18 March, 2013Issue 21.5HistoryPolitics & SocietySport

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Laptops for Goalposts

Calum Mechie

The Outsider: A History of the GoalkeeperJonathan Wilson
The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper
Orion
£20.00
368 pages
ISBN 9781409123194

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The second decade of the 21st century has been declared (mainly, it has to be acknowledged, by bloggers) the “age of the blog” in football writing. Fuelled by Twitter, the modest but deeply committed readership of general sites such as In Bed With Maradona and club-specific sites such as Arseblog indicate an involved, active audience for niche stories and subversive readings of official narratives. The incredible availability of data both statistical and financial has given rise to expert blogs and this has in turn led to some crossover between the niche and the mainstream: Michael Cox who set up his tactical blog Zonal Marking in 2010 now writes a regular column for the Guardian, while Swiss-based football finance blogger “The Swiss Rambler” was quoted in an article in the Financial Times last month. The Guardian, institutionally committed to the “involved debate” that is the blogger’s métier, has even set up a “Sports Network” to negotiate between the two spheres. Money-making but non-remunerative, the Guardian’s is an imbalanced nexus seeking to co-opt the blogger’s skill and audience share into an otherwise unperturbed hegemony.

A regular contributor to the Guardian’s football pages as well as those of Sports Illustrated, Jonathan Wilson commands a mainstream readership (and, presumably, a mainstream fee). He is not, however, a typical mainstream figure. A Sunderland fan, Wilson is an expert on Eastern European football, a supporter of the game in Africa, and has spent time reporting on Argentinian football from Buenos Aires. Operating outside the confines of contemporary football’s central-European power block, Wilson has a broader purview than his fellow mainstreamers. Indeed, he has been “frustrated for some time by the constraints of the mainstream media” and this frustration led to his founding in 2010 of the co-operative football quarterly The Blizzard: “The priority is the product rather than profit, so we will not go chasing readers; the aim, rather, is to remain true to our ethos and to provide an alternative to that which already exists”. Part-magazine, part-book and wholly neither, The Blizzard follows, collectively, in the direction of Wilson’s personal oeuvre. From Behind the Curtain (2006) to Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Tactics (2008), Wilson has left a trail of eclecticism and there is a fittingness to its latest co-ordinate: The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper. The title comes, of course, from Albert Camus, literature’s most famous goalkeeper, but it is an equally apt designation of Wilson’s status within his profession. Like the goalkeeper, Wilson operates “outside the usual customs of society to follow his own eccentric code of honour”.

Published in December 2012, The Outsider is auspiciously timed as 2012/13 marks the centenary of the most significant change in the rules surrounding goalkeeping. The goalkeeper as we know him now was effectively born in 1912 when handling was limited to the penalty area: until then, “keepers were permitted to bounce the ball all the way up to the halfway line”. Wilson gives a summary of this pre-modern, semi-basketballian period in the goalkeeper’s history—referring, for example, to H.C. Benham’s characterisation of the’keeper in Football at Westminster School as a “funk stick” who having “failed to play up […] was packed off into the goal at once”. His history, however, is mostly devoted to the last century and focuses on ‘keepers of the past whose influence remains evident in present incarnations of “the outsider”.

As such, The Outsider is split broadly along national lines and Wilson traces the goalkeeping genealogies of England, Scotland, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Spain, Italy, Ghana, elements of the former Yugoslavia, the United States, and Hungary. At times, this works well. In his discussion of England’s Peter Shilton for example, he illuminates the anxiety of influence felt by his contemporaries with a neat anecdote: “[Shilton] was English goalkeeping, his unflappability and consistency such a paradigm that John Burridge, an eccentric who played 771 league games in England and Scotland for a total of twenty-nine clubs, went to a hairdresser’s with a photograph of Shilton and demanded a similar perm”. Examples like this support the generational idea that drives Wilson’s structure. Elsewhere, however, the model leads to difficulty as when he acknowledges that “[Peter] Schmeichel emerged almost from nowhere in Denmark”. Nonetheless, this fact allows him to include an amusing anecdote about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr—otherwise Denmark’s most famous keeper who, having “let in a soft goal against the German side Mittweida”, “admitted he’d been distracted by a mathematical problem he’d been mulling over”—and thus leads Wilson back towards his central thesis and his recurring focus on the goalkeeper as “an outsider, a loner with a shadow across his soul”.

The history works best when these two aspects are aligned: when the outsider status can be married to national mythology. As a result, the section on the great USSR keeper Lev Yashin is particularly strong. Another famous literary goalkeeper, Vladimir Nabakov, doubtless influenced by Yashin’s iconic status, felt that his positional preference was typical of his nation: the goalkeeper, he wrote in Speak, Memory, “is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender”. Wilson is compelled by this form of identification: “It’s tempting to believe that, in a society that demanded uniformity, playing in goal was a rare opportunity to express individuality, to stand apart from the collective, and to imagine that aspect of the position was what made it so attractive in a Communist society”. He makes a similar point about Spain’s goalkeepers: “it is tempting to believe that those who felt – or grew up in areas that felt – somehow alienated from the Spanish state were more naturally inclined to take up the self-imposed solitariness” of goalkeeping. Although in both cases he hedges his conviction, it colours his discussion of the keepers it touches and imbues those parts of the book with a holistic strength.

At times, as in his discussion of Scotland and Brazil—unlikely bedfellows united in Chapter 5 by mutual embarrassment at their goalkeepers—this unity is lacking, and the history struggles as a result. Interest here relies on the incredible depth of Wilson’s fanaticism. Discussing the then-Sunderland goalkeeper and Scotland international Craig Gordon, Wilson writes that “his reflex block to keep out a Zat Knight header against Bolton in December 2010 is probably the greatest save by a Sunderland keeper since Jim Montgomery’s fabled double save in the 1973 FA Cup final”. Now 30 and without a club, Gordon’s inclusion sounds an odd note in a history that otherwise orbits between the shining stars of his position. We lose sight of the thesis that otherwise drives the history here. Instead, we are given the historian as fan. Wilson likes Gordon because he played for his team and reminds him of a great moment in his history. Gordon’s save is described only as “reflex” and Montgomery’s as “fabled”: Wilson appeals to the collective knowledge of the tribe; he assumes that we know what he’s talking about.

A professional outsider himself, Wilson loves football and that is The Outsider’s enduring feature. It is an engaging history because it is an engaged history; it is a rigorous interweaving of football’s moments with social and sociological history. The goalkeeper as a semi-distant protagonist in football’s events and one who, because of the peculiarity of his role, is an epochal figure within sides’ histories in a way that outfield players tend not to be (Shilton is still England’s most-capped player; Dino Zoff kept goal for Italy from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s). In that, the fan, the goalkeeper and Wilson himself are the same. Through the goalkeeper, Wilson traverses the grand historical nexus of great moments and dismal memories that form the consciousness of the football fan and that, ultimately, is The Outsider’s achievement. Written from outside official narratives, reading this “History of the Goalkeeper” is to experience football fandom.

Calum Mechie is reading for a DPhil in English at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. He is a contributor to the sports website SB Nation.