Issue Trusting your goalkeeper

As told by Jason Mckeown

A day after Jon McLaughlin signed a three year contract at Valley Parade, former Bradford City keeper Simon Eastwood completed a free transfer to League Two newboys Oxford United. For six months last season, the pair were rivals for the number one shirt under Stuart McCall, and hindsight suggests it was a call he got badly wrong.

Eastwood left Valley Parade at the turn of the year after a loan spell from Huddersfield that was decidedly mixed, but his place in City’s history has been quickly written up as a failure. A disastrous debut at Notts County set the tone for a spell where he was fiercely under the spotlight, and his position was debated by fans after every game.

Excellent performances – such as at, Rochale (JPT)Shrewsbury and Morecambe and at home to Chesterfield and Notts County (JPT) were often only begrudgingly acknowledged. Mistakes in other games, most notably the opening goal at Macclesfield, where he was angrily barracked by fans behind his goal, attracting heavy criticism.

Eastwood will celebrate his 21st birthday later this month, and the old adage of goalkeepers only truly realising their potential when they get to 30 suggests he might yet have a bright future in the same. Sure Eastwood displayed weaknesses at City, most notable his reading of crosses, but his shot stopping was sometimes phenomenal and he showed great mental strength to keep going at City under heavy criticism.  

But for the excellent Alex Smithies and the fact Huddersfield are financially well enough off to keep their best players, Eastwood might even have had a future at Huddersfield. It will be interesting to see if the move to Oxford proves to be a short term downwards step or the beginning of a decline, but Eastwood has the raw ability and mental strength to ensure it’s the former path.

At City, Eastwood was the victim of circumstances that saw McCall have too low a budget – £500-600 a week for wages – for a shot stopper and the failure to be able to afford a more experienced keeper on loan. It was far from ideal for City to rely on a youngster who’d played only one senior professional match prior to be the first team keeper for 22 games, but McCall didn’t have the finances to give him much choice.

Though he did have reserve keeper McLaughlin. Two months after McCall’s exit, Peter Taylor gave McLaughlin a chance at Burton and the former Harrogate Railway stopper seized it to produce a breathtaking display that earned him a run in the side and the recently-signed three year contract. McLaughlin will begin next season as City’s first choice keeper, and some fans have being quick to slate McCall and argue that the goalkeeping position was a blind spot for him.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and maybe if McCall could turn back the clock he’d have done it differently too, but the history being written about it isn’t quite as clear cut.

McLaughlin is two years younger than Eastwood, and as impressively as he performed during the final five games, he has not yet had the same level of testing as the 22-game run Eastwood enjoyed mixed results from during the first half of the season. Hopefully the six-game end of season spell will act as the springboard for McLaughlin to make a better fist that Eastwood of performing consistently week in week out next season, but there are no guarantees.

Indeed McCall wasn’t exactly presented with compelling evidence to believe McLaughlin was ready last season. I typically take in one or two reserve games per season and, in the games I saw, McLaughlin did not perform convincingly at all – lacking presence and conceding saveable goals. Regulars of City’s reserve games have indicated this was typical during his first season at City in particular.

Finding your feet is what reserve team football is for, but the point is that while McLaughlin was ready to don the gloves at the Pirelli Stadium in April, it doesn’t mean he was last August, when McCall opted to stick with Eastwood.

But beyond this debate, the goalkeeper position is universally one of trust between player and supporter. If we fans trust a goalkeeper, we just let them get on with it. Cheer their name when they make a save, direct the blame elsewhere when the ball ends up in the back of the net. Unless they make a really obvious mistake, the goalkeeper’s performance won’t be scrutinized. McLaughlin quickly won the fans trust at Burton and at home to Morecambe, so for the moment he is only praised.

In contrast, Eastwood never had our trust. We just didn’t have confidence in his ability, which meant every time a goal was conceded the first reaction was to question whether the young keeper could have done better, rather than if the defence was marking tight enough or if it just simply good opposition play. His heroics were often greeted with surprise, and even after a good game there’d be one or two supporters who’d point to a moment where he almost missed a cross or “got lucky” to prevent the trust reaching adequate levels.

There was once a time we fans confidently talked about our strong recent history of goalkeepers. Mark Schwarzer, Gary Walsh, Matt Clarke, Aidan Davidson, Alan Combe, Steve Banks, Mark Paston, Paul Henderson, Donovon Ricketts. Sure, during the Premier League days and the immediate few years after, we had many problems on and off the field, but aside from injuries a poor keeper between the sticks wasn’t one of them.

Many of the above were far from perfect, mistakes were made; but even if some endured dips in form there was general confidence in the incumbent of the goalkeeper jersey most Saturday afternoons.

Even since Ricketts lost his form in the 2006/07 season, trust in goalkeepers has been lacking. The fantastic Scott Loach, who may be a Premier League keeper next season such is the top flight interest, was heavily criticised by a small minority of fans when at City. Rhys Evans came as close to anyone to gaining the full trust of fans, but few were too sad when he was allowed to leave.

It’s fantastic that McLaughlin has earned the trust of supporters, and the hope is it continues into next season and beyond. But if he does prove himself and the praise is showered down upon him, I hope it can be concentrated on his ability rather than as another reason to slate a City legend.

McCall may have helped the keeper by not picking him before he was ready, but above all else McLaughlin wouldn’t be receiving the recent praise and trust had Stuart “goalkeepers were a blind spot” McCall not discovered and signed him from obscurity in the first place.