Goalkeeping is all about decision-making. Stay up or go down? Kick or leave? Commit yourself, or stand your ground? Each of these decisions is based on the consideration of a welter of variables: what’s the surface like, who’s the attacker, where are my defenders and – not least – is this going to hurt?
It’s easy to suppose that goalies are essentially reactive: that in terms of both minute-to-minute play and longer-term strategy, the goalie, dogged and stoic, simply puts up with whatever changes in gameplay, tactics or technology happen to come along. There’s some truth in this, of course (a goalie can’t make the save before the shot’s been struck, after all) – but it would be a mistake to think that proactive innovation hasn’t played a key role in the evolution of modern hockey goalkeeping. In the on-going arms race between attackers and goalies, it hasn’t always been the attackers making the first move.
Perhaps foremost among those who set the template for ’keeping in the modern age was Köln’s Klaus Ludwiczak. Ludwiczak, who represented West Germany at the 1976 Olympics in Montreál, was one of the first goalies smart enough and brave enough to take advantage of the rule-change that required penalty-corner strikes to cross the line no higher than the backboard – around 46cm.
Ludwiczak reasoned that, by dropping to spread himself as the striker readied to hit, he could create a hugely effective ‘block’ and close off almost all of the available goal-space. The downside to this was that it was very likely to hurt. It’s true that, with most games still played on grass, balls still leather and sticks much springier than their modern counterparts, ball-speeds were not as fast as they are today – but then, when all the goalie has for protection are cane pads, kickers, a box and possibly a flimsy chest-pad, ‘not as fast’ is quite fast enough, thank-you very much. Ludwiczak was to find this out to his cost: dropping to block a hit from the Australian defender Jim Irvine, he was struck amidships and as a consequence lost one of his testicles.
Ludwiczak’s innovation was carried into the astro age by the likes of the USSR’s Vladimir Pleshakov (whose identical twin, Sergei, played up front in the same side). The USSR reached the final of the 1983 European Cup in Amsterdam with a Pleshakov at either end – but it couldn’t last. Attackers were wising up.
John Hurst, one of GB’s stable of top goalies during the late 70s and 80s and now a Consultant Goal Keeping Performance Manager at England Hockey, remembers the period well.
“It wasn’t long before teams worked a way around that by working moves, rather than simply hitting the ball as hard as possible,” he says. “The scores started to get really quite high, penalty corners were converted regularly, because the strikers had mastered the art of hitting the corners. Sticks were now stiffer, and balls were now plastic – which meant the striker had the upper hand, with standing goalkeepers attempting to save with feet and hands.”
Strikers had realised that the old ‘see ball, hit ball’ philosophy was no longer up to the job. As the brute-force welly from the top of the D was phased out in favour of precision shooting and zippy passing moves, the ‘blocking’ goalie in the Pleshakov mould was in danger of becoming obsolete. Attacking hockey had shifted into a new gear – how were goalies to respond?
Well, they gritted their teeth, possibly muttered a prayer, and charged.
Great Britain’s male goalkeepers during the side’s 1980s pomp constituted a golden age within a golden age. In the build-up to the ’84 Olympics, Hurst, Veryan Pappin and Ian Taylor helped GB set the agenda for modern ’keeping.
“What we all worked out, Ian, Veryan and myself,” recalls Hurst, “was that, if you could charge, you had a chance of blocking most of what they were hitting, because of the narrowing of the angle. So we started to charge and smother without very much padding.”
All three initially struggled.
“As you can imagine, having to change techniques at that stage of one’s career, well, it gave most of us a wobble or two psychologically at the time,” says Pappin. “In truth, we were at the time all still getting to grips with what we thought of as an indoor technique.”
Taylor, kitted out in ice-hockey padding, was a notably reluctant convert – but a spectacularly successful one.
“It’s a real testament to his individual character and hugely focused approach he applied in all he did then that he did [get to grips with the technique],” Pappin comments, “and to a degree that, within a relatively short while (in playing terms), once again placed him at the top of the pile technically, and which ultimately gave the whole training and playing group added confidence – as subsequent events were happily to prove.”
One match at the 1984 Olympics in LA demonstrated the effectiveness of Taylor’s charging technique. In the group stage, GB were drawn against a formidable Pakistan side – one that would go on to claim the gold medal, beating West Germany in the final.
“Pakistan were far better and had something like 19 penalty corners,” John Hurst remembers. “But all they did was try and hit it, and [Taylor] kept running out and dropping and getting a good barrier, and they kept hitting him. They didn’t think about moving it.”
Taylor’s efforts helped GB to a hugely creditable 0-0 draw, and, ultimately, to a bronze medal.
By the ’86 World Cup and the Seoul Olympics two years later, however, this approach, too, had become outmoded. Again, strikers had figured the technique out, and exposed its weaknesses: a charging goalie was vulnerable to the ball flicked over the top or, alternatively, passed to either side. Again, goalies responded: most followed Taylor in dropping to the floor a couple of paces off the line.
“And that’s when that started, because again… you could block most of the goal,” John Hurst explains. “And if they flicked it, you could read it and stay up. So the goalies then got the edge again.”
It’s a fascinating history, an evolutionary see-saw of innovation and counter-innovation in the battleground of the D. But of course, there’s a lot more to goalkeeping than simply deciding when to drop and when to charge. In fact, there’s a lot more to goalkeeping than the goalkeeper.
“The crucial thing is for the goalkeeper to train with the defence,” says John Hurst.
This is a principle that has always been central to hockey goalkeeping. It was on these grounds that the Scot Veryan Pappin acknowledged his English rival Taylor as the best pick for Great Britain.
“As the entire defence at the time was English, I genuinely believed he would be a better bet for the team than me, given the years of playtime and understanding between them,” Pappin says. “That was somewhat difficult for me to say then, but I still feel it was the right thing to do.”
Pappin, an exceptional natural athlete, laments the passing of the days when the goalie could “act as a third defender, able to control the entire D with timed runs and intercepts”.
“I do feel that, with the changes to off-side laws (after I had finished my playing career, thankfully), the GK’s role or sphere of dominance appears (to me at any rate) to have become restricted somewhat, backwards, to a goal-mouth ‘reactivity’,” he adds.
John Hurst, for his part, believes that Pappin would have been a natural fit for the modern game, given the need for a high level of physical fitness and speed. He singles out James Fair of Cannock and Great Britain as a current player who exemplifies these standards.
“They are athletes,” he says. “James Fair, for example, if you were to do a five-yard speed test, amongst squad members, he would be the quickest or in the top three. And that’s the aim. The work they do in the gym, in training, is to get them as fast as they possibly can be.”
But it’s not just the goalies that have got faster. The principal challenge for today’s elite goalies is the blistering speed that top-flight attackers can get on the ball with a hit or drag-flick. It’s a challenge that John Hurst continues to wrestle with in his career as a top-level ’keeping coach.
“Goalies now say when they’re playing club hockey, particularly when they’re training, the pace of the ball is not fast enough compared to international training and matches,” Hurst points out. “It’s only when they get up to playing with the top players consistently that they experience the pace of shot that they require to play international hockey.
“And I think we’re still undone a bit because I don’t believe that the standard of our hitting in this country is sufficient, even at top National League level.”
Learning to respond to the light-speed drag-flicks of internationals like Hayden Shaw of New Zealand and Taeke Taekema of the Netherlands is not just a question of reaction-time. Against these players, there is no possibility of reading the shot by simply watching the ball – it’s just too quick. Instead, goalies learn to supplement their natural reactions by studying other visual cues.
“It’s like in cricket,” John Hurst explains. “Realistically, the opening bat for England can’t react to the pace of the ball bowled by a top fast bowler in the time that they’ve got. So they’re picking up other signals.
“And it’s the same in hockey: if you hit a ball from 12 metres, flat-out, say 90kph, at the goal, and the goalie is in the way, they can’t react – but they do. So they’re learning to react to what’s happening with the player hitting: it’s the swing, body position, it’s where the ball comes off the stick, the angle of the stick-head – all these things are giving them clues.”
Goalies have always, of course, faced the threat of the high-speed ball (Hurst recalls a strike from the Dutch forward Roderik Bouwman in the early 80s that “parted [the full-back’s] hair on its way into the net, and parted his hair on the way out, before he’d moved”). Confidence, therefore, has to be as much a part of the goalie’s armoury as the box, pads and helmet.
Simon Barnett, the founder and owner of the kit manufacturer OBO, believes that this will be a key plank of the goalie’s game in the years to come. The goalie, he argues, should set the tone for the team, not just saving goals but playing an active role as a fulcrum of a team’s defensive machine. One typical OBO outside-the-box response to this has been the development of tighter goalie shirts; Barnett believes that a goalie who looks more athletic will not only sow doubt in the minds of attacking players but also feel better about himself and – the theory goes – play better as a result.
“Your shoulders go back, you’ve got more bounce,” he suggests – characteristics that the goalie can then, hopefully, transmit to the rest of the defence. Ali McGregor of Scotland and GB is one modern goalie, Barnett observes, who is known for his ability to communicate and to establish a positive, confident mood among his fellow players.
Low confidence, on the other hand, can be disastrous both for the team and for the goalie.
“Unfortunately, still, the tendency at junior level is to put people who are not so athletic in goal, which is probably the worst thing you can do,” says John Hurst. “If you put an impressionable teenager in goal and they make a mistake, it’s fairly obvious. You’re creating a problem for them as individuals.
“If someone can’t do it, and you’re putting them in a position where they have to do it… you’re stuck. And, more to the point, so are they. And that’s still a worry. We’ve tried to do something about that, but we haven’t succeeded – in the men’s game, we have to a certain degree, but in the women’s, we still have work to do.”
The point is, perhaps, that there will always be work to do. Attackers will continue to come up with smart new tactics, goalies will continue to find new ways of thwarting them, and kit boffins will continue to get rich supplying both sides with the tools they need to eke out each and every one-percent advantage. In this way, as it always has, the game goes on.