Some of you will probably already be aware of the fact that I spend far, far, far too much time watching DVDs of old football matches. I’m no great football analyst (you’d noticed?), but the one thing that I’ve noticed is that the goalkeepers were terrible. This is something that has bugged me for quite a while – when did goalkeepers develop the ability to actually do what they’re paid to do? Because, for a considerable period of time, they didn’t.
I was reminded of this whilst watching a video of a Manchester derby match from about 1972. With United leading narrowly and time running out, City got a corner which swung into the six yard area. It should have been a routine catch for Alex Stepney – he was under no pressure, and the angle of the ball meant that it wasn’t even above head height, but he still managed to spill the ball straight in the direction of Francis Lee, who lashed the ball into the roof of the goal. I don’t wish to turn this post into a slagging off session about Alex Stepney (well I could, but that’s not really the point that I’m trying to make) – it’s a pretty common occurrence on any football video from before about 1985.
The fact of the matter is that goalkeepers used to not be very good, and it’s worth remembering this when we look at the argument about England and their goalkeepers. Paul Robinson is having a wretched time of it at the moment (even incurring the wrath of Steven Gerrard in a post-match interview on Wednesday night – though, curiously, he omitted to mention the own goal that he missed himself with the score at 1-0), but the cover isn’t up to much, either. David James can be best described as “accident prone”, whilst the very mention of the names Robert Green and Scott Carson makes me wince. They’re probably better than many of the goalkeepers of the past, though. Gordon Banks’ save against Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, for example, was a magnificent piece of goalkeeping – an extraordinary feat of agility – but I seriously think that its brilliance was magnified by the fact that most goalkeeping at the time was so dreadful. You see five or six saves that good every season in the Premier League now.
Robinson, Green and Carson are probably inferior to, say, England’s 1982 World Cup goalkeeping trio of Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence and Joe Corrigan, and this is a real problem for England. Clemence was accident-prone, and Shilton always seemed to have a problem getting down to low shots because of his build. The rest of the world has moved on. Balls are lighter, shots are more fierce and, at the other end of the pitch, the goalkeepers are better – no longer the strangely flapping beasts of yore with an aversion to catching the ball. In this respect (as with many others), England has stood still.