I really like lower league football. Not that I would want to see us play it again, of course – despite the memories of one strangely enjoyable 1987-88 season in Division 3. I go and watch it in the flesh when I can though I travel a lot with work. Taking in real football at somewhere like Macclesfield, Stockport, or Carlisle is something I just enjoy much more than sitting in hotel rooms, or even going to nondescript, overpriced Premiership games in which I have no interest.
One of the reasons I like it is because you just never know when a player you watch, playing an obscure fixture in front of a couple of thousand fans, may become significant in years to come. Another is that the football has proper mistakes in it. I’m not talking about 21st Century Premiership mistakes – like conceding a penalty by making minimal contact in the penalty box, which ‘causes’ a player to roll over three times while commentators justify the penalty on the grounds that there was ‘contact’. But proper mistakes – proper howlers, made by players whose wage depends on their performances, not their reputation.
Indeed, there are some matches I’ve watched that I can still remember, simply because of the mistakes I have witnessed. I can still remember a match at Deepdale for that very reason. It was Preston v Barnsley, and the away keeper was sent off very early on (actually, records show that the keeper sent off was former SAFC keeper Nick Colgan). A keeper came on from the bench – a glance at the programme showed he was a young Arsenal keeper. This may be interesting – an opportunity to watch a star of the future? Quite the opposite it seemed. The keeper had a nightmare: he looked totally out of his depth, punching a cross off the Preston centre forward’s head and into the net, and generally looking like he would rather be anywhere but in goal that night. It wasn’t just the goal – the best way I can describe the Barnsley keeper’s overall performance is to compare it with Michael Ingham’s desperate performance in that crucial promotion match at Ipswich on TV a few years ago.
We have just signed that very keeper as a replacement for one of the very best goalkeepers in the country.
Nor was it really an isolated mistake. Vito Mannone is far better known for his mistakes – like his famous blunder against Olympiakos – and for sitting on the bench, than he is for his good performances (of which there have been some, but not too many). In a whirlwind of deals and rumours this summer, for me his signature is probably the low point, and unlikely to be surpassed.
So, step forward Keiren Westwood? I hope so. It’s easy to forget now, but as Martin O’Neill transformed that gloomy winter of 2011, following Steve Bruce’s sacking, Keiren Westwood was, in the early days of that initially successful transition, very much the man in possession of the keeper’s shirt. With Craig Gordon’s injuries taking their toll, and Simon Mignolet out of action following Emile Heskey’s demolition of his face, Westwood leapt to the front of the queue.
There were some mistakes – he was at least partially to blame for the late mix up with Wes Brown which led to defeat against bottom of the table Wigan, which led to the sacking of Steve Bruce (thanks Keiren!). Then he got lucky in O’Neill’s first match against Blackburn, when the referee ruled out a goal from a free kick where he had been badly caught out of position.
However, there were also some glimpses of a good – and potentially very good – keeper in those few games. The interesting thing for me is that he looks like a bit of a throwback to the 1980s, as keepers go. In recent years, many of our fans have criticised the likes of Gordon and Mignolet for ‘not commanding their box’. I honestly think that the main reason for that is not about Gordon or Mignolet, but about trends: goalkeeping styles have changed over the years, and it’s now much less common for keepers to come off the line at corner kicks, or charging out of goal to try and claim a cross. Staying on the line, relying on defenders and (if need be) shot stopping abilities are much more the order of the day now. Westwood, however, may just be a bit of an exception to that rule, and more willing to come for crosses or corners. He will no doubt look extremely confident and imposing when it works, and when it doesn’t, risks looking a bit silly.
From early impressions in those days, Westwood’s distribution also looked good – whether throwing or kicking. This, I think, is the one area of the game that Mignolet has not yet cracked, but quite possibly will at Liverpool. It is also an area of our game that might be particularly important where we look to counter attack more quickly this season than last.
Of course, just as Westwood was starting to impress, he was stopped in his tracks. He got sick, and lost his place for that wonderful win against Manchester City. Sceptics may question his desire - Larsson played with the same condition, and Mignolet returned in goal, complete with Phantom of the Opera mask. On the other hand, Westwood fans will point to his frequently stated desire not to sit on the bench indefinitely as an example of his commitment. Mannone has followed a similar path through his decision to come here, of course. Credit to them both for not going down that Steve Harper / Stuart Taylor route.
I do still worry about losing Mignolet – he kept us up last season, and whoever starts out of Westwood or Mannone – is an inferior keeper. That is not something to relish. However, if Westwood comes in, minimises his mistakes, and makes the most of his all round talents, that will limit the damage. If the players bought with the Mignolet fee come in and make us a stronger team that would clearly vindicate the decision (though having seen how we squandered the Bent and Henderson transfer fees, that’s not a logic that I want to follow).
If we choose to rely on Vito Mannone, remembering that Preston – Barnsley match all those years ago, I for one will be watching opposition corners and counter attacks next season through my fingers, like an eight year old watching Doctor Who.