Looking after No 1
Even at a club like Chelsea, understudy goalkeepers have a frustrating existence, writes David Hytner
Published 25/07/2010 | 05:00
Petr Cech is on his high horse and he is urging it into a gallop. "It is the most stupid rule I have seen in my life," the Chelsea goalkeeper says. "If somebody has a brain, they have to change it, it's as simple as that. For me, it is ridiculous."
The subject under discussion is the Premier League regulations on who can receive a title winner's medal. The League stipulate that the prize will be awarded only if a player has made 10 appearances over the course of the season. It is, invariably, the champions' back-up goalkeepers who feel short-changed.
"Have a look at every club in the world," Cech continues, "and try to find a second-choice goalkeeper playing more than 10 league games. You're not going to find it. If you are the young sub, you can come on 10 times for 30 seconds and you get the medal but the goalkeeper plays one game and saves the game, wins the three points and he doesn't get the medal. I think this is not right."
Henrique Hilario and Ross Turnbull agree. Together with Cech, they form Chelsea's "team within the team" and the No 2 and No 3 goalkeepers, respectively, believe their contribution to last season's championship triumph ought not to be overlooked. Turnbull, who arrived in July last year on a free transfer from Middlesbrough, won an FA Cup medal even though he was not part of the match-day squad who defeated Portsmouth at Wembley and did not play a single minute of the run to the final. The 25-year-old appeared twice in the Premier League.
Hilario, 34 and now a veteran of four Chelsea seasons, played three times in the League. The Premier League's board have the power to authorise medals in special cases and Hilario hopes the club can mount a successful appeal.
"Even if you play one minute, you deserve the medal because in one minute, you can decide whether you win or lose the Premier League," he says.
"I got the Cup winners' medal," Turnbull adds, "but it just felt that I probably deserved it more for the Premier League. It's a bit of a disappointment because it felt like it was a whole squad effort and you were part of that squad, even if it was just a small contribution."
The lot of the back-up goalkeeper can appear somewhat thankless. Variously likened to expensive insurance policies and 24-7 on-call doctors, the stand-ins must work intensively to keep body and mind in a constant state of alertness, yet they know that the nod will rarely come and, if it does, gratitude will not always follow. Goalkeeping is a precarious and peculiar business at the best of times. Its foibles are magnified for those in supporting roles.
Hilario was the No 1 goalkeeper at the Portuguese club Nacional when, having become a free agent, he accepted the invitation of Chelsea's manager at the time, Jose Mourinho, under whom he had previously worked at Porto, to come to Stamford Bridge as the No 3 to Cech and Carlo Cudicini, who has since moved to Tottenham. Turnbull had played in 22 of Middlesbrough's Premier League fixtures in 2008-'09 when he stepped up to step down.
"It definitely is frustrating," Turnbull says. "You can't hide the fact that everybody wants to play but it's not possible here so you just have to keep working hard and when you get the chance, show your quality. Hopefully, I'll get a few more opportunities but that will obviously depend on different situations."
Let's not beat around the bush. Top of the list of "different situations" is an injury to Cech and, in Turnbull's case, one for Hilario at the same time. Only once was Turnbull picked ahead of Hilario last season, and that was in the largely meaningless final Champions League group game at home to Apoel Nicosia in December.
It is a baking hot morning at Chelsea's training ground and the banter crackles between the three friends, who are here to help with the launch of the Chelsea Foundation. "It's always great to see the kids' smiles," Hilario says. "They recognise me, they're happy to see me, so imagine what it's like when they see Petr."
Hilario is universally known as 'H' but Turnbull suggests an alternative term of address, while he and Hilario are not slow to remind Cech that their nations, England and Portugal, made it to the World Cup finals and his did not.
Cech the Czech pipes up. "I suppose these two are going to tell you how they want me to get injured all the time?" More laughter. Neither would wish that on him but the brutal reality is that they would benefit from such misfortune.
Cech, though, is sitting with his lower right leg in a protective boot, having been forced out of training with a calf muscle problem. "It was a good excuse for him to finish work early," jokes Hilario. But Cech's fears about the severity of the injury are confirmed by a scan later in the day.
The muscle is torn and he will miss the rest of pre-season, the Community Shield against Manchester United and the Premier League opener at home to West Bromwich Albion. Rather abruptly, the spotlight has turned towards Hilario and Turnbull. This is what all the graft is for -- although a calamitous error in a pre-season game against Ajax on Friday night will have set Turnbull back some.
"You have to be mentally focused, which, in my opinion, I only got later in my career but here at Chelsea the mental work is really important," Hilario says. "The way you think the game, the way you read the game . . . even when you are not playing, you can get that. If you stay focused, it's easy for you to perform as a goalkeeper. The pressure is always the same. It depends on the way you react to it."
"You can always use the mind room," Cech adds, "but to be honest, as soon as you become a goalkeeper at the age of eight or nine, you realise it is completely different to being an outfield player and you start to learn the mental side. Kids can be really tough. If you have any sort of fear, there's no way you can go in goal."
The understudies have different physical training programmes during the season from Cech, who is granted rest days after matches. "He prefers to rest a little bit," Hilario says. "He doesn't have to do the same work as we do, to work really hard."
So how does it feel when they are slogging their guts out in circuit training and Cech is upstairs having a massage? "Hey, I don't," Cech says.
"There are always the same suspects on the massage table. There are no spaces for goalkeepers."
Hilario and Turnbull have the experience of being thrown in for big matches, the former more than the latter. Hilario's debut for the club was against Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League group phase, while he has also played in the knock-out stages of the competition. In total, he has appeared 36 times for Chelsea. One of Turnbull's five games was the Champions League last 16 second-leg tie against Mourinho's Inter. They must, though, always stand aside for Cech. Hilario started in the first four rounds of last season's FA Cup only for Cech to play in the semi-final and final.
The passion with which Cech argues the case for last season's Premier League medals illustrates the regard he has for his team-mates. "We have to support each other, otherwise we'd be dead," Hilario says. Yet there is a clinical edge to each of them. Take the discussion on Robert Green, who was ruthlessly jettisoned following his handling error in England's opening World Cup tie against the United States.
"I don't think that was because of one mistake," Cech says. "The manager always looks at how big an effect the situation has on the goalkeeper and if he sees that he doesn't feel well and he doesn't perform during the sessions, then you go for a goalkeeper who feels better. If the goalkeeper keeps his work and focus for the whole week, you don't have to change him."
Cech's targets for the season are clear. He wants to retain the Premier League and FA Cup, and add the Champions League, in that order of priority. For Hilario and Turnbull, it is more difficult to set personal goals. Every appearance means so much to them. When they come, they will be ready.