When Outfield Players Go In Goal: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

By Robert McHugh

News • Nov 6, 2023

When Outfield Players Go In Goal: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

A love letter to those rare moments when an outfield player is forced to don the gloves and trudge into the sticks…

I open this article with a confession – I’m not a goalkeeper. 

Throughout my underwhelming Sunday League career as a central defender, I was more used to being shouted at by goalkeepers than imitating them. On the rare occasion that I had to go in goal, I was useless, and the sight of the ball hurtling towards me filled me with dread. But the thrill of getting a hand to a shot was immense.

There aren’t many experiences that translate from muddy Sunday League pitches to the top level, but when an outfield player is forced to go in goal, they must feel a similar sense of dread. 

Whilst the best goalkeepers are an oasis of calm, the mania of an outfield player pulling on the gloves is something I love – pure, unadulterated chaos. These examples are a love letter to that chaos, and show the full range of emotions that a fan stand in can go through when he or she who resides beyond the penalty box is forced into it with gloved hands…

Niall Quinn, Manchester City vs Derby County, 1991

Every footballer in the world dreams of two things - scoring a goal and saving a penalty. 

For the penalty save, you picture yourself staring down the striker as they place the ball on the spot, before diving and turning it around the post with your fingertips, then being mobbed by your teammates. 

In 1991, Niall Quinn got to do both in one game. The goal was a classic - Quinn volleying in from the edge of the box - but his real heroics were still to come.

Manchester City goalkeeper, Tony Coton, was sent off for fouling the Derby striker as he ran through on goal. The referee gave a penalty, handing Niall Quinn his shot at glory. The penalty was struck well, but Quinn leapt to his left and turned it around the post.

Quinn then played out the above fantasy perfectly, cementing himself as a Manchester City cult hero.

Lucas Radebe, Manchester United vs Leeds United, 1996

Roy Keane’s views on goalkeepers are clear. He’s on record describing a spectacular triple save as simply ‘a goalkeeper doing their job’. In 1996, when facing Leeds United, he was up against an enthusiastic temporary 'keeper - centre-back Lucas Radebe.

In Radebe, Leeds had a secret weapon; Radebe actually started his career in South Africa as a goalkeeper. Leeds came into the game against Manchester United with no goalkeeper on the bench, with John Lukic dropped due to a loss of form.

When goalkeeper Mark Beeney was sent off, the Yorkshire outfit faced the prospect of 72 minutes without a goalkeeper. But Radebe threw himself at the task. When Andy Cole steamed through on goal, Radebe dived at his feet to deny him.

The South African then produced a diving save from Brian McClair, before he was finally beaten by Keane. After a scramble on the edge of the box, the ball landed at Keane’s feet. He drove the ball low and hard into the bottom corner. Radebe was unable to stop it.

Radebe lay face down on the turf, while Keane ran away to celebrate. Having got a hand to the ball, Radebe was disappointed not to have completed the save. After all, according to Keane, that was his job.

Harry Kane, Tottenham vs Asteras Tripolis, 2014

Harry Kane is famous for scoring goals but has tried his hand as a goalkeeper. Although it might be something he’d rather forget.

Having scored a hat trick against Asteras Tripolis in the Europa League, Kane must have thought his evening’s work was done. He was wrong. After Spurs had made all three substitutions, Hugo Lloris was sent off. Kane stepped up to fill the void.

His first task was to set up a wall, as Asteras Tripolis had a free kick on the edge of the box. As Jeronimo Barrales took his shot, Kane was in a strong position. But then the ball dipped, just before the fill in goalkeeper. It spat up off the turf, hit him in the chest, and trickled over the line. Kane grasped only air. 

The Englishman smiled once he had picked himself off the turf. 

It is the only time in my life I can confidently say I would have done the same thing as Harry Kane on a football pitch.

Rio Ferdinand, Manchester United v Portsmouth, 2008 

When an underdog faces one of the game’s powerhouses, a sending-off is a great leveller. Even more so if the goalkeeper is dismissed.

In 2008, Manchester United had their best side since the 1999 treble winners. Challenging on all fronts again, they came up against Portsmouth in the quarter-final of the FA Cup.

Portsmouth had a formidable team, but Manchester United were favourites. After missing several good chances, United lost starting goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar to injury at half-time.

Having survived an almighty United siege in the second half, suddenly Portsmouth attacked. Nico Kranjcar played through Milan Baros, who was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Substitute Thomas Kuszczak brought him down, the referee showed a red card and Portsmouth had a penalty.

With no other option, Manchester United turned to Rio Ferdinand, who looked like a child wearing his dad’s shirt when he pulled on the goalkeeper jersey. Ferdinand dived the right way, but Sulley Muntari found the bottom corner with a thunderous strike.

Portsmouth went on to win the FA Cup, while Manchester United had to settle for the Premier League and Champions League titles, unable to repeat the 1999 treble.

Phil Jagielka, Sheffield United v Arsenal, 2006

Throughout Neil Warnock’s career, he has trusted one goalkeeper implicitly. Paddy Kenny was a constant in his teams, following Warnock to multiple clubs. Warnock’s faith in Kenny was so strong that he took to naming a squad with only one recognised goalkeeper. Surely this would come back to haunt him.

In 2006, it did. With Sheffield United 1-0 up against Arsenal, Paddy Kenny injured himself taking a goal kick. With no stopper on the bench, Sheffield United had to improvise.

Stand-in Phil Jagielka was no ordinary outfield replacement. It was due to Jagielka’s abilities as a goalkeeper that Warnock felt able to stop naming a substitute goalkeeper.

Jagielka regularly trained with Sheffield United’s goalkeepers. He stood in as goalkeeper three times for Sheffield United in the Championship, helping them to two wins. 

Jagielka was able to pull off the trick again, keeping Arsenal at bay. In the final minute, spectators witnessed a true rarity – Arsenal goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, attacking a corner, with an outfield player in goal for Sheffield United. Glorious chaos.

Sheffield United hung on for a 1-0 win. After the game, a jubilant Warnock declared, “We don’t need Paddy anymore, Jags is staying in”. 

In a world where the number of substitutions and the size of squads are increasing, the sight of an outfield player pulling on an oversized shirt and gloves is going to become increasingly rare. It should not be allowed to disappear. It is this kind of chaos that makes football so thrilling.

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