The goalkeepers’ union is a proud, spirited group. Marco Silvestri has the letters ‘GK’ tattooed on his left wrist, just in case there was ever any doubt or in case anyone thought his job was a burden.
Players in his position are crucial at their best, exposed at their worst and never able to blend in. Silvestri could have done with some camouflage when his form wobbled earlier in the year but keepers move quickly between the extremes. Last weekend Steve Evans was lauding the Italian for a “world-class save” in Leeds United’s 0-0 draw at Charlton.
Silvestri felt mildly embarrassed by that – “I don’t know if I’m a world-class goalkeeper but I’m happy the coach said this” – and he is modest about his season to the point of self-criticism. He might not have liked the negative appraisals of him at stages of August, September and October but he could not find a way to argue with them either. “I don’t feel angry because I think they were correct,” Silvestri said.
The black marks against him came early in the term: away at Bristol City, where Leeds lost a two-goal lead, and at home to Ipswich Town when Tommy Smith scored the softest and cheapest of close-range headers. A flap at Bolton preceded a goal from Shola Ameobi but Silvestri has been positively influential too. His sharp reaction to Ricardo Vaz Te’s shot at Charlton on Saturday kept the game goalless midway through the second half. “I thought it was in,” Evans said later. Interventions at Bolton and Huddersfield were also crucial.
“Criticism is normal in football and it’s normal at a club like Leeds,” Silvestri said. “We have a lot of fans and they want us to be the best we can.
“I know that at the start of the season I could have played better but the important thing now is that I’ve changed (my form). For me, the criticism was correct because I know what I can do.”
Silvestri was new to England 18 months ago, one of Massimo Cellino’s earliest signings on a long-term contract from Chievo, and he is still only 24. Goalkeepers generally peak in their 30s. Successive head coaches have seen him through difficult patches – Uwe Rosler as defiantly as anyone – but Evans was unsure about Silvestri as a long-term number one when the Scot replaced Rosler in October.
“The one thing we quickly learned was that this was a young man who needed confidence,” Evans said. “He needed people reminding him of how good he was and how good he could be, not about his mistakes. He looks as assured a keeper as I’ve seen in the Championship. There was doubt when I came in because my eyes don’t tell lies but you have to give someone an opportunity to deliver. He’s been outstanding.”
Silvestri was asked if people were guilty of forgetting his age. “Maybe, but it’s good if they forget because it’s an excuse I think. Yes I’m young, I’m 24, but I have to play better than at the start of the season – like I am now.
“I have to grow a lot. I know that. This season for me is the most important of my career because it’s my second year here. In the first year I’m a surprise because no-one knows me but the fans know me now and the criticism is because last year they saw me play better than this year at the start. But my learning between last year and this year has been big. Shot-stopping is maybe my best quality but this year I’ve played better with my feet and with cross-taking (catching) too. I think I’m growing.”
Silvestri has been without any notable competition at Leeds for almost three months. Ross Turnbull, the former Chelsea keeper and United’s second-choice, broke an ankle in early October and has not been replaced. Evans is using teenager Bailey Peacock-Farrell on the bench and believes the 19-year-old “will play in the Premier League” in future, but he would not rush to blood him now with Leeds 18th in the Championship and trying to wriggle their way up the table.
“It’s important to have competition to train better,” Silvestri said. “You need a bit of competition. Ross Turnbull’s injured and he’s a great goalkeeper. He’s the best competition I have. But (Peacock-Farrell) can be a Leeds United number one one day because he has a lot of quality. He’s a good worker. Some saves are natural instinct and I think Bailey has this. But in a match you maybe use your natural instinct one time. In the 90 minutes you have to use your mind and your head. You can teach this and learn every day, on the pitch and on the training ground. I’m young but I’m the oldest here now (with Turnbull injured) and the other goalkeepers look at me. It’s a big responsibility.”
Silvestri’s one-handed block from Vaz Te – produced as the forward tried to toe-poke a close-range shot to the keeper’s left – earned Leeds a point at Charlton, but in the circumstances and in the context of United’s league position, a point was less than the club needed.
Evans continues to talk about the gap to the play-offs and continues to hope that Cellino will back him in the transfer market next month if Leeds have any realistic chance of a top-six finish but he needs momentum to take hold soon. United go to Wolverhampton Wanderers tomorrow night with 11 points between them and sixth place. Silvestri admitted that the first half of the season had made the play-offs a highly ambitious aim. “It’s difficult now because we are the bottom half of the Championship,” he said. “We didn’t start good. We can (try) because the team is good. We could go up the table a lot.
“With our quality we have to be up the table. We need points now. We have to be minimum in the middle (mid-table) because the team is very good. With two or three wins you can go up and we need this. We need a good moment. After that the table would be very different.”