David James: All 'keepers should study neglected art of distribution
D ave Beasant may not spring to mind as a football pioneer but, in my opinion, the former Wimbledon 'keeper was ahead of his time. Before Dave, being a goalkeeper was all about shot-stopping and hoofing the ball. Annoyingly, most pundits and commentators still think that is a goalkeeper's role and are patronisingly one-dimensional about our abilities. The truth is that the best goalkeepers have an all-round game and tend to be phenomenal distributors of the ball.
Edwin van der Sar is the perfect example. His ability to turn a defensive situation into an attacking one in seconds is part of what makes Manchester United so dangerous. Pepe Reina is another remarkable talent and I cannot understand why he is not Spain's No 1 goalkeeper. Yes, Iker Casillas has a fantastic collection of trophies but Reina can do everything Casillas can and more. Shay Given's game went up a level when he improved his distribution before moving to Manchester City and I think it is also what makes Joe Hart such a fantastic 'keeper.
Beasant was the first 'keeper I noticed who really thought about distribution. Whereas the traditional goalie would bounce the ball about a bit, take three steps back then hoof it up the pitch, Dave liked to roll the ball out of the box. At Watford, Peter Taylor wanted me to emulate that kind of thinking. He took me aside and asked me to start curling the ball out to the left- or right-hand side from a goal-kick. It worked a treat.
It took some adjustment in my thinking, though. When I was younger, I thought distributing the ball meant kicking it as far as humanly possible. I used to take childish delight in hoofing the ball 80 yards up the pitch. It was the same with throwing: at Watford I'd stand on the half-way line and try to hit the crossbar.
But as my career wore on I began to realise that the way I distributed the ball had a huge impact on the rest of the team. At Liverpool, Steve McManaman turned out to be the perfect outlet to practise my distribution skills on. You could throw a ball out to Steve and he would take players on. It happened organically but it was very effective.
At Aston Villa, my development received fine-tuning when Paul Barron brought in a kicking specialist. I remember thinking: 'What a waste of time, we all know how to kick the ball,' but this guy explained the physics and took us to a whole new level. Suddenly everything became about accuracy and we practised a new range of skills. There was the 'top pocket', hitting the ball dead straight in front of you, or a 'one in', a gentle hook from right to left, or 'one out', from left to right, as well as severe curls and fades, known as 'two in' and 'two out'. It was all very technical and it felt amazing to go from smashing a ball aimlessly to sending it on a chosen trajectory.
Surprisingly, to this day Peter Taylor remains the only manager who ever spoke to me about goalkeeping tactics -- and I'm sure I'm not the only one who would tell you that. Look at Paul Robinson for Blackburn, an incredible kicker of the ball. At Tottenham, he would ping balls out to Jermain Defoe to run on and score. But at Blackburn they just have Robbo sending balls into the air for the players to scramble over. It seems a tremendous waste to me and says much about what a meagre understanding managers have of a goalkeeper's game.
There are exceptions. After we played Portsmouth this season, Steve Cotterill revealed they had specifically looked at how to shut down my distribution. They marked up all of our players to stop me getting the ball out to them and it worked. But how many other managers are
aware of the impact of a good kicker or thrower? Outfield players such as David Beckham or Glenn Hoddle are known for their long ball passing but goalkeepers are not asked to work on that part of their game.
Throwing the ball is another tool I love to use. I copied Bruce Grobbelaar's American football style early on -- a skill that even now you rarely see used, as opposed to the traditional underarm bowling action. Personally, I think having a selection of throws seems an obvious advantage. Just as I was never taught to kick a ball until I went to Villa, I was never taught to throw one (although luckily I did javelin at school). Again I cannot help thinking it is a basic skill that all players should perfect. I am not saying anyone should employ a throw coach full-time but surely getting someone in for a day or two would be a good idea.
It strikes me that there is a lot of complacency in our industry. It is worrying and frustrating. Think how much better football could be if players worked on these basic skills? When Tiger Woods hits the ball the commentators freeze-frame the movement and analyse everything about his technique; in football they show a highlight and some guy goes: "Yeah, and he hit it with the outside of his foot."
Maybe I'm an anorak but I think in using that level of detail we could produce far more players who are truly outstanding.