This week’s column is somewhat confessional.
But before that, so as to tee it all up, I just what to make sure you’re all aware of the goal Aberdeen conceded against Maribor in their Europa League qualifier in Slovenia last week. If you didn’t see it I’ll give you a quick recap.
Dons defender Graeme Shinnie won possession of the ball back on the edge of his own box and, as he was facing his own goal with his side desperately in need of an equalising away goal, he rolled the ball back to keeper Joe Lewis.
Lewis casually swung his leg to clear the ball upfield, only for the ball to bobble over his foot and straight into the net behind him. A hellish scenario for any keeper.
They say you learn more from defeat than victory and, chiefly, there are two lessons to be learnt here.
The first is the most basic of rules in the pact made between defender and goalkeeper: never pass the ball back to your goalkeeper within the width of the goalposts.
So simple it’s the most common of sense. The risk of conceding is minimised greatly by the defender laying the ball off to the side of the goal when possible and by the goalkeeper offering himself on an angle wider of the post so, if the worst does happen, all you’ve given away is a corner and not a goal, your confidence and, ultimately, the game.
When I was critical of Shinnie at the time, there were a few jumping to his defence claiming “heat of the moment” as an excuse, but almost every action made in high profile, highly pressured atmospheres is made “in the heat of the moment”.
It’s frustrating for me to see that 24 years after the introduction of one the most, if not THE most, revolutionary and positive changes in the game’s laws since its inception, there is still a lack of appreciation towards goalkeepers and back passes.
Players still pass the ball back and refuse to take up another position to receive the ball again and help out their keeper.
Shinnie’s reaction, in haste, was to pass the ball back and immediately turn his back on play. A bit like Gary Bennett used to when we were together at Darlington, with the only difference being his passes were never on the ground so you had to take three touches before you could clear the ball!
Dealing with a Benno back pass was like trying to control a short-length delivery from James Anderson.
The second lesson to be learnt in situations like this, especially from Joe Lewis’s point of view, is always do your gardening.
“Gardening” is one of the aspects of goalkeeping that rarely gets a mention and you’d be hard pushed to find any article dedicated to it so here I am, putting that right.
What happened to Joe Lewis against Maribor could happen to any keeper, but tending to the turf in your goalmouth and making sure it is bobble-free is another measure you can take to help minimise the chances of it happening.
Perhaps a small detail but one that could prove hugely valuable.
Anyone who had the misfortune to see me play may have noticed two things: one, I spent half the game in full concentration on the ball, and, two, I’d spend the rest of the game replacing divots and bumps in the turf made during the course of the game.
I’d patrol my area, taking each break in play to flatten stud marks and make sure I wasn’t going to fall victim to what I liked to call “The Curse Caddyshack”.
I was more greenkeeper than goalkeeper and I was going to make sure I wasn’t going to be left red-faced. No gopher was going to be allowed to spoil my green.
Because of this, I never understood keepers who had a penchant for marking out the centre of their six-yard boxes and other points by scraping their studs in the turf.
If you didn’t know your way around your box by then, serious questions need to be asked. Type “Tim Flowers” into the search box on YouTube and you’ll see why.
A sliding tackle inside the box which left a long trail of dispersed grass would aggravate me to the point that I could barely concentrate again until I’d got my garden fork and roller out to make sure it was back to its original state.
I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people pointing out that I was so bad the ball must have hit a bobble every time it came back to me, so I’ll get the first punch in here and say you’re probably right and, if it did, the reason was probably karma.
Why? Well, here’s the confession.
I have always very much been a team player, even when I was on the fringes of the starting 11 and, when you’re a substitute, you generally stay on the pitch at half-time to keep limbering up.
Now, because you’d warm-up in the half your team did before the game, that would make it the half the opposition would be defending in the second half, should the teams have stayed as they were post coin toss.
If things weren’t going well and my team was behind, I’d often wander in and around the six-yard box and dig my heel into the turf now and again, so it would kick up the grass. Bad, I know.
You can call it cheating if you want. Some might call it gamesmanship or “The Dark Arts”.
At the time, I’d have tried to excuse it as a marginal gain, trying to swing things in my team’s favour.
Whatever it was though, I was so desperate to play my part in some small way, I resorted to the deed.
Whether it made any difference to any of the games at the expense of the opposition or not, I couldn’t really say, but now you know why I was so obsessed with my “gardening”.
It all stemmed from the guilt felt at perhaps being the source of another keeper’s misfortune and it coming round to biting me in the future. You do these silly things when you’re younger though, but conscience always catches up with you in the end.