A faltering goalkeeper rarely gets subbed in full view of fans. Whatever the timing, it always feels like a walk of shame to get hooked. But is it ever justified?
When Hugo Lloris’s net was breached five times in the opening 21 minutes at St James’s Park last month, his half-time disappearance became a talking point in the media. Had he been taken off purely because of the scoreline?
It turned out that the Frenchman was merely injured. No matter what the form of the day, the goalkeeper’s privilege often means they rarely get replaced during a game.
But when they are, it’s almost a direct assault on their competency.
Is substituting a goalkeeper ever justified? It's one of the more brutal (or perhaps desperate) tools in a manager's toolkit. Hanging a goalkeeper out to dry - poor performance or not - is throwing one man in the furnace while ten outfield players walk away from the heat.
It's a position in which confidence often becomes synonymous with performance; where proper man management can be a more powerful coaching tool than any technical or tactical advice. But the crucial thing about confidence is that it's finite. It's as much self-generated as it is externally conditioned.
Of course, goalkeeper substitutions can be a stroke of genius. Louis van Gaal introducing Tim Krul to the heat of the kitchen during the 2014 World Cup will go down in history as one of the most successful switches in international footballing history.
When it goes wrong, a manager's protection of his or her goalkeeper can be a welcome relief when the media start asking questions. When things are raw, it seems all too easy to hit the number one full in the face with the consequences and the critique. We recount five of the most memorable scenes where they were discarded as the weakest link.
1) Wes Foderingham gets hooked by Paolo Di Canio
Foderingham has just experienced the highs and lows of reaching an FA Cup semi-final with Sheffield United at Wembley. Eleven years earlier, he was in the deepest of troughs at Deepdale as Swindon manager Paolo Di Canio took the 21-year-old off after just 21 minutes of a 4-1 defeat.
Foderingham had conceded two by that time due to a couple of bad calls but didn’t expect to see 18-year-old backup Leigh Bedwell warming up on the touchline. “I was saying to myself, ‘The gaffer is winding me up here, just trying to get in my head’. There is no way he was taking me off. Or that’s what I thought. Next minute, my number is up and I am being dragged off. Red-mist job after that from me.”
Well, a door did come off its hinges on the way to the dressing room. Foderingham caught the manager’s post-match interview, labelling him “League One Wes.” Safe to say, Foderingham's career has come full circle.
2) 'The Beast' Brian Jensen is taken off for going direct
Great Dane Brian Jensen was something of a cult hero in his career, having played for West Bromwich Albion and Burnley. His spell at Bury won him the fans’ Player of the Year award but not the confidence of his manager. Jensen had the moniker “the beast”, quite apt for a man that looked like he could have taken on sabre-toothed tigers back in the day.
Unfortunately, Jensen’s direct playing style didn’t always go down well with boss David Flitcroft. He was taken off against Southend at half-time in 2014 for giving away possession (at least his manager had the grace to do it behind closed doors).
“If that was a centre-half I would have done something about it” barked Flitcroft who went on to cite that the Dane’s kicking and distribution weren’t up to scratch. Well, goalkeepers are supposed to be footballers now although Dean Smith recently said that “they are there to make saves.” Quite.
The departing 38-year-old wasn’t offered a contract renewal despite registering 16 clean sheets in 39 games. Keeping the ball out of the net used to be a thing.
3) Scott Howie stuffs up
In a career spanning over two decades, Howie went around the block from Clyde to Wrexham and many English clubs in between. One of those was Reading, which just happened to be Alan Pardew’s first gig as manager. Towards the end of 1999, the Royals were mid-table as they visited leafy Buckinghamshire to play Wycombe.
Howie came for a cross in the first five minutes. He missed it. 1-0. The Scot was rather wooden for the second which flew past him without so much as a warning. One Royals report from a fan site read: “We couldn't replace the ref, but we could replace Scott Howie.” That’s exactly what Pardew did at the break to “save him from further embarrassment.”
It ended 5-3 to Wycombe.
4) Courtois taken ill against Brugges
Courtois has been a staunch proponent of the argument that goalkeepers should win Ballon d’Ors, and his recent seasons have justified it. Nonetheless, it's easy to forget that Thibaut Courtois’s Real Madrid career began very nervously. The Belgian conceded a rather queasy 81 goals in 58 matches in the early days with Los Blancos. When he conceded two in the first half against Club Brugge in 2019, Courtois was hauled off by Zinedine Zidane after 45 minutes.
Media reports speculated that the former Chelsea goalkeeper had been suffering from anxiety, The club rejected this sternly, issuing a statement that their number one was affected by acute gastroenteritis. Later, it was reported he had been suffering from anxiety.
“It is what it is, and he knows that,” Zidane said when asked about the fans’ whistles being directed at Courtois. Fast forward a few years, and his man of the match performance against Liverpool in Paris will have quashed all remaining naysayers once and for all.
5) Paul Rachubka's night to forget against Blackpool
Rachubka is now an accountant for a firm in Manchester but the former Old Trafford goalkeeper was posting some concerning numbers at Leeds back in 2011.
The American-born stopper's lowest point came, ironically, for a match against past club Blackpool in November 2011. He pushed out a shot from Jonjo Shelvey straight to somersaulting legend Lomana Lua Lua, coughed up a routine cross from Alex Baptiste which led to a penalty and then shoved a long shot into the path of Shelvey for another concession.
As the Elland Road crowd screamed “Off. Off. Off”, poor Rachubka was taken out of his misery by manager Simon Grayson and replaced by teenage debutant Alex Cairns. “There’s not a lot I could say to him,” Grayson said. “Obviously his confidence was very low.” The game ended 5-0.
The Yorkshire Evening Post recently headlined a retro feature that stated his “Leeds United career was officially buried around 9pm on an early November night.” That evening hurt Rachubka beyond the mere day to day of football: "It doesn't make you a bad goalkeeper overnight but people start doubting in that circle. Not only do you have to deal with everything that is going on, now you have people who supported you your whole life saying ‘are you okay?’, he said of the experience.
So, is it ever justified to haul off a goalkeeper in the dark depths of a difficult outing between the sticks? Managers would say yes, probably. Fans may also agree. But for those of us who have experienced a low point, with the rain bashing down and the insults growing in ferocity from the terraces, all a goalkeeper often wants - and needs - is somebody who will have their back in the trenches.
Today, it doesn't always seem like we've quite reached that stage of common protection between the leader of the penalty box and the leader on the touchline.