“Everything changed in one moment”.
That’s really a life cliche, because there are so many aspects of our existence to which that could be applied. It might be a moment of realisation or an experience which left a lasting impression, but our lives are typically defined by experiences or memories which loiter in our sub-conscience and determine our personalities.
During my very average amateur football days, I was a goalkeeper. Not a particularly good one or one who was ever likely to actually achieve anything in the sport, but I was reasonable within my own little habitat.
The general assumption is that goalkeepers are made from a composite of bad outfield players, fat children and those who are only included in schoolyard games to make up the numbers. That’s partly true, certainly, but in my case I genuinely loved it. From the age of maybe six or seven, there was something about stopping the ball which appealed to me more than kicking it and I was that strange child: the one who volunteered to stand in between the jumpers while everybody else ran around.
I used to thrive on the action. In informal kick-arounds or school matches, I used to crave the ball and will the opposition to play well enough to give me something to do. I didn’t care about the winning and losing or what happened in the other ninety yards of the pitch, I just wanted the opportunity to throw myself around and make saves.
And that was true until I was - maybe - eleven years old.
I’m thirty-one now, but I still remember that moment as if it happened yesterday. Playing in a match on our school’s main pitch, a tame shot dribbled in from my right side and, despite its lack of pace, the ball squirmed under my body, trickled towards the goal-line, and kissed the post on its way into the net.
It was a terrible feeling. In later life, I would come to compare it with a particularly bad break-up or a crucial work failure of some kind, but at the time - and maybe this makes a positive statement about the quality of my childhood - it was one of the most painful things that had ever happened.
It was a pit-of-the-stomach kind of pain, a sort which can’t be treated.
Children - especially young boys - are proud, competitive and generally terrified of being embarrassed in front of their peers. The instinct then, when caught in the jaws of humiliation, is to squirm and try to find any way out.
Feign an injury, shout at a defender, blame the ground.
I did none of those things: certain type of footballing mistakes leave you utterly helpless. I lay in the mud, face down, and even on that icy cold December pitch I could feel my cheeks rouge with embarrassment.
It was a very pure sort of despondency. There were no consolidating asterisks to grasp at and no hint of mitigation.
It was just really, really bad goalkeeping.
Needless to say, it scarred me. Not in a personality changing way or as a real trauma would, but I carried the memory of that afternoon with me for the rest of my playing days - albeit in a very strange way.
I played on through my time at senior school and, courtesy of a paucity of goalkeeping options rather than my own ability, I eventually found myself playing in the first-team. I was very proud of that and in a slightly pathetic way I still am.
Interestingly, though, I never really enjoyed it. I was gratified by the achievement and I liked the ego-stroke of being a first-eleven player at a big school, but the actual games - from minute zero to minute ninety - I used to hate. I was terrified in a way that I suspect I never would have been had my eleven year-old self not botched that tame shot.
That December afternoon in 1995 changed my outlook on the position forever: It was the BC/AD crossover in my footballing life.
Before, I had been happy and carefree and had, naively, felt a sense of invulnerability whenever I played. Goals would go in, shots would go past me but…so what? Pick the ball out of the net and move on. It never effected how I saw the game around me and it never stopped me from wanting more action: more shots to deal with, a one-on-one, maybe a cross to catch.
I think maybe - and excuse the amateur psychology - prior to The Great Calamity I had existed in a world in which there were no real negatives. It was all just…fun. After, however, stepping onto a football pitch became a mission in self-preservation.
I no longer cared whether I played well or whether the team lost, just so long as I couldn’t be directly blamed for whatever happened.
That’s a very self-defeating mindset and, goodness, did it spawn a lot of mistakes.
Good goalkeeping is almost exclusively the product of positivity and self-belief. Saving shots may be largely instinct, but the other elements of the position - a far greater percentage - relies on conviction, confidence, and the determination to put yourself in positions which make you vulnerable to failure without considering it to ever be a possibility
“What if…” scenarios are goalkeeping cancer. Being fully-cognisant of the pitfalls of certain actions or decisions is the quickest way to becoming vulnerable and by far the most direct route to a crippling level of doubt.
I didn’t really grow until very late in my teenage years. I’m only a touch over five foot ten now, but I was playing senior football when I was five foot five or six, so I was at a physical disadvantage. Even so, it’s amazing how many errors I made that had nothing to do with my size and which were solely defined by what was, I admit, a very weak mind.
I would fumble shots that I could have caught with my eyes closed, miss crosses that I could have claimed with one hand; for those ninety or one-hundred and eighty minutes a week, my mind had a corrosive effect on my basic motor skills. Put my on a training pitch or in a far-off goalmouth away from anyone and I would look relatively stable, but expose me to the prospect of social derision and my knees would buckle.
I played hundreds of games and, thanks to football and my privileged education, I have a treasured set of memories from some beautiful places that I would never have otherwise had. At the time, though, the football made it almost unbearable: my on-field persona was almost entirely defined by the memories of events that had occurred weeks, months, and sometimes years in the past.
It was never something that I was able to leave on the pitch. Between games, I would expend my mental energy examining and re-examining events in minute detail and considering how my actions would have looked to those who had seen them.
The question was never “should I have done better?”, but - and far more troubling from a psychiatrist’s perspective - “do they think that I should have done better?”
That started with the Calamity, I’m sure of it. It broke something inside of me that I was never able to fix. How absurd; I was a schoolboy with no ambition or hope of playing beyond a highly inconsequential level and yet I had allowed my football - which was, ultimately, just a relief from lessons and homework - to be defined by something that probably only I remembered or cared about.
This article’s function is really self-catharsis, that much should already be clear. However, on a non-personal level, the experiences above have allowed me to admire professional goalkeepers in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t.
Sure, I understand the mechanics of the position and I’m aware of the various techniques and decisions which have to be made during the course of game. More importantly, though, it’s given me the greatest respect for the emotional tools which are a necessity at the highest level.
In hindsight, I was probably an unusually insecure teenager, but if I struggled to cope in a situation which amounted to a distraction from education, I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it must be for a goalkeeper to survive when his actual livelihood is at stake.
Often, I think of Robert Green. In 2010, when Clint Dempsey’s shot squirmed through him in Rustenburg, I felt more pity for him than I did anger over England’s collective predicament. Green’s entire career has been defined by that moment - a freak, an anomaly which would never repeat itself - and there isn’t a save he can make that will erase that memory.
For the life of me, I don’t know how he ever walked on a football pitch ever again. Imagine: it’s the ultimate sporting nightmare. A World Cup game, the entire planet watching and you make a mistake that feeds your country’s scapegoating culture. To this day, I’d wager that in every game he plays he’s offered a reminder of that moment. Whether it be an opponent seeking a psychological advantage or a clever wag standing behind his goal. He will have been teased, tormented and ridiculed on a very regular basis.
“The horror, the horror.”
It’s worth dwelling on that. Not the parts that involve me, because that’s my personal trauma, but on just how much pressure these guys routinely shoulder. We admire their gravity-defying saves and we applaud their reactions, but consider their context too.
When the game is on the line and when millions of people are watching, a goalkeeper’s ability to be impervious to his past and think exclusively of how he’s going to be perfect is one of the most admirable sub-plots in sport.