Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Four Saves

I’ve always been an admirer of goalies. Having played a few games in the loneliest position on the park, my inadequacy between the posts has only served to show me what great skill there is in net-minding. Judging one’s run and leap to perfection to take the ball off an opposing forward’s head is an art form in itself, every bit as beautiful as a Titian masterpiece or a Byron verse.

My footballing memories stretch back as far as the late sixties, too late to have seen such luminaries as Swift, Yashin and Trautmann, more’s the pity. However, in the intervening thirty odd years, I have picked out four goalkeeping saves that will live with me until senility sets in. These are not necessarily the best saves I have witnessed, but the most memorable. Two of them are English, two of them Irish, two of them are world famous, two of them aren’t, two I saw on telly, two in the flesh. Each was a thing of beauty.

The first is probably the most famous save in the world – the Banks save. Everybody over the age of forty remembers it, and it is still widely spoken of. At the World Cup in Mexico in 1970, England and Brazil met in a group match. It was a game that sparked the imagination of the world. England were world champions, Brazil were the favourites. England had angered the locals by their refusal to eat Mexican food and their lack of openness, whereas Brazil were the world’s favourite team, probably the greatest team the world has ever seen. And whereas both teams were widely expected to progress through to the quarter finals, the psychology of victory was held to be paramount, as both teams were widely tipped to meet again in the final.

The haziness of the television pictures somehow heightened the drama. Tostao, Gerson, Rivelinho, Pele, Jairzinho – what a forward line. Yet England held firm and with Bobby Moore playing out of his skin, the Brazilians were getting more and more frustrated. And then Jairzinho slipped Terry Cooper and got to the by-line. With Gordon Banks at his near post, he clipped the ball towards an unmarked Pele towards the back of the goal. As the ball came over, Banks turned frantically, but as Pele’s head directed it towards the inside of the far post, Banks still had a long way to go. The ball bounced just before the line, but to everyone’s amazement, Banks’ hand caught it on the up and ballooned it over the bar.

Nobody in the stadium, nor at home, nor Pele even, could believe it. It was one right out of the top drawer. Rumour has it that Pele even shouted “Goal!” as the ball left his head. The beauty of the save though was that if Banks had merely dived to his right, he would have missed the ball. In that split-second, he had the intelligence to dive across and backwards, thus giving himself that extra fraction of a second to reach the ball. Brazil eventually won the match 1-0, but the column inches afterwards were all about the Banks save.

Three years later and an all-conquering Leeds United were playing Sunderland in the English FA Cup Final at Wembley. Leeds, the aristocrats of English football, not particularly loved due to their cynicism, but definitely feared. Sunderland were a second division outfit at the time [first division in today’s money] and were widely tipped to be the sacrificial lambs on the Revie altar.

Football, however, is a beautiful game. Sunderland scored midway through the first half after a ball broke loose in the Leeds penalty area following a corner, and then pulled everybody back behind the ball. Leeds spent the rest of the game camped in the opposition half, but for all the wiles of Giles, Bremner, Gray, Lorimer, Clarke et al, the Sunderland goal remained unbroached, as their players threw every part of their anatomy in front of the shots that rained in.

During one such bombardment, the Sunderland keeper, Jim Montgomery, was forced to dive full stretch to keep out a rasping drive from the left hand corner of his penalty area. It was a good save, but those of us cheering for the underdogs, could only look on in horror as the ball fell invitingly for Peter Lorimer, Leeds inside forward and reputedly the holder of the hardest shot in football. Lorimer was on the six yard line, unmarked and he gleefully side-footed the ball into the empty net. Except it didn’t get that far. It struck the crossbar and bounced out. Lorimer, totally confused, appealed. Like most of the television audience, I couldn’t make out what had happened. We had to wait for a break in play and for the slow motion action-replay. Even then it took two or three repeats for us to realise that Lorimer hadn’t missed. Montgomery had saved it!

The ball had fallen instantly to Lorimer from Monty’s full-length save. Lorimer hit it first time towards the empty net. Somehow, Montgomery had completed his dive, turned and dived backwards towards his goal, before the ball went in. The ball struck the top of his outstretched hand and ricocheted up to hit the bar and bounce away to safety. As a young teenager, I was awestruck, and as a middle-aged fart, I still am. Of course, there was a certain element of luck involved – Monty just dived back towards his goal and the ball struck him, rather than vice versa. But the tremendous, almost miraculous agility made the luck. The story goes that after the game, when Bob Stokoe, the triumphant Sunderland manager, was asked about the save, he replied, “Ah, yes, but you should’ve seen the save ‘e made at ‘Ull.”

Move on now twelve years to May 1985 and a barren and windswept Terryland Park. Those who know me are aware that I’m always banging on about this game, which I regard as the greatest match I have ever seen. It was the final game of the season, a rearranged fixture, Galway at home to Shels. Shels needed a win to survive in this, the first season that relegation was introduced. If they drew or lost, Sligo would be safe. The game was to be played on a midweek afternoon, just three days after Galway had lost the Cup Final to Shamrock Rovers.

The crowd barely reached three figures, half of which were Shels, forty-nine fiftieths were Galway and there was one representative from Sligo. The latter must have been ecstatic as Galway plundered two goals in the first half, and we were totally dejected.
However in the second half, we got an early goal back, which gave us a bit of hope, but we couldn’t get the second. Not that Galway were out of it, for we were constantly in danger of conceding a disastrous third.

I think Galway got a corner and the ball was half headed clear. There was a Galway midfielder lurking unmarked [typical Shels] just outside the penalty area, in a fairly central position. As the Reds’ defenders scrambled to close him down, he hit it the ball with venom towards the top left hand corner of the goal. John Motson would have called it a screamer. I was down at the other end, by the Galway goal, and the shot was right in my line of vision. To borrow another of Motty’s clichés, the ball had goal written all over it. Then suddenly a figure arced upwards and to his right. Freddie Davis, then dark-haired and lean, sprang out of nowhere and tipped the ball over the angle of post and bar. He must have been unsighted when the ball was struck, and it was hit with such power, but still he got a hand to it at full stretch.

Galvanised by that save, Shels pressed forward and got the equaliser ten minutes from time, and then, unbelievably snatched a winner at the death. First out of the ground was the Sligo official – I didn’t envy him his drive home. But for Freddie, I dare say his trip northward would have been a lot more enjoyable.

My final wonder save happened this year. Tolka Park, Shels again, this time facing Bohemians in a critically important end of season battle. Bohs had led the league from the off, but Shels had slowly but surely pegged them back. With three games to go, Shels were only four points behind. If they could beat Bohs at home, the advantage would swing their way for the first time that season. Could Bohs pick themselves up after such a critical defeat?

Understandably, the game was hardly a classic. Nerves got the better of both sides and the play was scrappy, which was entirely predictable, as the game was being shown live on TV. Midway through the second half, Shels got the best chance of the night. It was a move somewhat similar to the great Banks save thirty three years earlier. Richie Jairzinho Baker crossed the ball from the right wing. Ashley Banks Bayes in the Bohemians’ goal had to turn away from his near post and dash back to the centre of his goal. Ollie Pele Cahill, not quite as unmarked as he had been in 1970, was on the edge of the six yard box in a fairly central position. He jumped and, like all good forwards, nodded the ball downwards into the empty net with Bayes still scrambling to get back. At least, that’s what I saw in my mind’s eye as Ollie headed it downwards.

Unfortunately, Bayes somehow got down to it and knocked the ball off the line with his arm. The Shels fans couldn’t believe it. We were in a crouching position, arms ready for the leap. But it never came. The speed with which Bayes got down to the header was incredible – it had to have been a reflex action. He didn’t have so far to dive as Banks, but he had much less time.

As history shows, Bohs scored the only goal right at the end of the match and clinched the championship. But I am convinced that if Ollie’s header had crossed the line, we’d have been champions. Ironically, that was Ashley Bayes last competitive game for Bohs, and boy, did he go out in style!

Those four saves stand out in my memory. There have been plenty of others which have drawn gasps of admiration from me, but it takes a lot to render me speechless, as those four did. And, hopefully, there will be more in the future.

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