Leeds United: Goalkeepers continually tread a fine line between gaffe and glory – Ritchie

Marco Silvestri.
Marco Silvestri.
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I’d never have fancied being a goalkeeper. Why not? Because most of the time you’re on a hiding to nothing.

Marco Silvestri took the plaudits on Wednesday after his penalty save, and brilliant it was, but the agenda would have been very different if Ipswich Town had nicked a draw.

There’s no denying that Silvestri was at fault for Ipswich’s first goal and knowing keepers as I do, he’ll be as annoyed at that as he is pleased with his reaction to Daryl Murphy’s penalty.

Mistakes stick with you that little bit longer and the problem for a keeper is that most mistakes are glaring. If the ball slips under your body like it did when Freddie Sears equalised for Ipswich, the consequences are pretty straightforward. I thought it took immense character on Silvestri’s part to pick himself up and face Murphy down.

There’s a key point to remember about Leeds United’s number one. He’s only 23. That’s middle age for an outfield player (not least when you’ve got a teenage Lewis Cook looking and playing like a seasoned pro) but in goalkeeping years, Silvestri’s a very long way from his peak.

Edwin van der Saar was into his 40s by the time he called it a day and the funny thing is that he’s hardly unique. David James, Brad Friedel, the names go on. Lots of keepers have done the same.

I saw Friedel linked with Chelsea this week; linked with a transfer to Premier League leaders at the age of 44! It sounds bizarre but it makes total sense because keepers get better and better with age.

Experience counts in football but it probably matters more for a keeper than anyone else. In an outfield role, other players can carry you. On the days when you’re not at it or nothing’s going right, someone else can come up with goals, passes or last-ditch clearances.

As the very last line of defence, a keeper is completely on his own.

There’s a defensive line in front of him, obviously, but when the ball’s in the danger area with only your keeper between it and the net, his decisions are absolutely critical. And when you get them wrong, you get scrutinised massively.

Keepers need to have thick enough skin to deal with those setbacks and learn from them. That sounds cliched but it’s not. They genuinely need to soak up experience or the game will leave them behind.

I managed a very young and talented lad at Huddersfield Town, Alex Smithies. You won’t need me to remind you of one of his very first senior appearances, the day Leeds hammered my Huddersfield Town side 4-0 at Elland Road.

We lost heavily and that’s that but it was a strange game. I didn’t think it was a four-niller by any stretch and in the main I felt a young Smithies was superb. It’s quite hard to project that opinion when you’ve suffered a beating but we told him afterwards to take what had happened as a positive, including the things he hadn’t got quite right. Everyone’s going to make mistakes and the sooner they register with you, the better.

Alex has made other errors since then because, like most of us, he’s human. But he’s had a long career at Huddersfield and he’s made his way as a professional. Silvestri, for me, has had a good start at Leeds – outstanding in periods this season, a little shaky in others – and he’s someone the club need to commit to going forward. The best sides, or the most successful sides, tend to have firmly established keepers. You see a massive turnover of transfers these days but that’s one position which managers prefer not to meddle with.

Chelsea had Petr Cech as their first choice for ages. The chances are that you’re going to see Thibaut Courtois in nets for them for a long time too. David De Gea had his wobbly moments at Manchester United but they’ve stuck with him because they know he’s got talent – and they accept too that, as strange as it sounds, a keeper can’t really improve until he learns lessons from things that go wrong.

Silvestri will make more terrific saves this season. And as night follows day he’ll make more mistakes. If he’s lucky people will focus on the good and if he’s not, they’ll talk to death about the bad.

That’s life in his position but with the talent he’s got and so many years ahead of him, Leeds might be onto a good thing there. They’d do right to keep on backing him.