David Preece: Goalkeeper recruitment is one department Sunderland have usually got right '“ until now
Far from the current state of affairs, being a goalkeeper for Sunderland has been a good career move in recent times.
Despite coming in for criticism, Simon Mignolet is now playing Champions League football and Jordan Pickford is keeping clean sheets against Germany for England. Even beyond that, Vito Mannone enhanced his reputation as a more than reliable keeper and Costel Pantilimon is in the side at Deportivo La Coruna, albeit on loan from Watford.
Sunderland has been many things in recent years but a goalkeepers’ graveyard, it is not. It’s a simple pitch that has to be made to potential targets. Come to Sunderland. Even though you might not win many games, you’ll be very busy which means you’ll still come out of games with lots of credit and eventually you’ll move on to better things.
It’s become a great stepping stone for keepers, starting back with Thomas Sorensen, and it’s the one area where the recruitment department have produced consistently. Until now.
In a side where the problems have been so widespread, perhaps it would be a tad unfair to narrow the focus on one department, but there is no getting away from the fact that the performances of Jason Steele and Robbin Ruiter have heaped the kind of pressure on themselves that makes it difficult to bounce back from.
More than any other position on the pitch, a lack of confidence is not only most visible, but most influential in spreading it throughout the side. Keepers take up wrong positions because anxieties in their game lead to a lack of trust in themselves. It leads to miscommunications between them and defenders. It leads to execution of bad decisions.
The pressure has told on both Steele and Ruiter and the problem both keepers now have isn’t just the worry over their own form, but the lack of form of their direct competitor that could end up costing one of them their long-term future at Sunderland.
At the very top level, consistency and fewer errors are what separate the great from the good of goalkeeping, but beneath that, most keepers will go through their tough times. When that happens, for whatever reason, being taken out of the firing line can be the best thing for them and a good short-term move.
The damage caused by a long-term loss of form can become irreparable and the chance to step away and work on deficiencies in their game and rebuild their confidence is valuable.
Key to that are your goalkeeper coach and the other keepers at the club. Keepers who work together at clubs are generally a close-knit bunch, so when one of your mates is struggling, we rally round them. There’s a more personal relationship and bond and even though we are competing for the same spot, we show far more empathy with one another and know the psychological battles we all face.
When you find yourself on the bench, there’s a general acceptance you’re waiting for a loss of form or fitness to get your chance again and in a perverse way, you hope it’s due to injury.
Maybe it’s just me but I’d rather replace a keeper who has a broken finger than one with a broken spirit because there is no more excruciating feeling than to watch another keeper struggling, and that’s exactly how I felt when the second Millwall goal went in the other week.
It wasn’t as much of a glaring error as the first but it was a consequence of it and watching Ruiter’s reaction turned the pit of my stomach as if it just happened to me, like a Vietnam war veteran having flashbacks. And believe me, there are plenty of bad experiences to recall from my career so I know what both are going through.
I once spent 15 months out of the side due to injury and loss of form, but I had a four-year contract and the threat of being replaced permanently wasn’t hanging over me. The pressure was all from myself and I was given the time to work on my game and rebuild myself – and when my chance came, I took it.
That was 15 years ago and thankfully I was given the time to fight back, but time is a luxury that neither Ruiter not Steele - or Chris Coleman - have, given the precarious position of the club. Sunderland can ill afford more games like Millwall and the need for a confident and commanding goalkeeper is a desperate one.
If that keeper isn’t already at the club, then acquiring one in January is a must if survival is to be achieved.