Pete Sharland recounts his experience as a teenage goalkeeper…
“They say you have to be mental to be a goalkeeper.” Growing up that was what I heard all the time from my coaches and to be honest I never questioned who “they” were because it wasn’t something you did as a young player but now I’ve had time to reflect. For starters they must not have been goalkeepers themselves because I’m here to tell you that you do not need to be mental to be a goalkeeper. As I hope to demonstrate using stories from my past and opinions garnered from my experiences, the main prerequisite for being a goalkeeper is not being mental at all, but those who say this are just one word short. You need mental strength, being mental just seems to be a happy coincidence.
First a little background. I came to football later than most of my friends and thusly by the time it came to picking teams in the school playground I was normally picked last and nearly always thrust in goal. Due to this my ability with the ball didn’t develop until I started playing more casually and early on I was very nervous in my ability with the ball, preferring to trust my reflex saves as a means for carrying me forward.
When I first joined my secondary school we had trial period, and I was picked as one of the three goalkeepers for the ‘A’ team squad try-outs. Without wishing to gloss over things too quickly I didn’t distinguish myself with a poor display when I was rotated outfield and then suffered a nosebleed during my time in-between the sticks.
Now we come to the main talking point, an incident which I’ve never truly forgotten although having said that the timing of it is somewhat hazy due to my middle playing years seeming to merge together. By this stage – around 2006 at the age of 13 or 14 – I was in the ‘C’ team and no more than a back-up should one of the top two keepers become injured. It is October or November and unsurprisingly absolutely tipping it down. My ball control is by some way the worst of our group and as such I’m always pestering our coach to do more shooting practice so I can focus on my goalkeeping but in this particular afternoon session we’re playing a practice match.
By now the ‘D’ team goalkeeper had become a serious threat to my position after some heavy defeats and I felt like my every action was under scrutiny. Whether it was my poor technique, the terrible conditions or my nerves I’m not sure but what happened next was simply heart breaking. Our main central midfielder, a ginger haired lad by the name of Adam Bull picked the ball up about 40 yards and I instantly braced myself. I’d played with him often enough to know he was confident enough to have a go from anywhere and sure enough he decided to “try his luck”.
The shot was hopelessly mishit and it ballooned up into the air and angled diagonally towards my penalty area serving an ‘N’ shaped trajectory. Now for some reason I was under the impression that the ball had taken a deflection off a team-mate, so I felt I had to boot the ball away rather than pick it up (yes I know I don’t understand either). As I ran forward to meet the ball, which at this stage had worked its way to outside of the goal, I completely missed it, the ball took a deflection off the inside of my right boot and it nestled in the back of the net.
I was devastated, the last thing I needed was a monumental error in front of the entire squad but here it was. At my school – as is the case at most schools I imagine – the story spread throughout the year and the clamour for me to be replaced increased within our little group. By the time our next match came around I had more or less resigned myself to the fact that I would be dropped but our coach kept faith with me and I’m not sure any act by any coach has ever had a bigger effect. This isn’t a Disney film, so I didn’t proceed to make ten match winning saves (we lost 2-1) and then work my way up the ranks (I stayed where I was) but it was an astonishing show of faith and I was indebted to him.
Later that season in a practice match against the ‘B’ team I suffered the ultimate indignity of conceding straight from a corner – I came for it and I completely flapped at it and missed it, actually rather similar to this effort from Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel. Again there were calls for me to be dropped, but once again my coach stuck with me when he could have just switched the two of us, if even for a game.
Throughout my career as a goalkeeper I was seen as a bit of a double-edged sword I guess. Capable of jaw-dropping saves but equally capable of cataclysmic errors. I was eccentric; I would never shut-up on the pitch, I would annoy the opposition and I would always sprint up for corners if the opportunity presented itself but that didn’t help me as a goalkeeper. What helped me was being able to recover from high-profile (well as high-profile as you can get as a ‘C’ team keeper) mistakes. Eccentric keepers in the professional game amuse us, but the mentally resilient ones earn our respect.
Incidentally that was my penultimate season as a keeper, in later years I played as a winger and than as a forward. The latter saw me suffer a similar experience when I missed four or five guilt edged chances in one game but a lack of pace and love of a tackle has seen me end up as a centre-back.
Even now when I play Saturday league games I am always sympathetic with our goalkeepers when they make a horrendous blunder. I’ve been there and I know the worst thing you can do is dwell on it. Even saying “Don’t worry about it mate, just try and move on” is a bad idea. Keepers are an odd bunch admittedly and their mistakes are usually so costly that I know they’ll spend ages dwelling on it. You need to let them sort it out themselves. I still occasionally don the gloves if needs be and the errors haven’t worked themselves out of my system, I’ve just learnt to dealt with them.
You don’t have to be mental to be a goalkeeper but you do have to be prepared to play the hardest position in the game mentally. A mistake is as costly as it gets on a football field and even the greatest are often overlooked. When you’re younger it is even harder because keepers are often just the worst outfielders and it is probably one of the hardest positions to develop. Being a goalkeeper was exceptionally tough and I don’t miss it, but it did teach me a lot about the mental side of football.