UNLIKE Stuart Maconie or Shovell from M People, I am almost never asked what I miss about the old days. But if I were, then I might just go for outfield players in goal. Seeing Robbie Savage don the gloves for Derby at Reading last night was, for me, to be transported back to the days of Saint and Greavsie, Ribero kits and Norwich City title challenges.
Now that teams are allowed to name seven substitutes for Premier and Football League games, it’s almost unheard of for an outfield player to have to spend any length of time in goal. Sure, you’ll get the odd daredevil manager who will name seven outfield subs (Paul Ince has done this a number of times at MK Dons this season), but most will go for the safe option of sticking a keeper on there.
(Barnet boss Ian Hendon deserves special mention here for going for the ultra-cautious approach of naming two keepers on the bench in recent weeks. Can anyone who follows the club on a regular basis explain to me why?)
So generally, there are only two ways you’ll ever get an outfield player in goal now:
1) If your first choice is injured or sent off after you’ve made your three permitted substitutions.
2) If your first choice and your substitute (and, in Barnet’s case, your third choice too) are forced off.
Thrillingly (well, not for Derby fans or the players involved, but you know what I mean), possibility two happened at the Madejski Stadium last night. Stephen Bywater was forced off injured after 13 minutes, then replacement Saul Deeney was sent off for a professional foul just before half-time. And that’s where Savage came in.
BBC Radio Derby’s least favourite interviewee had to face a Shane Long penalty – but it was Savage who came out on top as the Reading striker blasted the shot over the bar. Wonderful. (Well, not for Long or for Reading, but… Oh, look, I’m sick of having to qualify things in brackets. If you’re that easily offended, leave this blog and go listen to some whale tapes.)
Savage, then, didn’t get the chance to repeat the heroics of Niall Quinn, thrust into Manchester City’s goal against Derby in 1991 when Tony Coton conceded a penalty and saw red for a professional foul. Quinn – who was, believe it or not, the Republic of Ireland’s third-choice keeper at Italia 90, despite also being their first-choice striker – responded by saving Dean Saunders’ penalty.
That’s the great thing about seeing an outfield player in goal, wearing an ill-fitting jersey and looking as if they’ve just stumbled into a surprise party they didn’t want. The entertainment scale suddenly becomes skewed. Instead of every goal being an event worthy of celebration, suddenly it’s every save and miss.
While the goals from Reading’s 4-1 win will be shown a few times over the days to come and then forgotten about, Savage’s tip over from a second-half Reading free kick will be replayed until even he gets sick of seeing it.
There’s something extra special about seeing one of the game’s so-called villains forced to go in goal, too. Years before he did Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Celebrity Big Brother 27, Vinnie Jones took a surprising career turn with a couple of stints as a stand-in keeper.
His first, for Chelsea at Sheffield Wednesday in 1991, was memorable chiefly for his decision to try to stop Paul Williams scoring by slide tackling him, when it would have been more practical to use his hands. (Williams scored as Wednesday won 3-0.)
But his second, for Wimbledon at Newcastle in 1995, was far more memorable.
This was the era of Ferdinand, Ginola, Beardsley and Lee at St James’ Park, the season they blew a 12-point title lead, the season Kevin Keegan announced he’d love it if they pipped Manchester United. And while it all ended in tears, that Newcastle side played some brilliant football.
Jones was left wearing the gloves when Paul Heald got sent off for two of the most unnecessary bookable offences ever seen in the Premier League (one for time-wasting, the second for bringing down Les Ferdinand near the corner flag.)
Newcastle scored some great goals in that game, winning 6-1, but all anyone remembers is an incredible double save from Jones. First he dived full length to his left to push away David Ginola’s low shot from outside the box, then he showed impressive speed of recovery to kick Keith Gillespie’s follow-up on to the post. For that, Jones got a standing ovation from the Newcastle fans.
My favourite stand-in goalkeeper, though, has to be David Speedie. In the late 1980s, the G-MEX in Manchester hosted Soccer Six, a six-a-side football tournament that was a bit like the Masters you see on Sky today – except that it featured current rather than former players.
Some clubs took it more seriously than others. In 1988, Coventry decided not to bother sending a regular keeper, and put Speedie (5ft 7in) in goal for the entire tournament. He wasn’t bad, as it turned out. But best of all, he didn’t allow the fact that he was wearing a green jersey and tracksuit bottoms dull his attacking instincts, racing the length of the pitch to score in one game.
A year or so later, Speedie had to play the entire second half of a First Division game at Millwall after an injury to Steve Ogrizovic. It didn’t work out quite so well – with a few minutes left, he waved by an Ian Dawes long-ranger, thinking it was going wide, only to see it sail into the net to complete a 4-1 Coventry defeat.
Savage certainly held his own in that company. (And you’re probably better off holding your own when Vinnie Jones is around, as Paul Gascoigne will testify.) But I doubt he’ll have to do it again any time soon.
And while I realise that it can make a farce of a match if one team has to play with a bewildered outfielder between the sticks, it’s still a spectacle I enjoy.