by Jack Heaney
Sporting careers are often defined, perhaps inequitably so, by moments. The brevity with which moments – snippets; split-seconds; impulsive snap decisions – are wrapped within must never be underestimated. Moments of utter asinine; moments of utter genius. Moments where one succumbs to brittle boned nervousness, or moments where perceptive quick-thinking creates the sweet goal that secures two hands on a trophy and prompts the assorted roaring of two million mouths across the world. Mere moments can be everything.
And they are especially everything in football. It is in fact goalkeepers who are perhaps most vulnerable to football’s very own tautly stretched tightrope. While strikers, midfielders and those closest to the goalkeeper – his defenders – appear to hunt in packs and as such share an equal blame when pickings to savour are scarce, the man between the sticks is alienated.
Of course, blame must never fall entirely on a goalkeepers head. But this will never quell the gigantic responsibility that lies on their shoulders; nor the spotlight that is cast when they strain and sweat under the wizening weight.
One only has to glance at Manchester United to realise that some goalkeepers never recover. Through the late nineties to the early noughties, United flitted through a pool of goalkeepers – from Mark Bosnich, World Cup Winner Fabien Barthez and four game wonder Massimo Taibi – to Tim Howard, Roy Carroll and the infamous Ricardo. The ‘curse’ of Peter Schmeichel some called it; at least until Edwin Van Der Sar eased worries for some six fabulous years. The one and only negative of possessing such a domineering character, however, reared its head once again; just who fills the consequent power vacuum?
The answer was a cool £18 million pound-rated David De Gea. Highly rated; agile; hungry. Peculiar hair and beard arrangement aside, the future of Manchester United’s number one berth was Spanish – with the Danish Anders Lindegaard providing a healthy slice of competition. Of course, with a slight, 20 year old frame in a physical league, the criticism which met De Gea’s inconsistent start to life in England was unsurprising. Lacking command and ungainly, mistakes were made and one noticeably poor showing against Blackburn certainly stuck in the mind of many a United fan.
Yet, as often it accompanies hindsight, it should now be unequivocally clear that teething months were to be expected. I write a night after Everton left Goodison with a deserved 1-0 victory over United; a night where the Spaniard was surely United’s most impressive player. De Gea pulled off saves so beastly and far-reaching that only an unsightly arse hair kept me hanging on the edge of my seat. One Fellaini strike nearly blew his throat out but his hands were strong. Stephen Pieenar himself had three winding shots saved while Leighton Baines deflected free kick was clawed away with expert reflexes.
Since the moment De Gea crafted one of the saves of the season – against Chelsea, denying a dipping Juan Mata strike – he has strengthened himself in every way. The naturalness with which he stops shots is remarkable; his agility and bounce around the six yard box almost impregnable. While still not as austere during aerial challenges as United fans would like him to be, the Spaniard no longer has the consistent ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look which so plagued his earlier time at Old Trafford when collecting balls in the air. Through growth and experience, his collection should naturally improve and fine-tune itself – some may advise a few bulking up sessions at the gym. A fine thought; as long as it does not affect his air-slicing agility, which is perhaps the best in the league.
Perhaps it was easy for knock De Gea for the hard knocks he took earlier in his Manchester United career. But the utmost praise must be offered for the way in which lessons have been heeded and advice adhered to. As ever, it appears harsh lessons were not only necessary to teach the Spniard talent wise, but necessary to unearth the strong character every goalkeeper needs when burdened by responsibility. After all, he has not merely ridden the crest of confidence after a heady game against Chelsea – only to fold back into line after making another mistake later on in the season – but been buoyed by criticism and sought to consciously justify the fee paid for his talents. Ending the season with the best saves to short ratio in the league (78%) is no mean feat.
De Gea certainly cuts a different image than Van Der Sar in between the sticks. More wild, scavenging animal as opposed to Van Der Sar’s watchful hawk appearance. And of course, it must be remembered that just one game of the season has passed us by. But since last term there has existed a growing confidence around the ex-Athletico Madrid man; the sense that he is fitting and will continue to fit the Manchester United mould. With a glorious start to the season and a natural growth in stature and maturity, De Gea is looking more and more the solid chain in Manchester United’s defence rather than the chink.
Goalkeeping coach Eric Steele commented in July that Lindegaard would be given the chance to uproot the Spaniard’s position; at the moment, if De Gea continues to impress with such a vivid profundity, the Manchester United goalkeeping starting berth is very much his to cement.