The gloves are on

The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper, by Jonathan Wilson, Orion, RRP£20, 368 pages

Few other positions in football are worth writing a book about: the striker, maybe; the centre half, just possibly. It is the goalkeeper who is the true object of fascination.

As Jonathan Wilson points out in his excellently researched and written The Outsider, the reason for this is probably that the whole purpose of goalkeeping is to thwart everybody else. The public turns up to see goals. Two individuals, one at either end of the pitch, are there to have things otherwise. If it were left to the goalkeeper, every match would end nil-nil.

Once, until about a century ago, goalkeepers roamed the field of play, able to handle the ball wherever they went, until a rule change sent them back to their penalty areas. Here they settled into internal exile, mooching around in the six-yard box pondering the world before them. They acquired a reputation for being mad; only they knew that it was everyone else who was mad, while they were sane.

Goalkeepers have a reputation for being thinkers: Camus, Nabokov, Yevtushenko. Whatever you say about Pope John Paul II’s approach to liberation theology in Latin America, intellectually he always gave 110 per cent. He also played in goal in his native Wadowice, near Kraków.

Wilson wants them out of their solitude, sweeping upfield and using their feet in the manner of such keepers as Holland’s Edwin van der Sar. The author sees this development as rooted in the 1950s and 1960s, when Gyula Grosics of Hungary and Russia’s Lev Yashin shocked the world by rushing out of their areas to volley or head the ball clear.

Not only is this the way the game is going, it is also for the goalkeeper’s own good. Far better to have him out on the field than back on his goal line, alone and worrying about life’s unfairness. Far too many goalkeepers, says Wilson, end up in penury or taking their own lives.

Bravely, Wilson, a journalist who is primarily a master of football tactics, cites one of his own heroes, Vladimir Beara of the former Yugoslavia, on the comparison of the modern game with that of old. “My time was the time of romantic football,” said Beara, who was at his goalkeeping peak in the 1950s. “Tactics still hadn’t eaten football.”

Worse still are the numerologists who will soon have the goalkeeper’s art reduced to how many yards per season he can punt the ball upfield. As such, Wilson’s book is a signpost towards a new way and a testament to a dying breed.

Peter Chapman is author of ‘The Goalkeeper’s History of Britain’ (Fourth Estate)

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