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Forget what you thought you knew about goalkeepers and watch BT Sport’s The Special 1, a ravishing and nuanced study of football’s most disparaged and misunderstood job.
If the aim of this irresistible documentary is to demystify the role and humanise its exponents, it’s an unmitigated triumph as presenter Richie Driss embarks on a journey of discovery that entertains, enlightens and leaves you wanting more.
Above all, it feels like a landmark piece of work, an authority in the space that will be responsible for changing perceptions and referred to in years to come.
The latest BT Sport Film, set to premiere on Tuesday 8 February at 10.45pm on BT Sport 1HD, is an hour-long education in the psychology of football’s unsung heroes and features an impressive cohort of contributors including Jordan Pickford, Neville Southall and Rob Green.
Being a goalkeeper, Green suggests, is so unlike other positions on the pitch that it is more akin to playing rugby and the former England stopper assumes the role of resident myth-buster, debunking unhelpful tropes which reinforce skewed perceptions of his vocation.
Football, perhaps more than any other sport, is guilty of normalising prosaic cliches and Green meticulously refutes some of the more common accusations levelled at keepers, demonstrating the folly of those castigating them for being “beaten at the near post” or “going with the wrong hand”.
Goalkeepers weren’t even recognised when the FA was formed in 1863. Today they are the foundation that success is built on.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was unequivocal when asked of their significance: “I would say the keeper is the most important player on the team, more than a striker, the keeper is fundamental.” He also suggested that Ederson was one of City’s greatest ever signings.
It’s also a role that has had to adapt to the changing times more than any other. From the stipulation that compelled them to only handle the ball in their penalty areas in 1912 to the watershed back-pass ruling 80 years later, standing still has never been an option.
Shot stopping is an artform, but goalkeepers are increasingly turning to science for an edge, especially when it comes to saving penalties.
A Loughborough University study designed to get inside the mind of goalkeepers reveals precisely how difficult it is to keep the ball out from 12 yards.
If you smash it as a goalkeeper, you can smash it as a person too
- Ben Foster
The science says it takes 500 milliseconds for the ball to travel from spot to cross the goal line. The visual reaction time is 200 milliseconds, and the dive time is 350 milliseconds. Therefore, goalkeepers must move between 50 and 100 milliseconds before taker strikes the ball.
Effectively, if a ball is hit anywhere near the corner of the goal, keepers stand no chance of saving a penalty if they react to the kick.
“We’ll watch hundreds of penalties dating back five, six, seven years, analysing body shapes, analysing run-ups,” says Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale.
Catch-all terms like “mad” and “different” are often used to describe goalkeepers, but little is known about the cognitive toll associated with the position, especially when it comes to dealing with high-profile errors.
Green’s blunder against the USA in the 2010 World Cup and predecessor Paul Robinson’s gaffe in Zagreb four years earlier, are examples of reputation-staining misjudgements that can have negative long-term mental health impacts. “Press that came out dented me for 18 months afterwards mentally,” says Robinson.
“Being a goalkeeper is like being the guy in the military who makes the bombs, one mistake and everyone gets blown up” is former Premier League keeper Artur Boruc’s summary.
The Special 1 is a fearless account of the ravages that anxiety and depression can wreak on goalkeepers.
Take Chris Kirkland, the most expensive goalkeeper in England when Liverpool paid Coventry City £8m for him in 2001. He was once described as the “future of English goalkeeping” by Sven-Goran Eriksson and appeared to have the world at his feet.
He was suffering in silence during his playing days, in the grip of depression and self-doubt. His lowest ebb came on a pre-season tour to Portugal with Bury when he contemplated suicide. He says that his retirement from the game was due to mental health struggles.
The Special 1 also reflects on the tragic case of Robert Enke, the former Germany goalkeeper, who was mired in a battle with depression and anxiety, who took his own life in 2009 aged 32.
In a harrowing interview, Driss speaks to Enke’s psychologist father Dirk who explains his son suffered from a crisis of confidence every time he joined a new club. “He was afraid that he wouldn’t meet the expectations that others had of him,” he says. “I wish I still had that wonderful relationship I think I had with him.”
The Special 1 is the documentary you didn’t know you needed. It strikes exactly the right tone in unpicking the complex psyche of goalkeepers, a subject that has been overlooked for too long.
“If you smash it as a goalkeeper, you can smash it as a person too,” says Ben Foster. This documentary certainly does that and more.
Executive Producer and Commissioning Editor Sally Brown said: “We are delighted to present The Special 1 as the latest instalment in the BT Sport Film series which kicks off a bumper line-up of titles for 2022.
“The unique and isolating experience of being a goalkeeper in the beautiful game has long been misunderstood and overlooked in favour of the more glamourous outfield positions.
“The Special 1 takes the viewer on an insightful and powerful journey of what wearing the Number 1 jersey entails from the greats who know it best, and the psychological burden that often comes with the role.”
Watch The Special 1 premiere on BT Sport 1HD at10.15pm on Tuesday 8 February.