The Betvictor Isthmian South Central League and the Barclays Premier League are different. We know this. Money, resources, time. Time to train, prepare, recover. Time dedicated to the game. I do not question the dedication of the players in our league, but it’s unarguable that professional footballers have literally nothing else to do, work-wise. This is not true of our lads. Our lads go to work, or go to their places of education and find ways to facilitate their lives as semi-professional footballers. Their commitment, in light of time spent versus fiscal reward, should hold them in high esteem.
It’s important to point out the fundamental similarities as well, though, between football at League level and football at our level of the pyramid. It’s obvious, I suppose. It’s written down. Football. At all levels, it’s football. Eleven of ours versus eleven of theirs. Us hoping to stick it in theirs, and hoping they don’t stick it in ours. And within those basic tenets, myriad affecting factors, true of the game at all levels. Personalities, tactics, confidence, human distractions, form... some of these are coachable, some less so. Can you coach a player to be confident? Possibly. Probably. Can you coach a player to be confident in his team mates? Possibly. Hopefully?
Confidence in another person is like respect for another person, it seems. It has to be earned by an individual, as opposed to coached by a third party. It takes time, and shared experience, in life as in football. True enough, you may encounter someone new in your professional life who comes with a strong reputation, but can you really say you “trust” them until you’ve learned that?
Seasoned readers will know my “other team” (first football love) is Liverpool FC. Last season, Liverpool addressed an issue which had been affecting the club for a number of years, but which finally came to a head in Kiev, May 2018. Loris Karius’ tears were met with understanding, sympathy, schadenfreude in some cases. In the corridors of a Melwood, Liverpool’s training complex, it crystallised a feeling that had been floating around for some time. It was time to address the position of goalkeeper, finally. To make a move in the transfer market and leave no doubt as to who was in possession of the number one shirt. Alisson Becker arrived.
The effect was instant. A firm starter at number one. The defence grew in confidence, knowing that the fella behind them was, of course, great at his job but also, crucially, that he would be there next week, and the week after and that his position was not subject to a loss in the coach’s patience, or the glittering form in training of Simon Mignolet. It might seem slightly unfair that a goalkeeper is not subject to the same parameters as a centre forward in terms of form or statistics but then the role of a goalkeeper is like no other on the pitch. Consistency of the position is key. Fitness not so much of an issue. The centre halves have the confidence to pass back there without looking, safe in the knowledge that as long as it’s on the right side for the ‘keepers kicking foot, he’ll be there and not wandering around the place. So if the same goalie plays 38 times, this is hugely positive.
I’ve been looking into last season’s records and thinking about the position of goalkeeper. Tooting and Mitcham used five, as far as I can ascertain. I have no idea what the reasons for these changes were- maybe this was an active decision on the part of the coaches to see who was best suited to the style they wanted the team to use. I know there were fitness issues regarding one of our regular selections between the sticks, an issue which might have affected his ability to do his job away from football- these are not issues those in the upper echelons of league football would need to consider.
Whatever the reasons behind the alterations in selection, it’s hard not to think a more settled option in such an important position might have been of benefit to the team. Indeed, as a back four began to settle as the season wore on (AJ, Simmo, Lexus, Wedgie became a clearly preferred line-up), it was still unclear as to who the best option was in goal- to the point where a young goalie came in on loan and played the final games of the season.
I’m sure that each of the five, given the right circumstances, would be solid, quality goalkeepers to command the 1 jersey for an entire campaign. But when James Shaw was announced as a new signing this summer, I was heartened by the idea that the managers had perhaps reached a decision to nail down this important position and give a chance to a player to make the position his own for the season.
Shaw arrived with plenty of experience in this level of football, with appearances for Three Bridges, Horsham, Burgess Hill, Eastbourne Borough, amongst others. I was at the first friendly of the pre-season, and was immediately struck by how vocal he was. Edge of the area, talking. Barking at the young wing backs. “COME ON MATE, YOU’VE GOT TO TRACK HIM THERE!” Lots of positive affirmations to the players all the way up at the other end of the pitch “FUCKING WELL DONE HADY!” “YES DOM!” In one friendly, I listened as he gave very clear instructions to a trialist centre half who’d just been brought on as a sub;
“Mate, MATE, that 9’s a fucking lump, he’s going to want to pin you and then turn. Arm’s length every time. Keep him touch tight, but don’t get too close, yeah?”
And with that, a couple of claps to gee the lad along, and then back at it.
The goalkeeper can see the whole pitch in front of him, and as such is in a privileged position to let the rest of the team know what might be going on behind their backs. But it takes a certain type of personality to be able to use that knowledge, to impress it onto the team, to be a loud voice on the pitch- and possibly in the dressing room too. It takes a player with a degree of confidence in himself, also, to have the fortitude to yell at boys far more knitted into the fabric of the club about what he needs from them in defensive situations. Most importantly, maybe, it just takes a good lad to tell other good lads that what they’re doing is good, or to tell them to keep their heads up if something’s not gone to plan.
I hope that an understanding has begun to develop between Shaw and our back three, which has also undergone some changes in the summer just gone. A mutual understanding of expectations, a common idea of where each of them is supposed to be in various circumstances, so that before the season is too old, a trust and recognition exists between them and each can get on with their roles knowing that the lad in front, or behind, will be doing what’s expected of them. Mistakes can, and will happen, of course. But the establishing of a defensive “unit”, the cornerstone of which is an understanding between the defenders and their goalkeeper, is a strong base on which to build any side, which facilitates the lads further up the pitch getting on with their business.
The season, at the time of writing, is only a single game old. A clean sheet that game. Hopefully a sign of things to come.