Once the role that pulling the short straw led to, has becoming a goalkeeper now become more attractive to young footballers?
Long gone are the days of sticking the least technically gifted player between the sticks. Over the past decade or so, the goalkeeper position has changed in such a way that it is no longer just seen as the last line of defence, but also the first line of attack.
Positional evolution, social media, and the rise of the ‘superstar goalkeepers' mean that, finally, goalkeepers are becoming more cool.
Football traditionalists love to go on about how ‘back in their day, there was none of this playing out of the back nonsense’. The goalkeeper was there to stop the ball from going into the net, not much more.
It’s of course still the fundamental part of the role, but increased responsibility in build-up play means the modern goalkeeper is so much more, and it’s showing at youth levels. Now, instead of looking at greats like David Seaman and Oliver Khan as goalkeeping archetypes, coaches refer to players who are better with their feet.
“I will regularly refer to those goalkeepers who are undoubtedly good on the ball such as Ederson, Alisson or David Raya,” explains Joel Canning, Head of Coaching at GK ICON, the UK's largest network of goalkeeper academies.
“This element of goalkeeping has become such a huge part of the requirement of a number one that referring scenarios back to these three gives an aspirational mental and visual picture for our young ‘keepers to aspire to,” he adds.
There have been a number of reasons why, over the years, goalkeeping has been viewed as the last-pick position in youth football. Time cannot negate the unique responsibility and higher level of scrutiny that comes with a career in the sticks. At youth level, this pressure is no different - and often exacerbated when social media comes into play.
Add in a dose of teenage hormones and overbearing coaches and parents, those who choose to don the gloves in their youth really are exposing themselves to the social elements.
“Responsibility and pressure play a huge part at grassroots level with many kids shying away from being a goalkeeper. While popularity and participation have grown around 30% in my own sessions over the past 24 months, I still feel there are many misconceptions with goalkeeping,” says Canning.
“You do have to be a very robust individual, mentally strong and willing to absorb the moans and the blame being put on you but these are also areas for why some try and avoid giving goalkeeping a go,” he went on.
Though social media can be damaging, it has also played a huge role in the now changed perception of goalkeepers. The Cycling GK, Ben Foster, and other goalkeeping personalities have helped power a new-age revolution, giving the general public and aspiring young ‘keepers backstage access to what it’s like to be a goalkeeper.
Some coaches look down upon these new-era ‘influencers’, but Canning can see the benefit of goalkeeping's increasing street appeal.
“There are a number of social media influencers who share regular content on side volleys which, similar to seeing the likes of Ederson playing a 60-yard pass, looks impressive, looks fun and looks cool”.
“I will now often get goalkeepers as young as six or seven referring to side volleys at their first session with me, which feels quite alien to someone who's been coaching for over 20 years but it’s exciting progress and without doubt playing out from the back is shaping some incredible football playing goalkeepers coming through!” he adds.
The discussion around goalkeepers is perhaps slowly shifting from a largely thankless and forgotten about position, to one that is rightfully celebrated. Although social media has a habit of highlighting the good over the bad, people like Foster, amongst others, may well be responsible for inspiring the ‘TikTok generation’.
But Foster isn’t the only one making goalkeeping mainstream.
England’s relative success at recent major tournaments has boomed the public profiles of goalkeepers Jordan Pickford and Mary Earps.
Going into the 2023 World Cup, England goalkeeper Earps was arguably the team’s most popular player. Nike missed a trick by deciding not to sell replica versions of the Manchester United number one’s England shirt, irking football fans across the country.
They have since paid for their sins, and after the shirt was released, it sold out in just five minutes. The 2023 World Cup Golden Glove winner finally has her name printed across the back of shirts worn by little boys and girls all over England.
“England’s recent success has also played a pivotal role with Jordan Pickford being so important in England’s rise and being a real personality and character. Ultimately grassroots players want to emulate successful role models,” admitted Canning.
“Looking at the girl’s side specifically, many grassroots sides have previously rotated goalkeepers, giving everyone a regular chance in goal, but from my own experience within my coaching business, we have evolved from one female participant a week, to 32 in six years or so which tells its own story. The meteoric rise of the Lionesses has a huge part to play in this, with Mary Earps really inspiring this current generation,” he emphasised.
Fans and players alike are starting to see and appreciate just how important goalkeepers are. It’s inevitable that the position will continue to change and integrate further into the ‘ten that count' formations.
Maybe Pep Guardiola will finally succumb to fan pressure and play Ederson in midfield. That would be quite the testimonial match.
No longer confined to mere shot-stopping, young goalkeepers now have the freedom to express themselves, helping their teams in ways no one would have expected even a decade ago.
There may still be some way to go in persuading youngsters that saving a last-minute bullet header is just as cool as scoring one, or spraying a 60-yard pass across the pitch to release a pacy winger before they inevitably scuff the shot brings its own rush, but progress is being made.
Somethings can’t be changed, however, and to be a top glass goalkeeper, you’re going to have to get a little dirty.
Maybe that's what's put people off all these years, and Canning knows it all too well: “There are also some who simply don’t want to dive around in the mud (or perhaps their parents don’t want them to!)," he ended, jokingly.