Unlucky 13: Being A Reserve Keeper Can't Be Fun

Stuart Taylor and Steve Harper are just two keepers who have spent most of their careers sitting on the bench. Daniel Storey ponders why some are happy to play back-up...

Last Updated: 19/03/13 at 16:45 Post Comment

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Saturday March 2, 2013 was quite a memorable day for one Premier League player. Injuries to Adam Federici and Alex McCarthy saw Reading pick their third-choice goalkeeper, Stuart Taylor, who played his first competitive match for over three years and his first league game for four. Actually taking to the field must have been a rather strange experience for Taylor, given the paucity of games during his career. In total, he has played 35 league matches in the last decade.

Taylor's participation actually coincided with that of another under-used option. On the same day, Jan Mucha started in goal for Everton. After six years of unbroken selection, Tim Howard had suffered a back injury, and after two-and-a-half years on Merseyside, the Slovakian played his first minutes of Premier League football.

Watching Mucha keep a clean sheet (and make several important saves) against Manchester City raised more questions than it answered. The commentator rightly praised the performance of the "unheralded" keeper, but what chance does the Slovakian have of being 'heralded' if he is unlikely to ever play regularly at Goodison? Such is Howard's status at the club, Mucha can play to his maximum and still instantly revert to the role of substitute upon the American's return to fitness.

The role of back-up No. 1 is a strange oddity. Since the beginning of 2009/10, a Premier League reserve goalkeeper can be expected to be required once every 109 games, on average. However, because the first-choice selection could possibly be injured in the lead-up to, or warm-up before, a match, one is forced to prepare as if you will be making an appearance. That's three seasons of mentally and physically gearing yourself up for an occasion where the opportunity to display your talents is minimal.

Goalkeepers rarely get rested or rotated, and are never subbed for subbing's sake as with midfielders and strikers. So from the moment the match begins, the reserve goalie can effectively switch off, confident that another week has passed without making a save. It's a cycle of wasted effort, and would turn me mad.

I used to be a lifeguard at my local swimming pool, and four-hour shifts were spent simply staring at the elderly slowly doing length after length. There was no excitement but plenty of boredom from the simple demand of 'just watching'. The tedium reached such an unbearable level that I actually found myself wishing that some unfortunate would begin to drown, just to provide the relief of entertainment and action. I didn't want to be a hero but simply just do something, do anything.

Do reserve goalkeepers get the same feeling, lying in bed on a Friday evening praying that their compatriot dislocates a finger in the warm-up? Just so that, for once, you can feel that your significant wages have been earned. Once in every 109 games, you tell yourself, your time will come.

What makes this worse is that whilst my swimming pool duties were during the spotty oik phase of life, this is not the case in the Premier League. Whilst some clubs do not feel the need to have an experienced custodian in reserve (I'd be impressed if anyone who doesn't support Fulham is familiar with Neil Etheridge or Csaba Somogyi), 11 Premier League clubs currently have an international goalkeeper regularly occupying a space on the bench.

Whilst the clubs should take no blame for this (the potential for injury needs to be insured against), are these players really happy to sit unused every week without the realistic possibility of actually being seen to offer anything? When outfield players are consistently left out of squads (or even starting places) they soon look to move on, but with goalkeepers this seems to occur far less. Steve Harper at Newcastle, for example, has been happy to make fewer than 150 league games in 20 years at St James' Park without any more than the occasional loan move. Given that 122 of these came in a five-season spell, that's a great deal of thumb-twiddling time.

Whatever the situation, the substitute goalkeeper can console himself that it could be worse. At Manchester City, Richard Wright has got nowhere close to the field of play to mark his first minute in his club's shirt, and has now played 187 minutes of football in 40 months. At the Britannia Stadium, you can be fairly confident that the end of this season will mark half a decade since Carlo Nash made a league appearance at any level. That's verging on comical.

Perhaps such players are happy to use an inflated wage to dampen any crisis of confidence, but given the incredible effort and dedication it takes to become a professional footballer, it seems to be a huge shame to be content to let that go to waste. Were all those cold winter mornings on the training pitch to gain glory in the shirt or drive home from training in a flash car? Actually, don't answer that.

For me, there is something asinine about a good day at the office constituting having nothing to do, and I fail to see the logic in any career satisfaction derived from rarely participating in a sport that you love, particularly given the opportunity for transfer.

Daniel Storey - he's on Twitter.

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