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the square ball week: gary sprake

the square ball week: gary sprake

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Goalkeepers occupy an odd, sad, position in football.

For one thing, it’s football, and here’s this guy, using his hands. He’s on the team, but he wears his own special kit, and he never gets included in the formations: 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 5-3-2, it’s an eleven player game, that only counts to ten.

Standing alone in the penalty area, while the play goes on at the other end of the field, the goalkeeper can sometimes seem more like part of the crowd than the game. He’s the player closest to the fans behind the goal; on Tuesday night, when Leeds played Wigan, we could hear Robert Green yelling into the misty night. Sometimes, I read this week, Gary Sprake used to share sticks of chewing gum with the fans behind his goal, which would be littered with bits of silver foil.

And when a goal is scored, it’s always the keeper who has to move closer to the disappointed fans, not skulk away from them; while the rest of the players go upfield to restart the game, he has to crouch in the net, retrieving the ball so the others can kick off. You might think that moment would bring the goalkeeper and fans together, but it’s when they’re closest that they’re furthest apart; the fans angry, perhaps blaming him, and happy to let him know their feelings.

Caught between the team and the crowd, goalkeepers stand alone.

It surprised me to read in the obituaries to Gary Sprake, who died this week, that when he left Leeds United for Birmingham City, the transfer of £100,000 made him the most expensive goalkeeper in the world. I feel like I must have read that fact once, but time can have a deteriorating impact on facts. Other thoughts take precedence, like Don Revie’s admission that he should have put David Harvey between the sticks in Sprake’s place much sooner, that if he had, Leeds United might have won more; that makes you think, Sprake must have been past it by the time he left. Yet there he was: the world’s first and only £100,000 goalie, the most valuable in the world.

What an embarrassment of riches at Leeds to be able to think Harvey was better. Perhaps he would have been, if he’d started in United’s first team as young as Sprake had; Sprake was only 17 when he started playing regularly for Leeds, while Harvey had to wait until he was 24. There was less than three years between their ages, and no doubt about Harvey’s first team quality in reserve, but while time has made more Sprake’s mistakes, there was no doubt at all that he was one of the best goalkeepers in the world, so Harvey would have to wait his turn.

While he waited, Leeds United and Sprake won the First Division, the League Cup, and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (twice). Sprake had won the Second Division with Leeds before Harvey had arrived, and had a great deal to do with winning the first of those Fairs Cups. After Leeds beat Ferencvaros 1-0 in the home leg, they had Sprake to thank for keeping the score at 0-0 in front of 76,000 fans at the Nep Stadium in Budapest, for a string of outstanding saves, including a shot from Novak that the YEP reporter, Phil Brown, thought capable of breaking Sprake’s wrist.

Sprake described it as his greatest ever save. “I was still feeling the pain in my wrist when minutes later the referee blew for full time and we had won our first European trophy,” he said. “Looking back, these two games still give me great memories but if push comes to shove I do think that the away performance in Budapest was my best ever performance. It is certainly one that gives me immense pride.”

They might have been Sprake’s greatest memories, but they won’t be the world’s lasting memories of Sprake. Not only did Sprake have the curious existence of a goalkeeper to contend with, part of the team and part of the game but outside its no-handballs rules, but he existed before television was truly dominant, meaning that only a few of more than 200 clean sheets were seen by anyone beyond the Elland Road faithful, or the opposition supporters suffering another Sprake shutout.

What television always seemed to be there to capture were the mistakes: throwing the ball in the net at Anfield, missing a save in the FA Cup Final against Chelsea. But it was the newspapers that transmitted his greatest error of judgement to the world. And it really was the world, back then. The Daily Mirror was the biggest selling newspaper in Britain in 1977, with a circulation close to four million, and there was no bigger name in football than Don Revie, the England manager.

There was no name that football establishment less liked to hear, either, despite the decision of The FA to hire him in 1974, over the complaints of Football League secretary Alan Hardaker et al. There was nobody better qualified to the job, but nobody quite so ill-fitting, thanks to history and personality, to take it; strange echoes of Brian Clough and Leeds United, another high profile pair that ought to have been perfect for each other, but instead seemed determined to tear each other apart.

Revie lasted a lot longer with England than Clough with Leeds, but the hunger for his fall never lessened, until in 1977 the Mirror splashed its accusations across its front page, and several inside. They claimed to have plenty of material, including a 315 page dossier of Revie’s corruption; although that document was never produced, and The FA denied it ever existed.

What did exist was the testimony of Gary Sprake, who claimed he had seen Don Revie attempt to influence a game against Nottingham Forest, and that he’d been paid not to pay for Wales. Other allegations in the reports were much more severe, although none were ever proved in court; in the only court case, in 1982, Billy Bremner won £100,000 in damages after his accuser, Danny Hegen of Wolves, was deemed unfit to give evidence, his captain Derek Dougan said he’d never heard any mention of the claimed bribes, and Gary Sprake said he couldn’t remember.

Although his part in the Mirror’s story was small, Sprake’s presence in the tabloid cut the Revie side deepest. Less a side, more a family; and Sprake had broken a cardinal family rule. Always at a remove, because he was the goalkeeper, Sprake had always been at the edge of Revie’s trust, and it’s perhaps significant that it was only Sprake that while part of Revie’s reasoning for leaving Leeds was that he couldn’t bear to break up his beloved team, it was only Sprake that he sold. For £100,000, Sprake was the most expensive goalkeeper in the world, and yet Revie still let him leave the family.

Sprake’s part in the Mirror allegations ensured there was no way back in. Revie’s Leeds United was unusual in that it was brought together so young, and stayed together so long; Eddie Gray joined in 1963 and was still playing in 1983, when he got Peter Lorimer — who first came to Elland Road in 1962 — to join him on the field. David Harvey was in goal. Gary Sprake wasn’t welcome. At get-togethers and testimonial matches, he was never welcome at Leeds again.

Sprake did make it back for a BBC report in 2006, when they snuck him into the East Stand and invited him to speak with long-standing supporters. They also, tellingly, asked him if he stood by what he’d said: he did. Then they asked if he’d say, “Don Revie is a cheat.”

“No, no I wouldn’t say he was a cheat,” said Sprake, before, under pressure, he has to admit, “I suppose you could call it cheating.”

But it was clear Sprake didn’t want to call it that. He probably never wanted to. For whatever reason, back in 1977, whether it was the money on offer, or bitterness at his transfer, or the promised testimonial that never materialised, he wanted to add his say to the several pages of reporting the Mirror were running anyway, and leave it at that. Which was a mistake. A costly one. Also in 2006, Sprake spoke at length on BBC Radio Leeds with Adam Pope and Eddie Gray, who said that while he would welcome Sprake back to an ex-players’ reunion, several of their teammates would not allow it. Eddie said he hoped, one day, they’d change their mind.

It’s too late for that now, although it’s never too late to forgive, and perhaps Gary’s death might bring that forth from one or two of those he deeply hurt. It will be sad if it doesn’t, but perhaps that’s part of being a goalkeeper.

Goalkeeper is an odd, sad position, where, caught between the team and the crowd — two families — one player stands alone. And when he makes a mistake, the team that has relied on him to risk his wrists making matchwinning saves, and the crowd that has chanted his name when his acrobatics have astonished them, don’t want to know him — he can move towards one or the other, but for those few moments until the game kicks off again, he can’t be closer to either.

When the game’s over, though, and the final score is known, often those mistakes won’t matter compared to a more important question: did our team win? Gary Sprake played 504 times for Leeds United. He kept more than 200 clean sheets. He won the Second Division, the First Division, the League Cup and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup twice. Would we have done that without him? Could we, as his detractors suggest, have won more without him? It doesn’t matter. That’s what we won with him, standing between the posts, chewing gum; an odd, sad figure, compared to some of his teammates, but every inch a goalkeeper.

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