Cech a standard-bearer for unsung heroes
Goalkeeper's move between rivals helps to redress a historic lack of recognition for masters of their art
Published 24/06/2015 | 02:30
No doubt John Terry was being sincere when expressing his concerns about the much-trailed sale of Petr Cech from Chelsea to Arsenal this week, though whether his value to his new employers really can be weighed in something as tangible as the number of points he is likely to bring in his dowry will remain an issue of animated conjecture.
The captain's misgivings are unquestionably also tinged with sorrow at the departure of a dressing-room senator, leaving him the last vertebra standing of the Cech-Terry-Lampard-Drogba spine, but the estimate of "12 or 15" points that the goalkeeper "will save" Arsenal is obviously arbitrary.
Although it redresses some of the historic indifference towards keepers, it also assumes that a singular talent will both eradicate the occasional mistakes of his predecessors and galvanise the entire team to raise their standards.
For those who do not agree with Ruud Gullit's playful put-down - "a goalkeeper is a goalkeeper because he can't play football" - the entrenched lack of recognition for them in England, once such fertile ground for breeding masters of the craft, is scandalous.
In 69 years, only four have been Footballer of the Year, the last, Neville Southall 30 years ago. If the writers have a blindspot, the professionals are wearing blinkers: in 42 years, only twice has a goalkeeper been PFA Player of the Year, none since Peter Shilton in 1978, and Mervyn Day, 40 years ago, is the sole recipient of the young player award.
Italy and Spain are just as bad but they do have separate awards for keepers. Germany, however, is not as inconsiderate. In the past 40 years a quarter of their footballers of the year, each elected by his peers, have been goalkeepers: a hat-trick for Sepp Maier, two apiece for Harald Schumacher, Oliver Kahn and Manuel Neuer, and one for Andreas Kopke.
Over the same period, goalkeepers based in England have been as influential - Ray Clemence in 1978?79, Peter Shilton at Southampton in 1983-84, David Seaman in 1990-91, Peter Schmeichel from 1992 to 1999, Cech himself and Edwin van der Sar in 2006-07 and 2010-11 - but all were overlooked by those with vested interests in the ballot and those who can afford to be more objective.
It took Brian Clough, first in his short time at Leeds in the autumn of 1974 where his request to the board was turned down on the grounds that £300,000 for Shilton was the height of extravagance, then successfully at Forest three years later to demonstrate that elite goalkeepers were a beneficial investment.
Peter Taylor, Clough's assistant and a former keeper, was a persuasive advocate on Shilton's behalf and he proved to be the shrewdest acquisition of a long and storied career, taking the title and two European Cups to the City Ground.
Had Tony Waddington still been manager of Stoke and the club remained solvent, it is doubtful whether even Clough's charisma could have tempted him to sell.
Waddington was a pioneer in rejuvenating players who were thought past it and also in his appreciation of goalkeepers. When Leicester City's directors - playing the part of rag-and-bone men who had been gifted a thoroughbred and assessed its worth as dog food - first got rid of Gordon Banks and then Shilton, it was Waddington who snapped them up.
It is symptomatic of the prevailing view, though, that when Banks left Filbert Street in 1967 there was only one customer for the finest goalkeeper in the country who was just 29. Seven years on, when Shilton left at the age of 35, it was the same, sole interested party.
One suspects the market for goalkeepers was so weak in the past because great ones are a rare and specialist commodity: they cannot turn poor teams into good ones on a consistent basis, but can transform average ones into decent sides and the good into the very good.
It is also difficult to assess their immediate effect. Plenty of goalkeepers at their peak have moved on, either like Ray Clemence's transfer from Liverpool to Tottenham by choice or like Pat Jennings' from Spurs to Arsenal by the selling club's misjudgment, but it is difficult to think of one such as Cech's where a deal is struck between title rivals.
Andoni Zubizarreta did move from Athletic Bilbao to Barcelona and Gigi Buffon from poor old Parma to Juventus, but in both countries the status of the buying club skews the market in a manner that does not apply to two parts of the Premier League quadropoly.
When Jennings was still going strong for Arsenal in 1983, Eamon Dunphy wrote that "somewhere in there the grace of a ballet dancer joins with the strength of an SAS squaddie, the dignity of an ancient king, the nerve of a bomb disposal officer".
Cech has the same qualities; if he can take them to Arsenal, then small wonder Terry is worried.