Eimear Ryan: The emotional difficulty of being the sub goalkeeper

"Opportunities for sub goalies are so rare" says Eimer Ryan as she talks about the thankless job of the back-up shotstopper.
Eimear Ryan: The emotional difficulty of being the sub goalkeeper

CORK'S FINEST: Caoimhín Kelleher during a Republic of Ireland training session.

One of the realest moments on Patrick Kielty’s (already quite down-to-earth) Toy Show debut arrived when Stevie from Kilkenny took the stage. You’ll remember Stevie as the young fella in the rugby jersey who sang ‘Ireland’s Call’ and got to meet Bundee Aki and Peter O’Mahony. But first, he highlighted a fun fact in The Book of Irish Sporting Heroes, a gorgeous book for sporty kids written by Adrian Russell (of this parish) and illustrated by Graham Corcoran. ‘You’re on page 89,’ Stevie gleefully told the host.

Kielty took over, reading not exactly verbatim from the book: ‘The Late Late Show host Patrick Kielty was the substitute goalkeeper on the Down All-Ireland minor-winning team [in 1987],’ he said ruefully. ‘He also played the next two years when they won absolutely nothing.’ In that moment, Kielty was not a successful TV presenter making a decent fist of helming a cultural juggernaut on his first go: he was a teenager again, right back in that minor dressing-room, pulling on the number 16 jersey.

In all of sport, the position of sub goalie has to be one of the most difficult emotionally. In any other position, being the second-best player in your club/county/country means you’ll play pretty much every game. But in goals, there can only be one.

Witness the dramatic dying moments of the NWSL championship final between OL Reign and Gotham FC earlier this month. The game was much hyped, in part due to its being the last game for US soccer legends Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger: who would head off into retirement a champion? (Spoiler: it was Krieger with Gotham, while poor Rapinoe ended her career seven minutes into the match with an Achilles injury.) Gotham were 2–1 up in the 97th minute when their keeper Mandy Haught came out to the edge of the box to intercept a loose ball; though her feet were planted in the box, the ball was outside it, and she was given a red card. Even worse, Gotham had used all their substitutes and now had no keeper to defend OL Reign’s resulting free kick.

Cue some hilarious footage of Ireland and Gotham FM player Sinead Farrelly helping her teammate, defender Nealy Martin, to pull on the goalkeeper’s jersey; Martin had made the schoolboy error of putting the goalie gloves on first, and the big mitts kept getting stuck in the sleeves. Meanwhile, the actual second-choice goalkeeper, Michelle Betos, looked on incredulously from the sidelines. So frustrating, so typical. Never was her expertise more desperately needed by her team, and still she was unable to take the field of play.

Opportunities for sub goalies are so rare. Uimhir a haon needs to be red-carded or badly injured for you to get the nod, putting you in the unenviable position of needing someone else to fail or be hurt in order to get an opportunity. Probably nowhere is this better depicted than in John Leonard’s gripping 2015 book Dub Sub Confidential. Leonard had three years as Stephen Cluxton’s understudy, a fairly thankless role which he describes brilliantly:

‘Being a sub keeper means twiddling thumbs and shouting at your teammates,’ he writes. ‘It means warming up Clucko and trying to keep my mind right in case something happens. It means being positive and focused and in the right frame of mind. Being a sub keeper means you train harder than every other person on the squad, knowing you have less chance than everyone of playing. If you don’t train harder than the number 1, then how can you be better than him?’ Number 1 being Stephen Cluxton, training harder than him proved to be a near-impossible task, given Cluxton’s habit of turning up to training two hours early; but likewise, Leonard’s pursuit of a first-team start inevitably made Cluxton better, resulting in him winning an All Star in two out of the three years that Leonard was pursuing him.

Even aside from the insights into the Dublin camp, Leonard’s book is a rich text and a real comeback story, describing how football helped to centre him and give him purpose as he struggled with the fallout of addiction and abuse (Leonard is a survivor of clerical sexual abuse). All of this is described with commendable honesty, not least in what was going through his head when Cluxton rugby-tackled Offaly’s Cathal Daly in the 2006 Leinster football final: ‘I hold my breath and hear my heart lashing through my chest as I wait and hope. It pumps so deep and loud that I can hear it reverberate through my skull. Come on, ref, I think: send him off.’ A yellow card was flashed rather than a red, but this again illustrates the unenviable position of the backup keeper, having to root for a decision against your team if it will align with your own ambition.

Reading Leonard’s book made me think of the ongoing dilemma of Caoimhín Kelleher. Is he involved in one of the best, most progressive clubs in the world at Liverpool? Yes. Does he get consistent starts in secondary competitions like the Carabao Cup and the Europa League? Again, yes. Must it be both gratifying and frustrating to hear Jurgen Klopp praise him as ‘the best number-two goalie in the world’? I can only imagine that it is.

At long last, however, opportunities have started to break his way. Liverpool’s run in the Europa League has given him a much-needed chance to put a string of appearances together and find his footing as a starter. A good performance in Thursday’s game against Austrian side LASK Linz, which could potentially secure Liverpool’s qualification to the knockout stages, will do wonders for his confidence. And given that the formidable Alisson Becker has reportedly suffered a hamstring injury in last weekend’s 1–1 draw with Manchester City, Premier League starts may begin to appear on the horizon for Kelleher. Every once in a while, patience pays off.

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