Photo courtesy of Anita Milas
It’s the phrase I hear the most: “You have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper”. A throwaway line usually followed by a chuckle or some surface-level attempt at analysing goalkeeper (GK) behaviour. “We don’t go into the job crazy, but we certainly come out of it a bit nuts!” has become my typical response.
I was the ‘accidental GK’; a story you hear frequently. I played in the outfield, no one wanted to go in goals, so I had my turn between the sticks along with other teammates. I showed ability and aptitude to the point I was selected for local, regional and state representative teams until the phone call came to join the Australian Institute of Sport (A.I.S.).
That’s when goalkeeping became my life and my love/hate relationship with the position began!
I loved goalkeeping early because I excelled at the craft but a big part of me missed the pleasure of having the ball at my feet and tussling directly with opposition players. I always think ‘what could have been’ if I’d stuck it out in the outfield, but that feeling has subsided as the thought became more and more irrelevant.
Regardless of my outfield intentions I thrived early in the solitude of goalkeeping. Back to the net, come at me! Opposition players bearing down and their main obstacle between cold showers and glory was this physical mix of brain, bone and muscle and a significant dash of will.
To succeed as a ‘number 1’ we can delve into the physical, tactical and technical aspects but my belief is the foundation of characteristics such as self-awareness, bravado, confidence, self-motivation, self-reflection, mental and emotional resilience are key components of a consistent GK operating at a high level. In this regard, my upbringing was important in developing these characteristics. My parents encouraged a highly independent person that could think for himself, and importantly learn to trust his own instincts and have his own voice. Team focus was important, but comfort in solitude was possible, even at a young age.
The moments I enjoyed:
The obvious ones are championship wins. Big saves that define the outcomes of matches, especially the unexpected saves on the biggest stages where trophies are decided; exhilarating, euphoric! That is how I ultimately judged myself. No one critiqued me harder than I critiqued myself. In reflection, I always believed 9 out of 10 goals conceded I could have done something differently to prevent the scoreboard ticking over. I loved pushing myself to achieve more, to be better.
Finding consistency over a long period was a less obvious love, but immensely satisfying. It developed trust with your bosses, your teammates and team supporters and was usually reflected in your interactions with them. This relationship of trust was important to me.
Mixing with supporters, and particularly young fans, was something I didn’t appreciate when I was younger but sought out as I got older. One particular family of three kids, with mum and dad, would almost without fail wait for me, sometimes longer than an hour post Sydney FC home matches just to say hello and get photos. Thinking about it now I’m astounded and humbled, and miss those types of interactions.
Individual honours when they arrived were nice but rather validation that I was on the right path and paled into insignificance compared to team outcomes. As a marker I’ll always reflect and judge myself on the number of Championships won.
The isolation of goalkeeping was immediate but being so young I didn’t appreciate the early experiences. In reflection, I developed greater understanding of attitudes towards myself, and goalkeepers in general especially once I entered the more professional, structured environment of the A.I.S. in Canberra. Those attitudes seemed consistent throughout my 19 seasons playing at National League level (NSL, A-League) and international level (Socceroos).
Attitudes towards goalkeepers that existed when I started appear ingrained, and while developments within most areas of football have been hugely significant in the 25 years since, those same attitudes towards GK’s don’t seem to have altered much at all.
We are the Goalkeepers; the last line of defense, often the first line of attack, and that player that always wears a different coloured jersey. Our actions and performances scrutinised but rarely understood. Opinions towards us are strong but largely uneducated. We are the minority group within the football environment and we’re treated that way.
We are often seen as a necessity, rather than an integral part of the team. We are at best, the afterthought in decision-making, and at worst, not even thought about at all. We are the area of the football squad where money can be saved and apportioned to other ‘more important’ players. We are the one position that is too difficult to understand, so why bother trying. We are told what to do by the ill-informed, and our opinions are rarely sought. We are expected to fling ourselves on substandard training surfaces regardless of physical damage because we are expendable. We are embraced and applauded when we get the job done, but become the butt of online jokes and supporter angst when we don’t.
Yet, through all this, we accept the situation we’re in, shoulder the pressure and responsibility, and get out there and attempt to deliver a faultless performance. Most don’t make it, some survive and the rare ones thrive in this heavily stacked environment.
Now it’s at about this stage that I question whether I’m just having a good whinge? Maybe I’ve developed delicate sensibilities because of my experiences and am prone to blowing things out of proportion? Maybe I’m too close to the subject matter to really decide? I don’t know!
Also considering it’s been three and a half years since I played professionally some people might question why my feelings still seem so raw. After initial resistance, I’ve recently dipped my toes into GK coaching and while I was naive enough to think that it might be different, those same attitudes exist towards GK coaches, and if anything, I’ve come to realise that they’re probably worse.
Now other GK’s or GK coaches might feel differently than I do about the respective positions. Understandably so! Or those that do relate to my insight might be better at compartmentalising their feelings and narrowing the focus to the immediate job at hand. I struggled with that. It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to be in an environment where understanding, empathy and ultimately a broadening and development of knowledge was nurtured and encouraged. In the context of a GK I found my idyllic situation to be rare!
It’s not my intention to dissuade but more to be forthright. The reality is far different to any romanticism afforded the position of GK. As I got older and closed in on the end of my professional career, circumstances and experiences diminished my love of goalkeeping, or more accurately, eroded it. The general lack of empathy and unwillingness to understand the GK from the football family at large took its toll. So, did I go into the position ‘crazy’…NO, but I came out the other end psychologically weathered from my experiences.
In professional sport there are physicals battles, mental barriers to confront and emotional reactions to deal with, but the greatest test for a GK will be a “test of character”. You will be thrust into an environment that lacks understanding, empathy and often care. Your resilience and endurance will be tested. At times, your spirit will be broken. Ultimately your desire, determination and will to survive will need to be remarkable.
Clint Bolton is an Australian former goalkeeper. He was one of the most experienced goalkeepers in the history of the National Soccer League, which preceded the A-League. He played over 300 games for Brisbane Strikers, Sydney Olympic FC and Parramatta Power, and won two A-League championships with Sydney FC.
Follow Clint on twitter @bootsa22