Keepers who bring sanity to a madcap profession

CUP FINAL COUNTDOWN: Self-discipline has helped Wembley's rival goalkeepers to save and prosper. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
Five hours after the Everton squad completed the long haul back from Ipswich at dawn, tired and emotional having averted relegation, the 36-year-old who had done most to secure their victory was throwing himself around the training ground like a teenager.

Neville Southall personifies a peculiar dichotomy, as does his Manchester United counterpart in Saturday's FA Cup final, the 27-year-old Peter Schmeichel. Goalkeepers may have to be crazy, as the saying goes, but the best of their number also exercise remarkable self-discipline.

Alan Hodgkinson, the former England international, is in the unique position of having a hand in either camp as goalkeeping coach to both finalists. While agreeing that Southall and Schmeichel are larger-than-life characters, he knows them as dedicated professionals and believes their eccentricity has been exaggerated.

Neither player, however, could be indicted for dullness. Southall is still living down his half-time "sit-in" during a defeat by Leeds five years ago, an act widely (and he claims wrongly) construed as disloyalty to Everton. And his Wales team-mates tell of watching from their hotel, hours before the crucial World Cup qualifier against Romania, as he made imaginary saves on the lawn.

Similarly, Schmeichel's colleagues were amazed to find that someone with hands the size of shovels could play anything from boogie-woogie to Bach on the piano. His artistic bent, like Eric Cantona's poetry and painting, seems at odds with the image of an individual renowned for goalmouth rows with his neighbour and bosom pal, the United captain Steve Bruce.

Crazy? Hodgkinson, who arguably qualifies himself by virtue of resuming his lifelong glove affair only months after undergoing quadruple heart by-pass surgery at 58, gives the concept a context. "Goalies had to be a bit mad in my day," he said. "They had to throw themselves at people's feet, go into shoulder charges with forwards. That was how the game was, but they also lacked technique.

"Nowadays he's got to be the most level-headed guy in the team. He has to be concentrating all the time, aware of the possibilities. He must be stable and consistent rather than eccentric and rowdy."

The extent to which Saturday's rival keepers fit this identikit is debatable. Although Hodgkinson has worked with Southall only since Joe Royle became manager in November, his influence is readily apparent. "Neville's had a lot of criticism these last few years, but he's looking sharp again," he said.

"He needed to pull his socks up, literally, because he was playing with them round his ankles and his shirt hanging out. Now he looks as if he's got his self-esteem back, and it's reflected in his form. It's also important that he's still prepared to listen after 14 years at the top. The ability was always there. Maybe I've helped to rekindle the enthusiasm."

Hodgkinson has been involved in Schmeichel's development since being asked to cast an expert eye over him by Alex Ferguson in 1991. "I flew out to Copenhagen one Sunday to see him play for Brndby," he recalled. "I reported back that I'd seen the goalie who would help United win the championship.

"He definitely wasn't the finished article. Though he had the Continental keeper's mannerisms - punching when he could catch, parrying when he should have held - his potential was obvious and he wanted to learn."

What about those occasional Grobbelaar-style rushes of blood? "Peter's impetuous, but it's because he wants to be involved. He'll dash out of his area, but he gets away with things because of his sheer presence."

If technical excellence is the most important attribute a keeper needs, presence is up there with the more easily definable bravery, temperament and reflexes. Southall and Schmeichel have it by the skip-load, though in Hodgkinson's view it has more to do with mentality than size. Andy Goram, whose progress he has supervised at Oldham and Rangers, is less than imposing physically but has the authority to match his agility.

The unlucky Goram is also the exception to Hodgkinson's rule that a good keeper hardly ever misses a game. "I only missed 14 in 19 seasons at Sheffield United, and Neville and Peter have got good records," the coach said. "It's all down to judgement, timing and their quality of touch. They don't break many fingers."

But the back-pass rule means that handling skills are no longer enough. Southall, a trialist with Bolton and Crewe as a teenaged centre-half, is no slouch with his feet. Schmeichel is seldom caught out either, but has a deadlier string to his bow.

As a Yorkshireman who shared Bramall Lane with Fred Trueman in his prime, Hodgkinson knows a good bowling action when he sees one. "British goalies could learn from Peter's distribution, particularly the accuracy and speed of his throwing. He's probably the only playmaking keeper in the country."

Ultimately, though, the men between the sticks are judged on the goals they prevent. The night after Ipswich and the 14th of Southall's 15 Premiership shut-outs, Southampton finally ended at eight Schmeichel's run of home games without conceding a goal.

"You don't build records like that by acting crazy, but by hard graft," Hodgkinson asserted. "These guys can go on for a long time. Neville could play at least another four years at the top."

Their mentor has been spared the Solomon-like ordeal of watching his charges at Wembley. He is in Japan, keeping Scotland's keepers on their toes during the Kirin Cup, and expects to catch the final on a television set somewhere in Hiroshima.

"I don't care who wins as long as Neville and Peter aren't embarrassed," he said, David Seaman's Parisian nightmare fresh in his mind. After a season in which football has washed its dirty linen in public like never before, Alan Hodgkinson may be alone on Saturday in wishing for a pair of clean sheets.

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