Between the sticks: The importance of having a top-class ‘keeper

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Brian Clough used to say that the quality of a goalkeeper was the difference between a good side and a great one, and would often cite the example of Peter Shilton. Shilton, he contended, was worth at least 10-15 points in a season (under the two points for a win system) and was therefore the difference between Nottingham Forest being a top-six club and two-times Champions of Europe.

A trail through the great sides of history would – in the main – tend to bear Cloughie’s words out. As well as Forest’s success at the tail end of the 1970s with Shilton between the sticks, one only has to think of the great Liverpool sides of the ’70s and ‘80s and the names of Ray Clemence and, to a lesser extent, Bruce Grobbelaar come to mind. The great Everton side of the middle years of the decade boasted Neville Southall, regarded by many as the best ‘keeper in Europe at that time, while Pat Jennings was instrumental in bringing trophies to both clubs across the North London divide.

Most successful clubs could then be said to be blessed by having the very best in goal. There were some exceptions – cases where the man in goal was not necessarily a ‘big name’ but still got the job done. A good example here would be Colin Boulton, who was an ever-present in the Derby County sides that won the First Division title in 1972 and again in 1975.

However, let us now take a look at the other side of the coin, and examine what happens when a good side perhaps does not quite employ the very best in the business in the nets.

Many a time a side has been successful and has amassed trophies but has left the public feeling that they have perhaps underachieved. A relatively recent example of this phenomenon could be the Liverpool side of the ‘Spice Boys’ era.

During this period of approximately 1994 – 1998, Liverpool had but a single League Cup victory to their name, when it could have been so much more. In goal for the entirety of this period was David James, who despite being a very good goalkeeper, was not quite absolute top-drawer and was held up in some quarters as being a perceived weak link in Liverpool’s armour.

Going back a bit further and it is perhaps worth starting with a look at Don Revie’s Leeds United sides of the 1960s and 1970s. Although undoubtedly successful, with plenty of trinkets on display in the Elland Road trophy cabinet during this period, the club arguably missed out on twice as much as it actually won.

For example, alongside two title triumphs, Leeds somehow managed to finish runners-up in the league five times, with one third-place finish and one fourth in nine seasons from 1965 onwards. Add into the mix several cup final and semi-final disappointments, and as Brucie used to say, “Look what they could have won.”

The fact that they didn’t win as much as their talents perhaps deserved was sometimes – maybe slightly unfairly – placed at the feet of their goalkeepers at the time. The mainstay between the posts for the majority of the Leeds’ ‘Glory Years’ was the Welsh international, Gary Sprake.

Sprake came through the ranks at Elland Road and first established himself in the side with the club still in the old Second Division. He was a particular favourite of manager Don Revie, and although Revie was usually astute and could be ruthless when required, he seemed to have a blind spot for Sprake and his weaknesses.

A good shot-stopper but not exactly a dominant ‘keeper, Sprake was not always very popular in the Elland Road changing room at the time with Jack Charlton said to be a particularly voracious critic. Johnny Giles was another who didn’t particularly get on with Sprake and was of the opinion that Sprake’s lapses in concentration often cost Leeds dearly.

A good example of this would be the 1970 FA Cup Final, when Leeds pretty much dominated Chelsea at Wembley for large swathes of the original game but could not see their London counterparts off. Ultimately, Sprake was guilty of diving over the ball and gifting Chelsea a barely deserved replay which they duly won by two goals to one.

Upon retirement, Sprake further antagonised his former teammates by making unsubstantiated claims against Revie with regard to attempts to fix matches. Not one for the Elland Road Hall of Fame, then.

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Moving forward a few years and Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town sides were known the length and breadth of the country for playing attractive football and for consistently being in and around the battles for major honours. However, it might surprise some to learn that in thirteen years at Portman Road Robson was only ever able to land a solitary UEFA Cup and a single FA Cup in terms of silverware.

Ipswich certainly had the swagger and the players to have achieved a lot more as everywhere you looked throughout these teams, the sheer quality just oozed through, Over the years, such established internationals as Kevin Beattie, Paul Mariner, Terry Butcher, Arnold Muhren, Mick Mills and Frans Thjissen adorned the silky Adidas garments of the Tractor Boys and with such class in the ranks they really should have done better than they did, trophy-wise.

Four times in eight seasons Ipswich made serious concerted attempts to land the title, in ’75, ‘77, ‘81 and ‘82, and four times they fell at the last after looking favourites to land the big one. For all their undoubted class in the outfield positions, it can be argued that Ipswich never really had a truly outstanding candidate in goal.

The first-choice ‘keeper for Ipswich when they challenged for both the league and FA Cup in 1974-75 was Laurie Sivell. Sivell was a brave goalkeeper and a reasonable shot-stopper, but top-class he certainly wasn’t. At only 5 feet and 8 inches, he had done extremely well to forge a career in top-class football but was found wanting at the very highest level.

Sivell’s immediate successor in the Ipswich side was Paul Cooper. Cooper was a very good ‘keeper who was at one point considered to be amongst the country’s most underrated goalkeepers, but he too was just short of being in the absolute top bracket. Going by Cloughie’s maxim, if Ipswich had been fortunate enough to have one of the very best ‘keepers in their ranks in this period – a Clemence, Shilton, Jennings or Corrigan, say – they almost certainly would have got over the line at least once or twice as far the league title went.

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Another side that often seemed to flatter to deceive in the late 1970s and early 1980s was Tottenham Hotspur. Now, Spurs were a strange beast in many ways because for nineteen years between 1964 and 1987, they possessed two of the greatest goalkeepers in the history of the British game in Jennings and Clemence, but for the remaining four years in this period they seemed to struggle to find a ‘keeper of the highest quality.

In 1977, the Tottenham board decided to dispense with the services of Jennings, deeming him to be past his best and it time for a younger man to take over. It was seen as a strange decision at the time, never mind in hindsight, because although Spurs had just been relegated, Jennings was still only 33 years of age – relatively young for a ‘keeper – and as he would go on to show at neighbouring Arsenal, he still had plenty left in his locker.

Initially, Jennings’ long-term deputy, Barry Daines, took over the Number 1 jersey, but when he failed to convince manager Keith Burkinshaw he was the long-term successor to Jennings, Milija Aleksic was signed from Luton Town. Then for a while, Daines and Aleksic alternated in goal and a third ‘keeper, Mark Kendall, also made sporadic appearances.

Although the FA Cup was secured in 1981 with Aleksic getting the nod over Daines, it was not until Clemence was signed from Liverpool that summer that Tottenham once again had an elite ‘keeper. Even then it could be argued that he was ever so slightly past his best by this point and had Spurs had that top-notch quality in goal, then more success than two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup would have come their way in the 1980s.

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Finally, let’s have a quick look at Everton in the ’70s. With only a single league title right at the start of the decade in 1970, this was a relatively bleak period for Everton after the success of the 1960s when the Goodison club was amongst the country’s elite. Yet there were various points in which the Toffees came close to breaking out of the shadow of their red city neighbours without ever really managing to do so.

For many years, Gordon West was the man on whom Everton relied in goal. He was a member of the successful 1963 and 1970 league title sides and won three caps for England. When he retired in 1973, he was initially replaced by David Lawson and then by Welsh international, Dai Davies. Davies was a good goalkeeper, but in the best traditions of goalkeepers, he could be rather eccentric at times. It was this unreliability that contributed to Everton’s 1975 title challenge falling away.

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When Everton reached the League Cup Final and FA Cup semi-final in 1977, it was with Lawson in goal and both matches were eventually lost.

Davies and Lawson were then replaced by George Wood, a signing from Blackpool, and again Everton challenged at the end of the decade. This time another charge for the league title in 1978-79 fell away after a promising start, and with another FA Cup semi-final defeat the following season with Martin Hodge now in goal, it wasn’t until Southall was signed and established in the side that the honours started to roll in.

Without question, Cloughie was right. A good team can become a great one with the right man in between the sticks, but a good team will never truly kick on without one.