Once upon a time, not so long ago, Leeds United seemed blessed to enjoy top quality goalkeepers forever.
There had been a bumpy couple of seasons in the mid-1990s when age was catching up with John Lukic and only Mark Beeney was catching up with him; they tussled over the number one spot without commanding it, even letting Lucas Radebe impress for a while. But among Howard Wilkinson’s parting gifts, after we’d unwrapped Lee Sharpe and started crying that we wanted Trevor Sinclair and were quickly given Lee Bowyer to calm us down, and before we’d even noticed all the presents sourced from Thorp Arch hidden at the back of the tree, was Nigel Martyn, now regarded by many as the greatest goalkeeper Leeds have ever had. Or will have, but we’ll come to that.
Martyn changed everything, and what was more, among Wilko’s Thorp Arch treats was Paul Robinson, a rookie who proved himself at Old Trafford and in the Champions League. Two goalkeepers who could be challenging each other to be England’s number one were challenging each other to be Leeds United’s, and our wealth didn’t end there, as it never did when Peter Ridsdale was in charge. In January 2000 Leeds spent £100,000 on promising Australian Danny Milosevic, a 21 year old from Perth Glory, and in March £300,000 bought seventeen year old Shaun Allaway from Reading, and from the clutches of Tottenham Hotspur and their manager George Graham, who Ridsdale and David O’Leary were still in the habit of periodically taunting. If Allaway came good, appearance clauses would mean paying Reading up to £2 million.
In age order Martyn, Milosevic, Robinson and Allaway had Leeds looking well stocked for goalkeepers for the next fifteen years. Scott Carson was still only fourteen, and a couple of years away from joining the Academy; he got a first team squad number the same summer that Martyn left. A broken hand had held Allaway’s progress back, but no matter; 24 year old Robinson was now the present, seventeen year old Carson was the new future, and Milosevic was still in reserve. All was right between the posts.
That conveyor belt of keepers was continuing a fine Elland Road tradition. Dave Stewart, who died last week, only made 69 appearances for Leeds between 1973 and 1978, although they included the European Cup matches against Anderlecht, Barcelona and Bayern Munich in 1975; and he only won one cap for Scotland. But many fans who saw them both reckon he was at least as good as David Harvey, who was almost one year his junior but established as the Leeds and Scotland goalkeeper. Stewart was in the position Harvey had been while Gary Sprake was Don Revie’s choice in goal; Harvey made his debut in 1966, aged eighteen, but played less than fifty games in six seasons before taking over from Sprake. By now Harvey was 24, and only still at the club thanks to Revie’s powers of persuasion. Apart from a cameo in Vancouver he stayed until 1985, playing back-up again when John Lukic saw off David Seaman in the youth team and continued the legacy of quality in goal, then filling in between Lukic’s departure for Arsenal and Mervyn Day’s arrival from Aston Villa. Over 200 games later, after Day helped Leeds to an FA Cup semi-final and back into the First Division, Lukic came back with a bunch of medals from Highbury in his pocket, ready to add one more at Elland Road.
It’s a deep, seamless history of top quality goalkeeping, unbroken from Sprake to Harvey to Stewart to Lukic to Day to Martyn to Robinson, of players switching from leading to supporting roles, providing almost forty years of reassurance at the top of every teamsheet, every week. Perhaps it would have continued, from Robinson to Carson, but if I tell you that one of the reasons we had to sell Scott Carson to Liverpool for just £750,000 was the debts we still owed former players, Danny Milosevic among them, you’ll remember, as if you’d forgotten, that was when everything went wrong.
Although not quite as wrong as things have gone over the last two weeks; I’d be delighted to see Neil Sullivan or Casper Ankergren back in our nets against Bristol City on Saturday. Or just anybody, really. Somehow our rich heritage between the sticks has given way so badly that we’re down to two mysterious kids and whoever we can beg from the Football League.
Squad depth is one of the main points of disagreement Leeds fans have with Marcelo Bielsa, although the situation isn’t only of his making. As he pointed out in his press conference, the injuries to all his goalkeepers at once are down to “a lack of luck.” Bielsa’s deep knowledge of football didn’t lead him to think something like this would happen, but that’s where Leeds’ fans deep knowledge that our club is fucking cursed forever needs putting on a VHS tape and showing to him.
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To be fair to Bielsa, solving the crisis we have in goal and in defence isn’t easy, because it’s difficult to persuade good players to sign as back-ups. Pontus Jansson captains Sweden and will start when he’s fit; Liam Cooper is captain of Leeds and likewise. There are easier jobs in football than trying to break up that partnership. Bailey Peacock-Farrell might have looked easier to pick off, but that’s what Jamal Blackman came to do, and would have done, if he hadn’t broken his leg. It’s hard to maintain three goalkeepers as good as those two, lest you end up still paying their exorbitant wages years after they’ve gone.
Bielsa, though, is probably the last coach you would hire to address a problem with squad depth. He set out his beliefs as soon as he arrived: two players for each position, and then Academy players for emergencies. He doesn’t believe that it’s healthy to keep good players who aren’t playing, and prefers to concentrate on small groups for practical reasons, and for morale. Behind his professorial public image, the old Bielsa, the old who creates a siege mentality in the dressing rooms and likes his players to smell their opponents’ bleeding, wants a tight-knit gang of warriors fighting for each other. When, at Newell’s Old Boys, he went through a close season without signing anybody, the players took it as a sign of his faith in them. “I’m happy with the players I have,” Bielsa said about Leeds this week. “I’m very happy with the human quality and the football quality of my players.”
The human quality doesn’t always come first. Bielsa has a tendency to look at footballers as a list of attributes in boots, with things like personality, fatigue or experience just factors that help or hinder them using those attributes at one hundred per cent. At Velez Sarsfield in 1997, he brought the squad together beneath a tree at the training ground, and told them that he viewed them all as equals. He had two players for each position, and each player was, to him, equally capable of playing in their position as the other. One of the two goalkeepers, José Luis Chilavert, had something to say about that. He played internationally for Paraguay, he had won eight club trophies, he’d twice been voted the world’s best goalkeeper, newspaper El Pais had named him South America’s best goalkeeper four years running, in 1996 he’d been named footballer of the year in both Argentina and South America. Not only that, but he took free-kicks and penalties; in the previous season he had scored eleven goals. To be told he was “the same” as the reserve goalkeeper was an insult to everything he’d done in the game, and Chilavert, ‘The Bulldog’, let Bielsa know.
The story that they ended up fighting with fists was quickly rubbished by both, but for four days the media in Argentina and Paraguay followed the story of Chilavert walking out of training and demanding a transfer as it developed by the hour, believing it would end with either Chilavert leaving, or Bielsa. Velez had to play a friendly match, but with their reserve keeper also away on international duty, Bielsa chose a keeper from the youth team, who played well in a 2-1 win; advantage Bielsa. Finally Chilavert returned, a ‘non-aggression pact’ was agreed, and after proving his fitness The Bulldog was back in the team. But Bielsa had proved his point.
It’s a point that will be tested again in Leeds this weekend, but Elland Road has seen it proved before. Part of the goalkeeping heritage I outlined above is trusting youngsters. Sprake made his debut aged sixteen and was first choice goalkeeper at seventeen. Lukic made his debut at eighteen, the first of 146 successive league appearances. Robinson played in the Champions League aged 21. Carson made his debut aged eighteen. Our first choice goalkeeper this season, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, is a stern-faced 22. That’s before we get to the impact young outfield players have made, from Billy Bremner and almost all of the Revie team through John Sheridan, Alan Smith, James Milner, Lewis Cook. Kalvin Phillips has looked a little lonely in front of Peacock-Farrell this season, but brief appearances by Jamie Shackleton, Jack Clarke, Ryan Edmondson and Tom Pearce have given him some talented and exciting company from the Academy.
Kamil Miazek, Will Huffer or Aapo Halme might make similar impacts against Bristol City, although whether they’re the new Gary Sprake, David Harvey and Norman Hunter is something we’ll only know after years, not minutes. Of Halme, Bielsa says, “He’s a possibility. I see him with a good level but you draw conclusions only on the games.” Bielsa trusts his attributes but there’s only one way of finding out if he, and Miazek or Huffer, can use them on the pitch. Fortunately, Bielsa is good at this, and so, historically, are Leeds United. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)