Sometimes, football is a game of heroes. The striker who scores the title-winning goal, or the defender who clears the ball off the line. The maverick manager who revolutionises the way people think about the game, or, modern football being a modern thing, the suit-strutting visionary who finds a novel approach to maximising revenue and leveraging the brand across disparate and multiple territories, going forward. These are the men (and rarely women, modern football being not all that modern) with the big stories. The important stories. Doubtless there are fine articles on such people throughout the rest of this magazine.

But life, and football, isn’t all about such obvious heroes. Somebody has to carry the water. Somebody else has to be on hand if the water-carrier does his ligaments. Utility players, second-choice full-backs: football has a wide and varied supporting cast. And somebody has to take perhaps the least glamorous role of them all and be the one player that nobody wants to see entering the field. Someone has to be the Back-Up Goalkeeper.

Brendan Rodgers once compared managing a football team to building a plane, mid-flight. If that’s the case — and when did Brendan Rodgers ever say anything silly? — then the Back-Up Keeper is the parachute. You don’t really want to find yourself in a position to have to use one, but when you do, well, you sure as hell need to have one to hand.

Indeed, the very first substitution in the Football League, on 21 August 1965, followed an injury to Mick Rose of Charlton Athletic. In those days the bench was a chair, so on came midfielder Keith Peacock. Back into nets went the centre-half John Howie, who actually had experience of keeping for Charlton: a run of four games in April 1962, back before emergency loans, when clubs had to improvise their way through any injury crisis. He’d managed not to lose any of those games, but wasn’t so lucky on this occasion. Bolton Wanderers won 4-2.

An outfield player going in goal is always entertaining — Roy Race once scored a hat-trick and saved a penalty in the same cup final, the big show-off — but can ultimately make the game feel a bit silly. This so concerned football’s administrators that when the bench was expanded to three players, in 1994, the rules mandated that one substitute had to be a nominated goalkeeping replacement and couldn’t come on for any other player. This was relaxed the following season, and just as well, otherwise the nation would never have been given the chance to see Stuart Pearce bring Nicky Weaver off the bench and fling David James up front for Manchester City, in the optimistic hope that his hair might distract somebody. It didn’t work.

But for all that they’re a fixture, the life of the Back-Up is a strange and under-scrutinised one. They don’t get much in the way of media attention and when they do, it tends to run along the lines of “Well, Lev’s in great form, but I just have to keep working at my own game and hope I can impress the manager in training. Friends? No, I wouldn’t say friends. We have a professional relationship. Of course I hope to be picked for the final.” By way of illustration, a quick search for “Mike Pollitt interview” — 52 games for Wigan Athletic since 2005 — turns up a quite interesting but not ever-so relevant chat with a Mr Michael Pollitt, Operations Director to the Sky Trust, the man responsible for Britain’s last flying Vulcan bomber. The highlight of his 2009 was getting through the season safely, so at least they have that in common.

Such a life can yield great rewards. If the currency of footballing success is silverware, then Back-Ups get the best exchange rates. Raimond van der Gouw picked up two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and a Champions League from the Manchester United bench, while former Liverpool sub-custodian Pegguy Arphexad achieved a 100% record in cup finals — six from six — without ever needing to remove his bib. Perhaps even more impressive is the achievement of Sevilla’s Spanish goalkeeper Andres Palop, who has one major international tournament winner’s medal, from Euro 2008, despite not having any international caps. (The internet also informs us that a post-retirement Arphexad has established himself as one of Guadeloupe’s premier character actors, with particular praise being reserved for this performance as the folk hero Inspektor Gummy, though perhaps the lesson here is that if there’s one thing that a liminal relationship with high-profile sport can guarantee, it’s Wikipedia vandalism.)

There is also the opportunity, implicit in the very role, for moments of heroism. Plenty of Back-Ups find themselves thrust into action just after a red card and just before a penalty, and there’s always the possibility that the right call will see the commentator shouting “and what an introduction to the game!” The reluctant saviour, thrown into action by capricious circumstance, rescuing his despondent colleagues: this is the stuff montages are made of.

But heroics like this run somewhat counter to the nature of the true Back-Up Keeper, whose existence is less about seizing the chance for glory and more about an apparent devotion to not playing any football at all. Like all true enigmas, the Back-Up Goalkeeper is beset on all sides by misconceptions, by slander and calumny. Perhaps the most pernicious is the suggestion that shouldering such a burden is evidence of laziness. Of cowardice. Of insufficient devotion to the glory of the self, of the team and of the game itself.

Ross Turnbull is a convenient example. In 2009 he left Middlesbrough on a free transfer for a role alongside Petr Cech and Henrique Hilario at Chelsea. Although he said all the right things on making the move—”I see it as a fight between all three of us”; “The opportunities are here for me”; “Yes, I love celery” — he must have known that dislodging one of the best goalkeepers in the world (not Hilario) was an unlikely proposition. So unlikely, indeed, that he was widely perceived to have prioritised picking up a wage over pursuing a career. And maybe he was: 19 appearances over four seasons later, he’s moved on to Doncaster. Still, the nature of the derision bears attention.

It would be indelicate to dwell on the likely response of even the most staunchly Stakhanovite contributor to the non-footballing economy were they to be offered, as Turnbull allegedly was, the chance to earn more for doing less. But laziness isn’t quite right. True, the Back-Up Keeper spends most matches sitting and watching rather than diving and pointing, but this presumably doesn’t extend to the training pitch. Cowardice isn’t quite right either: in the place of the regular pressure to perform is the more diffuse but arguably more terrifying prospect of having to come on, at a moment’s notice, with the certain knowledge that your teammates, your manager and your fans are all thinking, “Oh, no.”

After all, preparation is crucial: think of David James’s disastrous substitute appearance for England against Denmark in 2005. Introduced at half-time with the game goalless, James later admitted that he’d skimped on his usual pre-game ritual because he’d known he wouldn’t start, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why he charged from his box at the first opportunity and made a considerable mess of things. Always visualise your catches, kids. Always make sure your shoelaces aren’t tied together. Perhaps some footballers are lazy cowards, but the true Back-Up knows that he can afford to be neither. England lost 4-1.

Such a well-read audience as yourselves will doubtless have noticed that it is almost compulsory for any serious piece of writing about goalkeepers to mention Peter Handke’s novel The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, later adapted into a film by Wim Wenders. Back-Ups too have had their moment of arty glory. Perseverare Humanum Est, a one-hander by the Italian playwright Matteo Belli, addresses such fundamental questions as the complaints of the mothers of Noah and Moses and “the eternal battle between an electric shaver and a hair”. But it also spends time dwelling on Massimo Piloni, formerly of Juventus, and understudy to the great Dino Zoff.

Piloni’s career — he took advantage of an injury to play and excel in the semi-finals of the 1971 Fairs Cup; he injured his wrist in the first leg of the final against Leeds; Zoff arrived — is taken to symbolise an entire generation of Italians that were born in the mid-sixties and grew up through the economic and social tribulations of the seventies. His Piloni, according to La Repubblica, is, “No longer a footballer but a metaphor, perhaps a victim, but more likely a hero of the resistance, trusting, blindly, that tomorrow will be better. It is almost never is.”

This is the Back-Up as frustrated dreamer, as an optimistic victim, crushed by implacable externalities yet foolishly and romantically refusing to give up hope. But where the children of sixties Italy were the victims of economic circumstances beyond their control and where Piloni, in those pre-Bosman and pre-player power days, had to grow a large beard in order to escape to Pescara, the Back-Ups of today have more control over their own destinies. As such, they are perhaps less sympathetic figures, but may also be more intriguing. Where the lack of football is borne with an enigmatic silence, there is a constantly unanswered question. If the actual game is both the purpose and the reward of all that training, all that ambition, all that being the best that you can be, then what does it mean to know that you almost certainly won’t be enjoying it? Why are you staying, if you’re not playing?

Stuart Taylor, who has successfully avoided football matches for the majority of his top-flight career, once told the Manchester Evening News, “The moment you switch off is the moment you come unstuck. I could come in and do nothing in training, just take it easy. But then you will gradually start to slip away and you can bet that would be the weekend something happens, and you have to be ready. That is the way you end up making yourself look stupid.”

There’s a curious implication hidden in that statement, in that belief that fate will take any opportunity to grease one’s gloves. If Taylor knows that shirking will end with him making a fool of himself, then by training hard he’s not just insuring against the possibility of trying to come on, he’s actively working against the likelihood. For if fate has no reason to look your way, then nor does your manager.

Here, perhaps, is the key to the oddity of the true and dedicated Back-Up. A player that removes himself from the possibility of regular first-team football runs entirely counter to the traditional conceptions of what it is to be a footballer and why anybody would bother. It feels like a peculiar bargain, from the outside, as though they’ve chosen a quasi-tantric existence of constant almostness and persistent notquiteness. Perpetual readiness; self-denial on a scale that would make Sting reassess the virtues of a quick knee-trembler behind the bins.

It’s quite an unsettling idea, the thought that somebody with the requisite talent might not actually want to do what perhaps half the world spends half their lives dreaming they could. That just isn’t how things are meant to work. It is strange enough that anybody could think that football — the central 90-minute kerfuffle — isn’t necessarily something worth doing in itself, as often as possible. It is beyond comprehension that an actual footballer could … and yet, there they are, game after game, sitting and watching as an entire stadium prays they don’t have to stand up. 

Happy to play if called upon, happy not to otherwise. If goalkeepers are different, then Back-Ups are entirely other. Theirs is a more reluctant life. The niggling thought occurs that it might also be an eminently more sensible one.


This article appeared on Episode Fifty Nine of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.