Until yesterday, you probably won’t have heard of Alan Hodgkinson, but news of his passing will have have resonated amongst the many generations of goalkeepers who had grown up knowing him simply as ‘The Guru’.
In a time when goalkeepers were mostly left to their own devices when it came to preparing themselves for action, Alan became a pioneer of modern day goalkeeper coaching, initially working for multiple clubs at a time as a goalkeeping consultant at the likes of Manchester United, Rangers and Everton.
For many goalkeepers of my own age and a little older, he was the first specialist goalkeeping coach we had ever had and his influence stretched far and wide across British football.
I first came across Alan during my initial trip to the first ever professional club to show an interest in me, which was Watford.
Bearing in mind this wasn’t just my first session with a goalkeeping coach, it was the first time I had even been to a club in this capacity, you can imagine the nerves I was feeling.
I’d only just stopped wearing shorts to school and here I was stood next to the already giant 19-year-old David James, who was being berated by this short, grey haired Yorkshireman for his sloppy hands after dropping a cross.
First impressions stay with you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are right, and the fear and intimidation I felt that day was probably more to do with me catching David James on a bad day, rather than Alan Hodgkinson because, as I gradually grasped over the course of my career, the best goalkeeping coaches aren’t the dictator style of disciplinarians, they’re the carers and nurturers of the glove bearers. Custodians in more ways than one.
As Andy Goram spoke of his sadness, it wasn’t just at the loss of a great coach, but also of a man who had become a father figure in his life, and it’s this notable quality that sets great goalkeeping coaches apart from the good.
Whenever I’m asked ‘Are all goalkeepers mad?’, my answer generally begins with a roll of the eyes before I launch into my ‘Do you know how mentally tough you have to be a goalkeeper?’ defence, that we’re not mad but we are special, and most outfield players couldn’t cope with the responsibility that comes with the job.
Just to place things in perspective, we’re not firemen, police officers or soldiers risking our lives on a daily basis, but in footballing terms, the emotional strain you come under can prove too much for some and that’s where the role of the goalkeeping coach changes from simply being a teacher to becoming a friend, mentor and a psychologist all rolled into one.
Having someone who understands the position and the emotional pressures you come under, not just from fans and the coaches, but from yourself too is invaluable to every keeper.
I sometimes think that outfield players are jealous of the bond between a goalkeeper and his coach because the majority of them don’t have someone like that to guide them.
Thinking about it, it’s exactly what players in each department should have, like defensive and offensive co-ordinators in American football. Someone other than the manager to confide in.
I fell lucky when I signed for Sunderland. During my first season I didn’t play much football, starting only six or seven games that year, and we didn’t have a goalkeeping coach.
Apart from the extra work I did myself, Jonathan Trigg, the boyish youth team coach, would bring me in early before everyone else arrived and put me through my paces in the gym to bulk me up, and as much as I needed that too, it wasn’t going to develop me as a keeper.
It was at the end of that first season that there was a change in the youth set-up, a change which probably altered the course of my life.
Jimmy Montgomery was brought in alongside George Herd and it’s one of the most fortuitous moments of my life.
Monty became more than just a coach to me. More than anything, I desperately needed someone of his sunny disposition in my life, to tell me things weren’t as bad as they seemed, to keep my feet on the ground whenever he spotted any complacency, to show me how I could be better.
Whether he really thought it or nor not, he made me believe in myself and that’s what makes coaches like him, like Alan Hodgkinson, like Jim Leighton, who I bonded with at Aberdeen, special.
No text book or coaching course can give you level of benevolence or the humanity to make others feel you believe in them, and moreover, to teach them to believe in themselves at the times in their lives when it’s lacking. That is an art in itself.
As a player, I trained myself to be unworried about what others thought of me, but now as a coach, I’ve come to realise the importance of the effect you can have others and how the satisfaction you feel doesn’t come from watching a player making world class saves or scoring brilliant goals, it’s in the mark you leave on them long after they’ve finished playing.
This time next year, I’ll be 40-years-old and will have been retired from playing for more than two years, yet I still put into practice the lessons learnt from the likes of Monty, Jim Leighton, Ray Clemance and Simon Smith.
That is why the loss of Alan Hodgkinson will be felt deeply amongst the Andy Gorams and Peter Schmeichels of this world because he left his mark on the great and the good of goalkeeping.
At least we can draw comfort from the fact that if God does drop the metaphorical ball occasionally, he now has someone to show him what he did wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen very often again.