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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Spare a thought for Robert Green (and blundering keepers everywhere)

Posted by on Sun, Jun 13, 2010 at 1:13 AM

Clint Dempsey, in foreground, watches as Robert Green mishandles his shot.
  • Andy Mead/ YCJ
  • Clint Dempsey, in foreground, watches as Robert Green mishandles his shot.

RICHMOND, VA—I'm sure there's lots more that could be written about the England-USA match Saturday, but probably like most of the British media, I can't get my mine off Robert Green's error. Green celebrated his World Cup debut with a world class screw-up, allowing Clint Dempsey's seemingly harmless shot from distance to carom off his hands and into the net for the equalizing goal.

I've looked at the replay probably about 25 times now. In my view, the real error was not that he failed to catch Dempsey's shot cleanly. Yes, you should catch that ball cleanly almost all of the time as a professional keeper. But it's not as easy as it looks. If you have any doubts about this, go find your nearest local professional player to take shots from 25 yards at aimed right at you, and see if you can get them all cleanly, especially if they are on the ground.

The real error was in failing to react fast enough to the muffed catch. Green is still looking at his hands when the ball is already gone, then made a poor effort (almost as if he had slipped) to reach for the ball before it went over the line. A more athletic keeper (cue David James?) should have been able to haul that one back in. I bet many times more often than not Green would be able to as well. This time it went into the net.

My sympathies for Green probably extend to my past experience between the sticks—a lot as a little kid, and occasionally in adult soccer. Generally when I was little I was pretty adept at the position, but I remember a muddy Saturday morning in Chapel Hill when I let in 4 goals in the first half of a game, one a ball that literally slipped right through my hands.

From later experience, I've developed this theorem: if you play keeper long enough, you will eventually make every kind of mistake that can be made: failing to stop a shot that's coming right at you, kicking a goal kick directly to the opposition to set up a one-on-one, handling outside the box (technically a red card offfense), missing your punch, getting beat from 40 or 50 yards, completely mis-judging a ball in the air, colliding keystone cop style with your sweeper and losing the ball in the process, getting faked out silly. (It goes without saying that the ball will hit you in the nose and other places where it hurts at high velocity, and that you will have contact collisions from time to time.) Hopefully one can avoid rash or dangerous collisions with ongoing players, and hopefully you can avoid whiffing on a back pass clearance.

And hopefully, if you're a professional keeper, you can avoid making the most embarrassing goof of your life at the World Cup. The odd thing, looking at the replay of the whole match, is that Green showed absolutely no sign of nerves before the mistake. And he handled it as gracefully as possible on the pitch, staying to shake hands with opponents afterwards. In the larger scheme of things, the fact that England only got a draw vs. the U.S. probably doesn't matter much for England's tournament chances. Maybe they've got this blunder out of their system. Maybe Green will go on to play terrifically the rest of the way.

Or maybe he'll get crucified in the English press and be forced out of the lineup, or maybe Capello is not one to offer a second chance. Personally I would have picked David James from the start, who long ago outgrew the old "Calamity" label.

On the other end of the pitch, of course, Tim Howard put in a man-of-the-match quality performance, particularly in not allowing a rebound off Heskey's one-on-one opportunity with Rooney lurking. Bob Bradley will not be losing any sleep over his keeper situation tonight. But I bet even Tim Howard, looking at Robert Green's goof, at some point thought tonight "there but for fortune . . ."

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