When Petr Cech was sent off for Chelsea against Wigan Athletic at the weekend, it was the story that hogged most of the back pages in the newspapers the next day. Yet Cech’s sending off was a reminder of the abandonment of one of the little quirks that made football quite unique. Before the introduction of substitute goalkeepers, if your team lost its goalkeeper it was tough luck. An outfield player would be tossed an out-sized jersey and left to get on with it. The result would usually be a form of low comedy that wouldn’t be tolerated in the ultra-serious modern game.
The player selected to play in goal would always look remarkably incongruous. Because he was invariably five or six inches shorter than the player that he was replacing, his shirt would flap ingloriously around his thighs like a mini-skirt and he would often fiddle with his gloves, adjusting them as if they had some sort of magical powers that he could harness if he adjusted them around the wrist. Once in position (and with the crowd obviously already aware of the fact that there was at least one person on the pitch now with absolutely no idea what he was doing), the fun and games could begin.
When outfield players had to go in goal, you see, what was immediately obvious was that they had spent so much of their playing career getting on with their job that they hadn’t been paying much attention to what their goalkeeper had been doing. Kicking, that most obvious of tasks and one that we might expect any professional footballer to be able to do under any circumstances, suddenly became a chore. Every set piece was suddenly the equivalent of an air raid. With opposing teams more than aware of the scared looking interloper between the posts for the opposition, every set piece would now become an aerial bombardment. Every pass forward a chance to test out this so-called “goalkeeper”.
The temporary custodian would seldom prove himself to be of much use. Strangely afraid to dive for shots, kicking at wild angles and watching the proceedings with a mixture of strange detachment and furious panic, the outfield player in goal was the supreme entertainment for the crowd. His defence would crowd around him in an almost touching display of solidarity with their team-mate. Defending would get deeper and deeper until players were almost queued up on the goal line in a desperate attempt to keep the visiting hoards out. And at the final whistle, the outfield player would wear the smile of someone that had done what they could under impossible circumstances.
This phenomenon reached its apotheosis in 1982, at an FA Cup quarter-final between Leicester City and Shrewsbury Town at Filbert Street. Shrewsbury had knocked Ipswich Town (the previous season’s First Division runners-up and holders of the UEFA Cup) in the previous round. With the home side having taken an early lead, the Leicester goalkeeper Mark Wallington injured himself during the first half but manfully struggled on until his injury cost Leicester two goals and he resignedly had to be substituted and was replaced by forward Alan Young. An own goal brought Leicester level at 2-2 at half-time, but early in the second half Young also injured himself and had to be taken off to be replaced by Steve Lynex. Young returned in goal a few minutes later, though, and Leicester went on to win 5-2.
Such excitement and strangeness is seldom seen these days. The only opportunity that we now get for such fun and games is if a goalkeeper is sent off after all three substitutions have already been made. When Petr Cech was sent off on Saturday he was replaced by Henrique Hilario and, amusing though it may have been to see Chelsea go on to lose that match, the defeat had more to do with Chelsea being reduced to ten men than with Cech no longer being on the pitch. Our modern, humourless game will not tolerate such fun and games. There is too much at stake. We are all a little poorer for this.