MY one chance of becoming a professional footballer came and went on a sunny April Sunday morning when I was 12.
There was a Manchester United scout watching our local junior league game that day, and it was my big chance to impress. But I had a nightmare. I was so bad, that I was taken off at half-time. Not too embarrassing, you might think. Except that I was the goalkeeper.
Back then, keepers just didn’t get substituted. Changing the goalkeeper full stop was pretty rare, too. And even now, two decades after I suffered Sunday morning shame, switching the keeper is still a big deal, even in an era when squad rotation is almost mandatory in the professional game and teams can name enough substitutes to have a decent crack at the Boat Race.
Steve McClaren’s reign as England manager, for instance, can probably be defined by his decision to drop Paul Robinson and bring in Scott Carson for that fateful Euro 2008 qualifier against Croatia two years ago. When you wear a different coloured shirt to your team-mates, you’re bound to stand out.
Managers don’t switch goalkeepers lightly. Except, it seems, in the League Cup. After kicking off the Football League season last weekend, 70 teams were in Carling Cup action this week. And 24 of them (more than a third) changed their keeper for the cup tie.
In a handful of instances, this was because the first choice was away on international duty – Cardiff’s David Marshall, for example, was off with Scotland watching numerous Norwegians with immaculate hair fire shots past him from 25 yards. Coventry’s Keiren Westwood, Watford’s Scott Loach and Stockport’s Owain fon Williams were also representing their countries.
(Of course, it says something that: a) The Football League scheduled the opening round of their most significant cup competition in an international week, and b) Those clubs with international players seemed perfectly happy to go along with this. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.)
There may have been a couple who missed out under the terms of loan deals. (I’ve a feeling that Bristol Rovers’ Fraser Forster, borrowed from Newcastle, and Crewe’s David Button, brought in from Tottenham, didn’t play in midweek because their loan deals didn’t allow them to, but I’m willing to be corrected if wrong.)
Then there was the curiosity involving Burton Albion, with manager Paul Peschisolido deciding to drop youngster Shane Redmond to the bench after a couple of errors last weekend and bring in 46-year-old goalkeeping coach Kevin Poole, the oldest player in the Football League. Poole, who made his league debut nearly five years before Redmond was born, apparently played a blinder, even though Burton were thrashed 5-1 at Reading on Tuesday.
But in the vast majority of cases, the goalkeeper was changed in order to give the second choice some game time. It’s hard to believe many managers would have made such a decision for a league game. (Although if McClaren had been involved, who knows?) And that suggests that several bosses, even as far down as League Two, don’t see the Carling Cup as being terribly important.
The squad rotation policy which was once the preserve of Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Claudio Ranieri now stretches as far as Aldershot Town, who brought in Clark Masters for Mikhail Jaimez-Ruiz for their midweek tie, and Chesterfield, who replaced Mark Crossley with Tommy Lee.
And as League Cup ties around the country were played out in front of vast swathes of empty seating, it was hard to argue with any of those managers who shuffled their pack. Because in many cases, the goalkeeping change was just one of several alterations to the team-sheet made by a manager wanting to have a look at his fringe players.
For some, it didn’t come off. But for every Coventry (eight changes, beaten at home by Hartlepool) there was a Blackpool (eight changes, won at Crewe).
Will any of the teams knocked out of the Carling Cup this week really be that upset, though? Derby boss Nigel Clough sounded very unhappy at the manner of his team’s defeat at Rotherham, but there probably won’t be too many more like him. Clough, though, could be forgiven for being fond of the competition – he won it twice as a player, and his father won it four times as a manager.
That, though, was in the days when the League Cup carried rather more weight than it does now; when clubs always fielded their first-choice XI in the competition.
It was Sir Alex Ferguson who famously introduced the concept of squad rotation to the League Cup in September 1994, giving his youngsters a run out in a second-round tie at Port Vale. (Not a bad bunch of kids, it has to be said – they included Gary Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, who scored both goals in a 2-1 win that night.)
Where he led, many others have followed, though many have just used the competition as an excuse to stick out a team of reserves, rather than develop youngsters.
Interesting, then, that although 24 managers changed their goalkeeper for the Carling Cup this week, Ferguson’s son was not one of them. Peterborough boss Darren Ferguson stuck with Joe Lewis in goal for Tuesday night’s match at Peterborough, and was rewarded with a 4-0 win.
Fergie junior, it seems, fancies a Carling Cup run this season – even if many of his rival managers don’t.