A Review Of Jonathan Wilson’s The Outsider

by Richard Brook

Apart from being one of the best football books I have read in a long time The Outsider, written by Jonathan Wilson, is a book about goalkeepers by goalkeepers, for… well anyone really. While people who have voluntarily or otherwise stalked a penalty area in the role of outcast custodian will find themselves subconsciously nodding and laughing their confirmations. Those who prefer to use their feet when playing a sport called football, will gain a considerable amount of insight into the kind of character that would sooner stop a goal than score one.  Much of the content of the book is told in quotes by the great and sometimes not-so-great goalkeepers of history. Also while you might know Jonathan Wilson editor of The Blizzard and writer for The Guardian, Sports Illustrated and World Soccer, having read this wonderful book I now know Jonathan Wilson heroic school goalkeeper in a hockey match against Whickham.

This personal anecdote used to illustrate that feeling, when playing sport and all those around you are losing their heads, of absolute tranquillity, and absolute certainty that it is all within your control. It is a clever opening to the book, immediately the reader is disarmed, and at once connected to the author. Immediately the reader is transported back to their first slow-motion moment on a sports field too. Mine was playing football for 7th Rugby (Bilton) Cub Scouts, for whom, would you believe, I was a goalkeeper.

I forget which of the other Rugby Scout Groups we were pitted against on the day in question but I do remember it being bitterly cold. Too cold to be playing in goal in a 0-0 draw with little action in and around the penalty area. Stretching and jogging to keep warm while keeping my ten-year-old attention span focussed in case I was called upon to spring into action. Time was almost up by the time I had to make a meaningful contribution. The opposition striker was running through the channel between right-back and centre-back with the ball, until said centre-back put an untimely end to the advance and conceded a free-kick. I covered my right hand post and lined up my wall to cover it, before taking up a position left of centre with a defender on the left-hand post. A forward took up a position to the right of centre about 8 yards from goal. I was yelling at someone to mark him, but no-one moved. In fact all my yelling did was make the free-kick taker aware of the target, I saw his eyes glint as he realised and chipped the ball over the wall presenting the forward with a volleyed chance. I had no option, has his leg pulled back and after two quick steps to the right I flung myself down the line his leg was kicking, had he mis-kicked even slightly I would have been beaten, but he middled it. I stretched as fully as possible and felt the dull, firm thud of the ball against my right palm as I pushed the shot onto the face of the post. It rebounded back in to my grateful arms and as it did so the world began to move at a normal pace again, sounds apart from the birds and my heart beat returned, and my team got the draw.

From the moment of reading Wilson’s anecdote of that type of experience, the audience is reassured that author and reader share a common appreciation, of that sensation in any sport and one begins to understand the author’s respect for the goalkeeper.

This book is not just a selection of interviews though, and such interviews as there are, are not necessarily with the greats. The selection of interviewees appears to have been more based on whether a goalkeeper influenced the art as a whole, or the perception of the art in their own country or further afield. Nor is it a mere coaching manual, although there are some absolute gems to be picked up in there from some really good sources of goalkeeping knowledge if the reader chose to use the book in this way. As a committed Sheffield Wednesday fan by birth it pains me deeply to say that I was most stuck by ex-Sheffield United goalkeeper Alan Hodgkinson’s words apparently delivered to Scotland’s Andy Goram, when Hodgkinson coached him, that if a keeper finds himself beaten, and a goal is conceded, he should note the scenario he was faced with and his own starting position for attempting the save. Next time he finds himself in the same situation he should try different positioning. It is painfully simple advice until you ask yourself why you never thought of it.

So if this book is not just interviews and not just coaching manual, what is it exactly? It is all kinds of things but that sounds like a terrible indictment. The book is football writing of the excellent quality one would expect from a writer with the track record of Mr Wilson, and absolutely focussed on topic. When I write that this work is all kind of things I mean only to describe the fact that the ground covered on the subject of goalkeepers is vast. Starting in almost anthropological fashion with old pagan fertility rituals of trying to get a ball to a particular point often a sacred tree, with Wilson positing the question what he use of goalkeepers would be, in their role spoiler, in effect; ‘who would want to spoil the harvest?’ As a practising neo-pagan myself I would suggest that pagans often see duality in such things, for example the solstices are often referred to as battles between the god of summer/fertility and the god of winter/infertility. Someone has to play the guy that all of the assembled know will lose at the end, however hard he battles.

The history moves on to the rough and tumble of the public school game where each side would have a group of “fags” to “keep base” to use the parlance of the domain and of the time. Wilson takes his audience on a journey through the development of position throughout the modern game such as rule changes such as goalkeepers being able to handle anywhere within their own half, and the introduction of the penalty spot. We are invited to look at the early professional era including another fabled goalkeeper from the red side of Sheffield, William “Fatty” Foulke, who by the end of his career was reported to have weighed 28 stone. Wilson investigates the the nuances of how the position has been played over the years, with the weighting slightly to biased towards keepers who were from and / or played in Britain. The development of the role includes the reactive keeper who stays principally within his area and concentrates on covering angles and making saves, and the proactive “sweeper keeper” who is more willing to leave his box to avoid having to face a shot in the first place.

There are fascinating explorations into the the tradition of African goalkeeping, the idea that all Brazilian and Scottish goalkeepers are substandard – and the keepers that indisputably proved this wrong, the British mistrust of all foreign goalkeepers, representations of goalkeepers in the arts, the modern requirement that you be 6’4” to be a goalkeeper and of course penalties and the fears and opportunities they represent to the goalkeeper.

The author also provides rich comparatives, particularly interesting is the Russian mindset, especially post Lev Yashin, of the goalkeeper being a hero and everyone wanting play in goal, as opposed to the British perception of the awkward outsider – from which the book takes its name – the anti-footballer hell bent on preventing the very life-blood of the game goals. In turn comes the moments of insightful analysis as to why some people, such as myself would want to play the position. Can we really all be mad? Well Stephen Bywater did tweet pictures of himself, last season, in his car eating cold, tinned spaghetti with a toothbrush, but that is not the point.

The Outsider really is a terrific read for anyone interested in football and the development of the game. It is clearly all the more so for anyone who wants a rare insight into the mind of the professional goalkeeper. Whether you have been a goalkeeper at any level, or not fans of football writing are guaranteed to find this book captivating. It is a book I know that I will read again and again and happily recommend to all.

The Outsider by Jonathan Wilson is published by Orion Books 2012 and is available R.R.P. £20.00