Reflections on the reserve goalkeeper
The feeling of sitting on the bench must be an odd one for any professional footballer.
Some are working their way back from injury, others are youngsters or fringe players looking for a chance. They are watching, hoping for their opportunity, be it through a team-mate’s fatigue, injury or a change in the circumstances on the pitch.
But on the majority of substitute benches there sits an infinitely more curious player. The reserve goalkeeper. Only a tiny percentage will be called into action during a game, in the case of injury or red card for the No1, and in a vast number of cases they know they are destined to warm the bench for most of the campaign. So, what is it like to be the No2?
“People thought I was happy sitting there. I wasn’t,” explained Steve Harper in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com. The former Newcastle United goalkeeper spent several years as understudy to the club's then perennial No1 Shay Given. Despite working his way in and out of the first team in the years following his arrival in 1993, local lad Harper found himself mostly taking his place on the bench for a five-year spell from 2001.
“For me it was the balance of playing 199 games for Newcastle in front of 52,000, or playing double that at a lower level, a lesser club,” Harper said. “I’d take what I had at Newcastle all day long.”
Substitute goalkeepers sometimes become part of the furniture at their respective clubs, stalwarts respected and appreciated by supporters of their sides. Harper’s dedication is matched by a number of custodians around the globe who fulfilled the necessary, and somewhat thankless, task of the back-up.
Remy Vercoutre, now a No1 at Caen in France's Ligue 1, became one such ‘cult hero’ at his previous club Lyon. He spent more than a decade at Les Gones during the most successful spell in the club’s history, picking up five Ligue 1 titles. However, Vercoutre spent most of the time watching on as a succession of No1s came and went. He had opportunities to stake a claim, but Vercoutre claimed the No1 spot as his own for just one of his 12 seasons at the Stade de Gerland.
“It was an automatic choice,” Vercoutre told La Voix du Nord back in 2010 on his ‘decision’ to be a deputy. “I didn't have many interesting opportunities . I didn't want to run the risk of burying me at another club. I think people of the club and the city appreciate me. I assume completely this automatic choice. It's true that I play less matches, but at least these are big matches played in full stadiums.”
Even if I was the number two goalkeeper for most of my career, I still felt like a full member of the team.
Assuming the mantle of deputy can also be down to a huge name keeping you out of the starting XI. That was the case for Stefan Wessels at Bayern Munich from 1999 to 2003, when the legendary Oliver Kahn was in his pomp.
“Even if I was the number two goalkeeper for most of my career, I still felt like a full member of the team,” Wessels, told 11Freunde Magazin. “Of course Kahn did more for the Champions League title than me but I won the trophy anyway. I think 99 per cent of pros envy me for my career.”
Raimond van der Gouw made a conscious choice to move to Manchester United, aged 32, with the rather imposing frame of Peter Schmeichel standing in his way. The Dutchman, despite his advancing years, wanted to learn from the Dane.
“It was very good to see how he was preparing, his focus, as that’s something you have to know when you play at a top side,” Van Der Gouw told StrettyNewsTV. “You always look back and think, 'I wish I had more minutes', but I’ve been really lucky. I was a part of the team and that’s the way I felt.”
Despite playing a major and necessary part in the success of their varying clubs, there are moments of self-doubt, of incredible difficulty, for those who play in the loneliest position on the pitch.
“I had some real dark, testing times,” Harper said of his five-year stint which saw him make just two English Premier League appearances. “I had the help of family and some good professional people at the club to get me through it.”
Stuart Taylor, a shot stopper who made a bright start at Arsenal before going on to continue his career as an understudy at various top flight clubs in England, mirrors Harper’s recollection.
“Of course you feel like you drop off the radar,” Taylor told the Daily Star. “Unless people see you play, you feel forgotten. I expect people do think 'back-up keeper' when they think of me. That hurts because I feel I’ve got the ability to do a job. I didn’t go into football thinking I just want to train every day for a living. Every goalkeeper needs a backup. Someone’s got to do it. It has been tough and tested me mentally.”
As goalkeepers progresses through their career, they tend to become elder statesmen in the dressing room, with the position allowing some to play past their 40th birthday. That level of experience, and the guidance one can offer, was seen as a benefit by Harper when reflecting on a career that saw him become the longest-serving player at Newcastle.
“I probably helped the young goalkeepers and other goalkeepers too much really, to my own detriment,” Harper admitted. “But that’s my personality, my nature. Maybe that’s why I’m destined to go into coaching and I will continue to help people. Do I regret helping others? No. I put my head on the pillow at night and think that I’ve helped give somebody a start in the game.”
The final word on the mentality of the reserve goalkeeper goes to Jose Manuel Pinto, understudy to Victor Valdes at Barcelona for the tail-end of a career that saw him pick up innumerable trophies. He was often asked if he cared what many thought of him taking on the understudy role at Barça, and not pushing for a No1 jersey elsewhere.
“I do not tally up what others think,” Pinto told ESPN. “Nobody knows better than myself if I could have done more or less. In the end opinions are like asses - everyone has one, no?”