Leigh Roose on Goalkeeping


Leigh Roose was asked to write an article on goalkeeping. The article first appeared in The Book of Football in 1906.

A good goalkeeper, like a poet, is born, not made. Nature has all to do with the art in its perfection, yet very much call be done by early training, tuition and practice. A "natural" goalkeeper seems to keep his form without much effort. All the training possible will not make a man a goalkeeper. You must coach him, explain the finer points of the game to him, and show him the easiest and best way to take the ball to the greatest advantage, and how to meet this or that movement of the attacking forwards, and then he will be something more than a mere physical entity or specimen. Granted that the aspirant has the inherent and essential qualities in him to become successful, it is the early work and coaching that are the determining causes of after success, without which he can never hope to attain the ideal.

In the other positions in the field success is dependent upon combined effort and upon the dovetailing, of one player's work with another. With the goalkeeper it is a different matter entirely. He has to fill a position in which the principle is forced upon him that "it is good for a man to be alone" - a position which is distinctly personal and decidedly individualistic in character. His is the most onerous post, and one which is equally responsible. Any other player's mistakes may be readily excused, but a single slip on the part of the last line of defence may be classed among the list of the unpardonable sins - especially when the International Selection Committee is on business bent. His one mistake or lapse may prove more costly than a score of errors committed by all his fellow clubmates put together.

Nevertheless, a goalkeeper's position is a most fascinating one to take up, and the intense application which an aspirant willingly gives to it is the best proof of the powerful attraction of the duties incumbent on one filling that post. The attraction of "paddling one's own canoe", as it were, in this pastime is equally pronounced as in the orthodox river pastime itself.

To prove a successful goalkeeper, a man must be one of those destined by nature to be 'on his own', as the resources for reliably filling the post are entirely in himself, and, unless he wishes to be purely imitative, the goalkeeper, like the silkworm, must produce his materials from himself. He must not even have a nodding acquaintance with "nerves", the bete noire of many a man who otherwise would have been successful. The responsibility which it involves and entails should not have a tendency to make him feel timid otherwise he must give up the idea of ever excelling. He should be full of pluck, as in a very short time experience will teach him that an ounce of that genuine and useful attribute is worth a ton of the elusive element known as luck. Individually he should be extremely keen, and his physical agility should be commensurate with his mental alertness.

Goalkeeping is looked upon as the easiest position to take upon one's self in the field. The belief is as erroneous as it is common, and those people who suggest such betray gross ignorance. Certainly there are occasions when the goalkeeper has nothing more to do than support his own frame and weight, yet even then the routine and monotony are positively irksome to those whose preference is for something more than the 'simple life' from the keeper's point of view, and on such occasions they scarcely put credence in the sentiments contained in the phrase that "they also serve who only stand and wait".

It is this long waiting for shots that tries a goalkeeper - this watching and waiting when you see your forwards and backs being slowly but surely driven in on you that will make a man unsteady at the critical moment. Only those who have followed an important cup-tie from start to finish can appreciate the strain on the nerves of the spectators. What must it be, then, to the players engaged, particularly the goalkeeper? No doubt a good deal depends on temperament, but even the most light-hearted and careless acknowledge that the mental tension is severe, and when there is not much to occupy a goalkeeper's attention, what John Stuart Mill called "the disastrous feeling that nothing matters" is apt to creep over the best of custodians when the spur is removed and the keenness taken away or only present after long intervals.

Leigh Roose playing for Stoke City
Leigh Roose playing for Stoke City

Only those who are active votaries rather than passive critics can appreciate the merit or the charm of goalkeeping, and such expect to find a little originality concurrent with that which we see brought to bear upon other games of skill. Everything that the aspirant to first-class rank attempts to accomplish should be marked by a steady, quiet confidence. There should be nothing, to denote the novice about his play, albeit a champion in embryo. As a rule, men are clever at a game because they are fond of it, and when a man is fond of anything in which he takes part, he does not usually or as a rule scamp such work as he participates in.

Players with intelligence to devise a new move or system, and application to carry it out, will go tar. And for that reason the possession of personal conception and execution is desirable, although a "player with an opinion" nowadays which is not in consonance with the stereotyped methods of finessing and working for openings is shunned to no small degree, as though lie carried about with him the germs of an infectious disease.

A goalkeeper, however, can be a law unto himself in the matter of his defence. He need not set out to keep goal on the usual stereotyped lines. He is at liberty to cultivate originality and, more often than not, if he has a variety of methods in his clearances and means of getting rid of the ball, he will confound and puzzle the attacking forwards.

Trickiness and ability to dodge an opponent are as absolutely necessary to a goalkeeper's art as that of a boxer should feint with his right and deliver a blow with his left. A custodian should confound his opponents when hard pressed by clearing, exactly similar shots in totally different ways, and should not allow them to decide or guess by mere theory how lie will act in getting rid of the ball or in clearing. He should "bounce" the forwards, but keep it within proper limits.

A goalkeeper should be one possessed of acute observation and independent thought. He should be aggressive, and have the fighting instinct or spirit in him, and if in combination with a modicum of "temper" - so called - he will be none the worse for that. Temper is only a form of energy and, so long, as it is controlled, the more we have of it in a custodian the better. He should know every move of the game as well as he knows the alphabet, and study the mysteries of attack and the intricacies of defence, at the same time carrying his individual attitude with perfect balance. If he can give to his work the spice of a little originality, it will prove to be his advantage. Stale minds rather than stale bodies and muscles are responsible for many of the indifferent displays we read of. When a person's mannerisms seem part of the man, unconscious and necessary to the full self-expression of his work or play, it is folly to attempt to cramp one's methods for the sake of conformity to a general type. When, however, they are foreign to his role, they become a just source of irritation, and the reason for their adoption is possibly found in the fact that the person who has aped somebody's methods, which were in turn sub-aped by others, was suffering at both extremities of his person in that lie was the possessor of a swollen head and had grown too big for his boots.

The fairest judgement of a man is by the standard of his work, and the best goalkeeper is the one who makes the fewest mistakes. Perfect custodians are not in evidence in this mundane sphere. There certainly are degrees of comparison in the best of goalkeepers, albeit of a limited kind, as the tactics indulged in by keepers are merely matters of personal equation.

"Some men are born great, others achieve greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them." A goalkeeper may be of all these, but the best keepers are principally the first.

They are expected to be perfection personified in their form - never to lapse or even make a mistake, and to possess all the virtues of the man who was sorry he had only the Ten Commandments to keep and no more. Granted perfection is desirable, but it is usually presentable only to the imagination in this imperfect world.

Let a goalkeeper be successful in his clearances, and great will be his triumph. Let him fail, and oblivion will be his portion. Orthodox views to the contrary notwithstanding, a goalkeeper and his methods of defence are the result of the physical make-up of the individual. This relative truth no one need gainsay. He should stand about six feet and no nonsense. Size gives one the impression of strength and safety and enables a goalkeeper to deal with high and wide shots with comparative ease where a smaller and shorter man would be handicapped. On the other hand, a tall and ponderous goalkeeper is at a disadvantage with the smaller and more agile rival when required to get down to swift ground or low shots. To the agility of youth should be couple the sagacity of veterancy. His first duty, and, indeed, the primary responsibility incumbent upon him, is to ensure his team against defeat, and he should always play the game that is calculated to be most effectual in obviating defeat for his side. He should not be one of those incapable of anything of the ordinary, but should be able to rise to the occasion when such is demanded of him; otherwise, even if his critical friends are unable to locate any particular weakness, there will be feelings of unreliability somewhere in connection with his work. The plans which lie has in his head should be carried out unhesitatingly, and he should try to make himself fit naturally into the team's fabric. To be on the tip-toe of expectancy is a quality necessary in a top-grade custodian. Like the figure of Aunt Sally on a fair green, he is there for any of the opposition to take a cheap shy at him when, how, and from what position they please. The manner in which some forwards score from unexpected positions and are successful at long range shows not only how often it is possible for a goalkeeper to be unsighted in the line of fire but, on the other hand, it is a striking illustration of the forwards well developed, natural abilities for taking in a position at a glance, and the defence is not found to be of the calibre supposed against such incisive attacks.

A keeper should be thoroughly in union with his backs, and thereby not only make his own work easier but help them to play better. If he is what is called a natural custodian, he will soon fit in with the defence's natural fabric, and there will be a blend of style which does not suggest to the spectator the idea of being put together "at twice" and where the establishment of a clearing house for adjusting differences should be requisitioned. There should be combination in defence just as well as in attack, and a complete understanding.

A class back will not merely rush an opponent and spoil his progress. He will time his tackle so as to yield the best opportunity to enable him or his goalkeeper to capture the ball and place it to the best advantage. Neither should get rid of the ball in haphazard fashion, unless in exceptional instances. They should "sweep the horizon" for the best spot to place the ball, probably to an unmarked forward who stands an excellent chance, or has the opportunity to make good headway and, in course of time, such a defence will make the best attack appear not quite the deadly article they imagined, presuming the defenders have the ability to accept the opportunity consequent on the opposing forward's mistakes or finnicking methods. The tendency of the present day with forwards is to over-elaboration and excessive finessing for positions in the vicinity of the goal, with the inevitable result that their combined movements, carried out almost on draught-board lines, have proved ineffective against the timely virile and robust opposition to be encountered. There is too much mere trifling, unprofitable fiddling about for nothing in the forward's game. Players are not allowed a certain time, as in chess, to decide upon a move, and immediate action should be taken by a forward in front of goal, and then would goal-scoring be much more frequent than at present.

There is a speculative element in every goalkeeper's venture from under his posts. Leaving one's goal is looked upon as a cardinal sin by those armchair critics who tell a goalkeeper what he should do and what he should not do, and administer advice from the philosophic atmosphere of the grand stand. They wobble mentally, in proportion with the custodian's success or want of success in rushing out to meet an opponent even when the result is as inevitable as when a man's logic is pitted against a woman's tears. A goalkeeper should take in the position at once and at a glance and, if deemed necessary, come out of his goal immediately, even if things were not what they at first seemed. Never more than in this case is it true that he who hesitates is lost. He must be regardless of his personal consequences and, if necessary, go head first into a pack into which many men would hesitate to insert a foot, and take the consequent gruelling like a Spartan. I am convinced that the reason why goalkeepers don't come out of their goal more often is their regard for personal consequences. If a forward has to be met and charged down, do not hesitate to charge with all your might. If you rush out with the intention of kicking, don't draw back but Kick (with a capital K!) at once.

If a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing properly and with all one's energy, and he who gives hard knocks must be prepared to accept hard knocks in return. A goalkeeper should believe in himself. If you don't have the confidence, it is a moral certainty your backs cannot, and their play will show it by lying close to goal and doing most of your work. As a consequence of this, the half-backs have too much defence thrown upon them, and are thus hampered, and cannot feed their forwards, so that there is a weak display all round which takes its origin from the defects of one man, and a want of confidence in the last defensive unit on the side.

Consistency should be aimed at. A goalkeeper on whom you cannot rely or depend is like a man to whom you ask an inconvenient question, and who prevaricates in his answer. He should not be one of those who "keep" one day with extreme brilliance, and another day make repeated and egregious mistakes. His work should be notable for its uniformity and in distinct contrast to the curate's egg, which was found to be good only in parts.

Real power in a goalkeeper is indicated by a combination of mental and physical skill. Separately the qualities are of great personal worth, but combined they undoubtedly characterise genius, and if a genius for guarding a goal shows itself in a young player, he is bound to come to the front. Goalkeeping is not only a physical exercise, but a moral discipline when looked upon in its true light and from a right and proper standpoint. It develops courage, perseverance, endurance and other qualities which fit one for fighting the battle of life. It is an education both of body and mind. For the position a mens sana in corpore sano is requisite. Nothing is impossible, and inability to accept an opportunity consequent upon some hesitancy has often been the cause of a goalkeeper failing by a few inches, or the proverbial coat of varnish, to reach what would at one time have been a chance.

The goalkeeper's position tends to keep one's energies on the stretch, and it comes in the list of those pastimes, participation in which makes a man far younger when he arrives in the suburbs of the fifties than if he had in his youth dawdled over roses or dozed over parish magazines. Goalkeeping will take it out of a man if his heart is not in the game, and will soon kill his enthusiasm. On the other hand, if he is attached to his position until it becomes part and parcel of his nature, he will guard his lines until he is ready to drop or collapse like a concertina.

Every clearance should be destined to do something, and every return quick.The custodian should never make capital out of any doubtful point, for though he be eager to win he should be still more determined to win like a sportsman. He will be kicked here, there and everywhere but should be content with appeals to the referee, and not take the law into his own hands. He should never appeal for anything he considers to be unfair. Appeals by the goalkeeper have had value, but he is scarcely the best man for the same. When granting a free to the opposition within scoring distance from goal, the referee should hint to the goalkeeper the nature of the free kick given, as it may be granted for one of those offences in respect of which the ball must be played by a second party before the shot would be allowed to count. It would be a great benefit if referees generally would adopt a "double" whistle for a free kick from which a goal could not be scored direct, and it would tend to simplify matters, especially for goalkeepers as some referees with extensive knowledge give equally peculiar decisions, and it would need a desperate surgical operation of the sort suggested by Sydney Smith to introduce the why and the wherefore of these decisions very often, even to the most receptive intelligence.

If a player has the ability to keep goal, he should set about trying to improve his style. He may possibly be a little unfinished at first, but he is bound to improve if he combines with the agility of youth a matured observation of the game which time alone can give. A sure eye, a perfect sense of time, and a heart - even as big as a hyacinth farm - are necessary to a goalkeeper's art, for it is an art of the rarest type. He should be as light on his feet as a dancing master, yet nothing is more reprehensible in a goalkeeper than taking wild, flying kicks, or using his feet in any way when he can use his hands, as there is safety in numbers and two hands are better than one foot. When he does kick, his kicking should be accuracy itself, so as to land the ball exactly where he intends. There must be boot behind the ball, muscle behind the boot, the intelligence behind both. He should be as cool as the proverbial cucumber, and good temper is an essential. Excitability and an uncontrollable disposition or temper are antagonistic to good judgement, and the goalkeeper who is devoid of judgement is useless for all practical purposes.

If a player is mapping out a goalkeeper's career for himself, his course should be one of moderation, regularity, and simplicity. Nothing is ever achieved without effort or even sacrifice in one's pastimes, as in the higher walks of life, and only a study of its points and experience will educate him up to the standard expected of him. Let a player take that for granted, and he will succeed.