central Europe, Petr Cech, part of a side that has conceded only an astonishing eight goals in this Premiership season. Dudek thinks him already one of the best in Europe.

"He has done well so quickly because he moved away from his country very quickly to play in France for two or three years," Dudek said. "He learned things in France that would make it much easier for him to settle in England. It is not easy for a foreign player to go to a big club like Chelsea because when you are there, you are always under pressure."

At Anfield there is always an undercurrent that Dudek is judged more harshly because he is Polish. In Rafael Benitez's squad are Chris Kirkland and Scott Carson, young English keepers whom many on Merseyside and beyond are almost willing to do well. And if they need Dudek's rare blunders to force their way in, then so be it.

The three have a good working relationship. "We talk a lot about technical things. When I moved to Holland to play for Feyenoord I watched a lot of videos of keepers. Perhaps after football I will stay in the game, maybe as a coach or as a manager. I would like to work with young players. It is difficult to say where because Alex is now eight. He is doing very well and when I've finished here I have to make a decision about what's best for him."

Dudek is keen to give his son a grounding in his native culture. They speak Polish at home, Alex goes to a Polish school once a week and every summer they return to Poland. Happily, Jerzy reports that Alex has had no hassle at school in the wake of his father's error against Leverkusen.

It is important to remember what a fine keeper Dudek is, how when he first arrived he was part of a Liverpool side that ground out remorseless and sometimes achingly dull clean sheets. His triumphs receive less than their due but then that is a goalkeeper's lot. He was on holiday when Gérard Houllier, the man who signed him, was sacked and Dudek admits to being saddened by it all.

"I read he had been sacked on the BBC Teletext. It was shocking because we had achieved our target of qualifying for the Champions' League. He said: 'I'll see you after the holidays, be ready' and then you hear news like that. You hear the speculation over the new coach; maybe Benitez, maybe Mourinho and you turn through your mind what can happen to you."

What happened was that partly because of injury to Kirkland, who proved not quite the great white hope of English goalkeeping he had been billed as, Dudek won back and retained his place. Tomorrow, in Cardiff, he has a chance of a second League Cup winners' medal. It is to be hoped that on Sunday night he will not be asking the goalkeeper's perennial question: "Why are people not being punched like you are being punched?"

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