GOALKEEPERS are different.
They have to be. No other job in football, as poor old Paul Rachubka discovered on Wednesday evening, asks folk to walk a tightrope between hero-worship and ridicule almost every moment of their professional lives.
So how do the likes of Leeds’ much criticised custodian and his contemporaries cope when the inevitable happens and they drop a clanger?
The answer, according to former players and academics alike, is all in the mind.
“You have to be brave, pure and simple,” Martin Hodge, previously of Everton, Sheffield Wednesday and Plymouth Argyle, said. “All of us who have been in goal have found ourselves in a dark alley at some point in time. It’s just how long you stay there.
“It’s a game where there aren’t any second chances unlike other positions.
“The main thing is just making sure you get out of there as quickly as possible. Be brave and keep on doing what you are trained to do.
“Being a ‘keeper isn’t about making saves. If you can’t make saves then please don’t ever put on a pair of gloves.
“What it is about is making decisions. Being able to make the right ones in an instant.”
That process, of course, can be clouded by a number of factors including the skill of the opposition and wrath of a crowd.
Both Steve Simonsen and George Long, who are vying for a role in Sheffield United’s first-choice eleven at Stevenage tomorrow, have seen their ability to make the right call questioned of late.
But according to Professor Ian Maynard, Professor of sport psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, there are a number of simple techniques goalkeepers can employ to manage the pressure caused by such scrutiny.
“One of the first things I tell people is that if they aspire to perfection then they are inevitably going to fail,” he said. “You have to recognise that you’re human and are going to make mistakes.
“The dead time after a game can be the most damaging if you like because that’s when people tend to dwell on what’s gone wrong.
“Different people have different make-ups. They can be a glass half empty type person or a glass half full.
“It’s important you look at why you’ve made a mistake but then, after you’ve done the analysis, park it in a black box psychologically speaking.
“It’s something we call Cognitive Restructuring. Turning negative thoughts in to positive ones.”
The presence of Matt Phillips and Billy Clarke, who are scheduled to play the final League One game of their loan periods from Blackpool tomorrow, has transformed United in to a well-oiled attacking machine.
But their improvement in front of goal has come at a price with United’s defence being breached 10 times in its previous five outings in the competition compared to three at the start of the campaign.
Prof Maynard said: “It’s important to stay in the moment. To have a routine, talk to your defence when the ball is up at the other end or have certain key words that keep you mentally involved in the game.
“That’s called process orientation. For example, you often see tennis players adjusting the strings on their rackets between points but they’re not actually re-arranging them.
“What they are doing is getting themselves mentally prepared for the next point. It’s part of that routine.
“A goalkeeper might kick the posts with the back of his heels. Okay, it’s important to have clean boots but it also could be his or her trigger to get back in to that moment and a sharp frame of mind.”
United manager Danny Wilson, who promoted Long at Simonsen’s expense when the former England under-21 international suffered a crisis of confidence last month, yesterday refused to reveal who would start against Stevenage.
Hodge, who made over 600 appearances during a near 20 year career, echoed Prof Maynard’s sentiments, saying: “I know from experience, if you make a mistake then you want the next shot or cross to come quickly but it doesn’t always happen that way.
“If that one is a mistake then defenders drop deep and stop listening but you must keep talking, focused and keep doing what is right.”