Second best

Dave Collett looks back at goalkeeping understudies.

Emiliano Martinez is certainly in the running for the title of Best Goalkeeper in the World after his recent World Cup exploits and top Villa form. Presuming we’re all comfortable with Emi being named Number One, what lies beneath? After all, we are Aston Villa, so shouldn’t be settling for second-best. The reality is that all clubs have to. All teams have a designated first choice ‘keeper and the best that the underlings can hope for is that an injury/suspension or loss of form to the top dog might provide an opportunity. Otherwise, you’re looking at cup competitions that help to keep you in shape in case the big call comes.

This set me thinking about all the second-choice ‘keepers I’ve seen come and go and the different paths they’ve taken. The first one I saw down the Villa was big Colin ‘Tiny’ Withers, a quite magnificent custodian who many thought could easily have made the 1966 World Cup squad. Sadly, he played for a struggling side and the regular concession of goals always seems to weigh heavily against the man all in green. His deputy was a lad named John Gavan, a former apprentice gas-fitter. He played only a handful of games in his time here with little success, though he certainly shouted a good match as he bellowed out instructions to his fellow stiffs. He played a few games for the first team. His final game came in the Spring of 1966 at home to a doomed Northampton team, playing at the top level for the only time in their history. The away side’s winning goal came from a forty-five yard free-kick that Gavan came for and completely missed as it floated into the Witton End net. Perhaps it was fitting that this was his final bow for us before he moved onto Doncaster, then played over a hundred more games at non-league level.

Gavan’s departure followed the club’s inevitable relegation in 1967. Such was the way the club was run in these times that he was not replaced. Only young Dick Stephens, playing every week in the reserves was back-up to Withers. Eventually, the club’s hand was forced when Colin picked up a minor injury and Villa swooped with a nominal fee to bring in John Dunn from Torquay United. John duly made his debut on my birthday against Charlton Athletic, Villa won 4-1 and the next week he was back in the second eleven.

Still things looked up for John as Villa’s struggles continued, even at a lower level, and the run of defeats took its toll on Withers’ form and he got another half-dozen chances before the season ended. He remained second choice at the start of 1968-69 but as Villa got even worse, he took over from Colin at the end of September and retained the shirt for the rest of the season. This was a time of take-overs that saved the club from oblivion, a new board and manager – Tommy Docherty. Dunn knew all about the Doc from his time at Chelsea and he was trusted to keep his place. That all changed after the opening game of the next season. In one of the most dispiriting moments in the Villa-supporting life of this writer, Villa (hoping for a season of promotion-challenging) lost the season-opener against Norwich. No-one could blame Dunn for the lone goal, a superb strike by ex-Albion winger Ken Foggo, but after this game Dunn never played in the league again under Docherty’s management.

His replacement was one Evan Williams, on loan from Wolves. Evan was a bit on the small side for the rough and tumble of second division life but the fact he was only a loan player made Villa vulnerable to the ambitions of other clubs. Sure enough, Glasgow Celtic took an interest and Evan decided in favour of a European Cup campaign rather than what now looked to be a relegation battle. The Doc wouldn’t recall Dunn, however, placing his faith as always in youth. John Phillips from Shrewsbury Town came straight into the team though he had never played at this level before and was still a teenager. He did well enough to keep his place for a few months. When Docherty was inevitably sacked, the loyalty to his signing was no longer a factor in caretaker-manager Vic Crowe’s line of thinking. After a few errors that had cost Villa important goals, John Dunn was recalled to the starting line-up.

Dunn kept the shirt for about the next eighteen months and was a part of the side that reached the League Cup final and played so well at Wembley. His deputy was a young lad from Wolverhampton, Geoff Crudgington. Geoff did well on the few occasions when Dunn was unavailable after he was injured in a car crash in January 1971. Dunn eventually lost his confidence with crosses, so Crowe and his assistant Ron Wylie signed Tommy Hughes from Chelsea for about £20,000. Tommy got off to a very good start then suffered a shocking collapse in his confidence, too, seemingly unable to hold onto a football which, to be fair, came with his job description. The management unsurprisingly didn’t think it would be a good idea to burden young Crudgington – not the biggest of ‘keepers – with the task of taking over the gloves for a long run. Instead, they raided the Hawthorns to bring in Jim Cumbes, frustrated at his lack of first-team action for the Albion. Jimmy was a big hit and kept his place for the next three and a half years, leaving few opportunities for those behind him. Crudgington, despite a hundred per cent record whenever he played for the firsts, soon found himself under pressure for the reserve slot from Jake Findlay, a powerful goalie from Scotland who was to distinguish himself in the FA Youth Cup-winning side. Such is the way the game goes that Crudgington was soon sent out on loan, before joining Crewe Alexandra for a nominal fee early in 1972.

The generally healthily-run club that Villa now were meant that recruitment was good, resulting in a higher level of player performance. The operation of the retain and transfer system meant that unless a player fell well out of form for a long while, had fallen out with the manager, or was the target of a huge fee, that player would probably stay at a club where he was appreciated and was a regular starter. In this period, this certainly worked with the goalkeepers. Cumbes was first-choice for over four years; Jimmy Rimmer stayed at Villa Park for five and a half years. John Burridge was in charge for the first year after promotion back to the top level but was soon out of the picture when Rimmer became available. It’s possible to feel every sympathy for Findlay, a fine young ‘keeper who never let the club down when called upon and, on some occasions was outstanding. It’s possible to understand the thinking of Ron Saunders, who decided it was a bad idea to bring a rookie into the firing line for what was expected to be a difficult first season back at the top. There was a suspicion that Saunders didn’t approve of Jake’s air of enjoying life away from the pitch. For Saunders, football was a trial, not a source of fun.

Findlay, with few chances to prove his worth, moved on to Luton where he enjoyed a good career. His replacement was one Nigel Spink, who had the task of waiting for opportunities to drop his way for several years. Rimmer must have been made of special stuff as Nigel only got the one chance, a Boxing Day fixture at European champions Nottingham Forest. Nigel did well, then went back to the reserves for another two and a half years. Still, his next experience of first-team action saw him do rather well (I’ve reckoned that if you need the details picking out, you probably aren’t the sort of person who would be reading this article anyway). Not that Nigel was a one-off; he won a winner’s medal in the Super Cup a year later and went onto make over four hundred appearances before he left us in 1996. It’s a fine record; perhaps not so great for whoever is next in line. This burden mostly fell on some of the youth ‘keepers who were coming through, Mark Kendall and Kevin Poole being two names who looked like they were worth keeping an eye out for. Tony Barton ultimately went for experience and signed former West Ham custodian Mervyn Day as back-up.

Day had to wait for his chance but took it when it came and kept the gloves for the run-in at the end of Barton’s last season. New manager Graham Turner thought enough of Day to keep him between the posts at the start of the 1984-85 campaign, though Spink came back strongly to reclaim the position from winter onwards. Day, perhaps realising his time was up, left for Leeds United early the following year.

With Spinky back in charge, Kevin Poole was thought to be ready for the role of understudy. Kevin had had a run of games in the previous season and made a good impression. He finished 1985-86 in the same way, the difference being that Villa’s decline under the Ellis/Turner combo meant that these games were now of great significance in a relegation struggle. European Super Cup winners to dredging the bottom of the league in three years – nice work, Doug. Poole played in most of the games that guaranteed our survival for another season. His performances included a save so brilliant that even his opponent and prospective scorer, David Speedie of Chelsea, applauded Kevin’s efforts.

Kevin kept the shirt for next August but, with Villa well and truly circling the drain, conceded twenty goals in the first seven games. He was to be recalled for the last handful of matches of a season where the club, manager and players all seemed to have given up, and kept goal in the game against Sheffield Wednesday where Villa were formally relegated. Poole then moved on to Middlesbrough where he also struggled to get regular games. Eventually, after several moves, he totted up more than four hundred League appearances, helping some of his sides to promotion and even made it back to the Prem with Leicester. He finished league action with an eight-year spell at Burton Albion where he was a part of their rise through the leagues. Even then, he hadn’t had his fill and carried on in non-league football until his late forties. Sometimes patience and persistence pays off.

Back home, Spinky resumed, being an ever-present in the side that won promotion under Graham Taylor on a last, desperate day at Swindon. He kept his place back in the top division, with young Lee Butler now lined up behind him. Lee got a handful of games and did nothing to disgrace himself, though Spink was now almost in the Rimmer class when it came to avoiding serious injury so the pickings were thin indeed. In the end, Lee moved on to Barnsley where he was able to develop his career with more regular appearances.

By now, Big Ron had come in. Spink started as first choice, but with mutterings about his ability off his line, Les Sealey, one of the squad of players brought in by Ron with the David Platt money, was given an extended run behind McGrath and Teale, without ever giving the impression that he would be around for long. Indeed, the same season saw Ron sneak the transfer of a young Australian, Mark Bosnich, who took his bow at Luton before the season was out. Nigel started 1992 as first-choice but as the season went on it was clear enough that Bosnich was The Man and was to be for several years. Had Bosnich’s distribution skills matched his superb athleticism he would no doubt have gone on to realise his stated ambition of being the best goalkeeper in the world.

With Villa doing well enough to be back in Europe and with limitations in place on the number of ‘overseas’ players allowed in a side, Spinky still got a good few games but it was clear enough who the first-choice was. Early in 1996, Nigel moved on to West Brom after almost twenty years at the club. No-one will ever forget his story. His departure meant another arrival – Michael Oakes, a Manchester lad who could now look forward to more chances as he emerged from Big Nigel’s shadow.

Oakes had to be patient, but on the odd occasions when Bosnich was unavailable he took his chances with both hands, as it were. Against Everton, he made one of THOSE saves (you know the ones) where the crowd are so amazed at the ‘keeper’s brilliance that the applause that follows lasts for a good minute, as people adjust to believing what they have just seen. Oakes had a good pair of hands, was agile and courageous and seemed like he had a real future at the club. For some second-choice players, the lack of opportunity kills their development; for others, overexposure proves to be too much. In Bosnich’s last season, he sustained the only serious injury of his Villa career, a shoulder bang picked up in a clash with Coventry’s Dion Dublin, a rare touch of irony this, as big Dion was to join Villa just a few weeks later. This gave Michael his big chance and he was very much a part of the side that stayed top of the leagu for a good three months. Perhaps top of the list of his best moments would be a brilliant save from a Dennis Bergkamp free-kick to preserve a memorable 3-2 win at home to Arsenal.

From the new year onwards, the run of injuries on a small squad began to tell and as the team went down, so did Oakes’s confidence as the wins and clean sheets began to dry up. His inability to dominate the international defenders in front of him wasn’t as surprising as the collapse of his judgement on when to come for crosses. With Bosnich departing for nothing in the summer, Villa swiftly moved for Liverpool’s surplus number one David James, aka The Human Flypaper. Oakes thus found himself back on the bench but even that was soon taken away from him. A successful trial for Petr Enckelman meant that the Finn was soon regarded as back-up to James. Oakes departed for Molineux forthwith.

James’s subsequent fall-out with the chairman over a new contract meant that he was happy to move on, too. His replacement was the illustrious Peter Schmeichel, a goalkeeper of outstanding ability but clearly just over the hill, as the saying goes. When John Gregory resigned and Graham Taylor came in, he was keen to get rid of some of the senior players who were on big money. Ever willing to give young players chances, he finished the run-in to the end of 2001-02 with Enckelman as first-choice. Your views on Peter probably depend on where exactly you position yourself on the spectrum based on his performances the following season. Somewhere between the hapless idiot who conceded all those crap goals against Small Heath, or the man whose vital and quite breath-taking late save at West Ham did much to guarantee our survival. With Taylor on his way, David O’Leary was the next man in, bringing with him a new face, that of Thomas Sorensen from Sunderland and Enckelman’s time was up. Thomas kept the gloves for four years and had his moments but may, unfortunately be as misremembered for Small Heath infractions as his predecessor.

To keep him up to the mark, O’Leary brought in Stuart Taylor as back-up, surely the greatest bench-warming goalkeeper of all time? Taylor’s story is quite remarkable. The Arsenal coach, Bob Wilson, gave his personal backing to Stuart as the man to ultimately replace David Seaman in the North London net. Sadly, Arsene Wenger disagreed and Taylor was soon on his travels. His mission was not to find somewhere to play, rather to find a place where he could sit on the bench. In the end, his career amounted to little more than a hundred starts, a remarkable statistic for a ‘keeper whose ability had been highly acclaimed early in his career.

Why a perfectly good ‘keeper like Taylor should have been happy with his lot is beyond simple folk like me who think that the essence of being a professional footballer should be that you actually want to play, er, football, but I’m sure those cold mid-week evenings in the dug-out were somewhat compensated by a series of healthy pay-checks. During this spell, Martin O’Neill became the new manager under a new owner. He stuck with Sorensen for his first season in charge, then opted for Scott Carson on loan from Liverpool for a year. Carson did fine but his confidence seemed to take a dent after conceding a soft goal for England against Croatia. He was supplanted by Brad Friedel from Blackburn Rovers. The next man in line was another Brad, Guzan, from Chicago Fire. Guzan did well in the cups, making several saves to clinch a League Cup penalty shoot-out win at Sunderland.

Chances remained few indeed, with Friedel matching Rimmer’s determination not to miss a single league game. When he departed for Spurs, Shay Given came in as a replacement from Manchester City at considerable expense. It was another year, and under yet another new manager, Paul Lambert, before Guzan was given a chance. Guzan, in fact won the Player of the Year award and produced some quite remarkable saves, especially in the game at home to QPR, where he seemed to be running his very own Save of the Season contest. This was quite an achievement as this was the season when Christian Benteke announced himself on the football stag, but Brad got the votes. The reserve at this time was Jed Steer, a good solid ‘keeper who was often either injured or sent out on loan to get some games. Guzan kept his place, despite his form dipping sharply in our relegation season. In a spell on the bench, Guzan at least revealed his chewing-gum and spitting skills on live TV at Wycombe. Some felt it was the most convincing thing he did all year. He departed at the end of that dismal season.

Pierluigi Gollini came in under Roberto di Matteo and at least lasted longer than his new boss. Steve Bruce kept him in place, though sometimes opted to replace him with Mark Bunn, surely the greatest condemnation that any goalkeeper can face. In the January transfer window, Bruce brought in loanee Sam Johnstone from Manchester United who kept his place for the next eighteen months and did well. As Villa for a while looked like they could go out of business, Johnstone took himself off to a permanent deal at the Hawthorns and on the staged signing-on photographs looked about as chuffed about this as I would have been. The reliable Jed Steer started the season with the gloves, but was replaced after one game (a win at Hull ) by new signing Orjan Nyland who could save shots, but didn’t look too secure at handling the ball. There was another name to conjure with; Mark Bunn. One of the multi-signings of the Sherwood summer, it was as if the club had decided that replacing the best players at the club who were all about to leave, was to sign anything that moves and hope for the best (see Nottingham Forest 2022). To describe Bunn as a second-rater might be deemed too generous, though looking at the line in front of him (I choose not to use the word ‘defence’) he can be excused much. Bunn played in Bruce’s final match against Preston and his second-half display in front of four right-backs just about matched the whole team’s and manager’s performance.

When the new owners had finally had enough of Bruce’s bizarre attempts at squad-building (should that be dismemberment?) Dean Smith inherited something of a mess all round. Steer had been sent on loan to Charlton Athletic where the reports were all positive. It’s fair to say that Nyland divided opinion and the loanee Pereira looked like one of the most uninterested players I have ever seen. Just to muddy the waters further, in November Lovre Kalinic, the Croatian international, was revealed to the world as a January signing. Quick work from Deano some of us thought, but it turned out that the deal had already been drawn up under the previous manager. Nyland then picked up a bad knee injury, so Jed was recalled on the first day of the new year, playing against QPR. Kalinic was given his chance and wasn’t too impressive though he was showing signs of improvement when he was concussed against Albion and Jed was in and stayed there with a series of solid, error-free displays. This, and the odd important penalty save, brought a measure of calmness to what had been a leaky backline but the sweetest moment came at the Hawthorns, where the penalty shoot-out saw Jed carve out his own little bit of history with the Steer Stare pointing Villa to victory, followed by Wembley and promotion. So you can buy three goalkeepers and none of them are as good as the one you sent out on loan in the first place. Who knew?

Jed’s reward was to go back to the bench when England international Tom Heaton was signed from Burnley. Tom was reliable enough but picked up a bad injury at his old club and was out for the season. Jed had already been stricken by another knee problem against Wolves, so Nyland was back in until January, when Pepe Reina was brought in on loan as the team struggled against relegation. Pepe was in his late thirties by now but had the authority and the handling skills to make us harder to beat. He was there at West Ham on the last day, conceded a horrible fluke, but the draw was enough.

With survival secured, Villa acted decisively and brought in Emiliano Martinez, clearly the best number one we have had for a very long time. Kalinic, Steer and Nyland have all had to take a back seat, with only Jed remaining on the books and his contract set to expire in the summer. Competition for top spot now comes from Robin Olsen, many of whose performances have been disappointing, to put it mildly. Behind him are a run of youngsters competing for a stab at fame in the future though one of them, Viljami Sinisalo, is already a full international. With Martinez established as a World Cup-winning ‘keeper, the rumours have already started regarding his moving to a Champions League club in the foreseeable future. If so, Villa will be demanding a very big fee; not bad for a player who was only second best at Arsenal before we came in.