Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1

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the square ball week: goalkeepers union

the square ball week: goalkeepers union


The pressure on Marco Silvestri didn’t start when he pushed the ball into the path of Aden Flint on Wednesday night.

It didn’t begin when he let Keiran Agard’s simple shot beat him at the near post, or when he dropped the ball in front of Kodjia in the first half, or when his failure to deal with a freekick drew daggered stares from Sol Bamba. Although to go back to Agard’s goal for a moment, Silvestri has built the good part of his reputation at Leeds on his ability as a shot-stopper. If shots like that aren’t still stopped, he won’t have that part of his reputation much longer.

The pressure on Silvestri didn’t start when he limped into the doctor’s room at Thorp Arch just before United were due to leave for Charlton last season, although at that point his man-of-the-match performance at Middlesbrough – shared that day with Sol Bamba – had let some of the heat out from under his collar.

The pressure actually started the day he signed on to be first team goalkeeper at Leeds United, because being first team goalkeeper at Leeds United is a high-pressure occupation. I remember watching Silvestri trotting towards his goalmouth, the first time we ever saw him, before the friendly match at Guiseley. He got to around the penalty spot, and then something seemed to register or click; he suddenly became aware of the Leeds fans behind the goal. The number of them. The nearness of them on the Nethermoor terrace. The lines that high expectations had drawn on their faces.

Silvestri has a pre-match habit, a run towards the goalline, a couple of of hops, a jump up at the bar, but it was with an uncertain bounce that he ventured towards the gate he was now paid to keep. Eventually, he tried a few claps of his gloved hands. The crowd clapped back. Okay, he thought, perhaps I’m not for dinner with cheese, not today.

Those sorts of nerves aren’t welcome in my conception of the ideal goalkeeper. I was raised on Jovan ‘John’ Lukic, nerveless, tense and weird; everything a goalkeeper ought to be. Before games, he would soak in a bath for an hour, not speaking to anybody; then he would sit on a bench in the changing room, staring intently, not speaking to anybody.

Out on the pitch, when the outfielders were playing with the ball, he would stand in his penalty area and crouch like a ski jumper going down the slope, absolutely focused on the game in front of him. He had hair like Lego figure and a body like a Lego figure if it had been lengthened with some extra bricks; tall, he looked heavy, not like Neville Southall heavy, but like it would take four men to move all that muscle. The strength required to force his body into cat-like agility was a kind of physical concentration that matched the mental, and perhaps that’s why he was so still the rest of the time; he had to conserve his resources for the split second releases of energy that would keep the ball out of Leeds United’s goal.

Most of the time. John Lukic made mistakes. Most famous was in the first Battle of Britain game against Glasgow Rangers in 1992; he came to punch a corner, and would later blame the angle of the floodlights for the way his fists struck the ball a glancing blow that sent it spinning into his own goal. The prematch hype ensured a Europe-wide audience for a howler by the least howling of goalkeepers, and pretty much meant the end of any hopes of dislodging Chris Woods from the England net.

There were other minor infractions, too. When Lukic messed up, he flailed, and it was so ungainly you wondered how he could be the same cool, cat-like creature that tended goal every other week. Balls would squirm agonisingly under him, or he’d misjudge a long shot ever so slightly and help it spin over the line; then there was the whole backpass rule thing, but I’m mostly concerned with the years before that change here. Such ricks were rare. And they never really seemed to bother anybody, even if they cost Leeds a game or, at Ibrox, killed the momentum that had carried Leeds from the depths of Division Two towards the later stages of the European Cup.

Few people, when Lukic made a mistake in his bombastic second-spell years at Leeds, called for Mervyn Day – an excellent goalkeeper – to replace him. To see ‘1. Lukic’ at the top of a teamsheet was to be at one with nature, and neither manager, player or fan saw any reason to change that, or considered any mistake severe enough to call his place into question. They were mistakes, takes that were missed, and that was the point; when John Lukic made one, the players looked at him, and knew he wouldn’t make another.

That’s a crucial asset for a team. In preseason and then, last Sunday, in their first game of 2015/16, I have been watching Leeds Ladies get used to having a new girl between the posts, Bob Wattam. Bob turned seventeen a week or two before the season proper started against Blackpool, but despite her youth has brought order and confidence to the back four, confidently claiming the ball when it’s loose, and saving securely when the opposition looked to have as good as scored. She has also brought the gift of her nickname as proof of her bonefides for the goalkeepers’ union; all goalkeepers should have some sort of nickname, whether it’s Cat or Budgie or Bob.

Bob has also made mistakes, and will make more mistakes in her first full season for Leeds Ladies; she’s barely seventeen, so it’s to be expected. The important thing is, Bob has the confidence of her team mates and coaches; the confidence that those mistakes will be worth it for the number of times she won’t make a mistake, the number of times she’ll prevent a certain goal, that another goalkeeper couldn’t. She made two saves like that on Sunday, to help Leeds protect a 2–1 win over Blackpool. That confidence is like an echo chamber, ringing around all the members of the team, embedding the knowledge that if they keep faith in each others’ abilities, the team will come out ahead.

Its worth pointing out, too, that Bob made her two matchwinning saves on Sunday after taking the kind of kick to the ribs from an unrushing striker that would have kept other goalkeepers out for a month. Last time she played, in a preseason friendly at Nottingham Forest, she played on after a boot to the head; she was playing in that game with a leg still showing swelling from a blood vessel burst in a challenge against Newcastle a couple of weeks earlier.

That, too, is how you build confidence, inspire faith; you show that you’re not going to be beaten. Lukic’s reaction to a mistake was a loud complaint, and then: crouch. Back to concentration. Ten seconds later he would look like nothing had ever happened, like nothing would ever get past him. Would you worry? No. If he isn’t worried, if he isn’t feeling the pressure, neither should you be.

That, ultimately, is why I think Ross Turnbull should take his turn in goal for Leeds United against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday. Because when we look at him, and his team mates look at him, and the coaches look at him, and the opposition looks at him, we won’t all be looking at him and thinking, ‘pressure.’ And he won’t be looking back at us, reflecting that pressure, from a face that has ‘It’s only a matter of time before I…’ scrawled across it in red felt tip.

The situation and the conversation around Marco Silvestri has become about pressure, and on his own in the six yard box, he can only either withstand or crack. At Bristol City, he showed few signs of withstanding, and the pressure there – a third league match of the season, a comfortable 2–0 lead, a mood ready to cheer the win and no particular danger in the opposing team – was not high.

If Silvestri is named to play against Sheffield Wednesday there will be a lot of questions about how he will perform, questions that a successful team shouldn’t be asking of its first choice goalkeeper. They’re questions I don’t think it would be wise to let him answer.

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