‘The Lone Eagle, the Man of Mystery, the Last Defender’

Jonathan Wilson, The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper

Orion, 368pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781409123194

reviewed by Joe Kennedy

Albert Camus used to be a goalkeeper. It’s the one thing fans of existentialist philosophy know about football, and the one thing fans of football know about existentialist philosophy, right? There’s football and there’s thought and never the twain shall meet, unless Nick Hornby’s there to swan around giving the impression that he’s some kind of matchmaker, demonstrating that there’s nothing wrong with hollering ‘You’re Going Home in a Fucking Ambulance’ as long as you cue up Wilson Pickett and read a few chapters of Saul Bellow when you get home. If you’re not going to keep the divide in place, at least make the hierarchy clear.

It’s surprising how much purchase this way of situating sport – well, football – in relation to culture, however one fields that term, continues to have. Hornby’s Fever Pitch might have played a significant part in an arguably impoverishing reshaping of top-level football, but it wasn’t half accurate in describing the jaw-dropping that frequently occurs when you happen to mention to someone who does books that you spend your Saturdays (and perhaps your Tuesdays) at the match. However, one figure has done quite a lot of late – certainly more than Hornby, with his meta-laddish ‘blokes can’t help it’ routine – to argue that football is a self-sufficient cultural form. Jonathan Wilson’s writing has, through a detailed focus on both the history and the frenetic present-day transformations of tactics, marked the game out as something which can bear the sustained scrutiny generally reserved for more traditional expressive media. Particularly in Inverting the Pyramid, his 2008 study of the evolution of tactics, he demonstrated that’s there’s a subtlety to on-pitch movement and positioning which requires a lengthy investment of time and attention to appreciate: the (politicised) subtext was that to know football is to possess a specific kind of aesthetic understanding.

That said, the – predominantly deserved - praise for Wilson has overlooked certain drawbacks. First of all, there’s the question of whether or not his work is over-focused. His 2011 biography of former Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough became, especially in its final third, a quixotic mission to establish the tactical worldview of an individual notorious for his insistence that tactics were basically irrelevant. This fondness for the grand narrative marks a recent trend in Wilson’s work to downplay the off-the-pitch contingencies that can affect a result, particularly the role of supporters, the socio-economic Real to the match’s Lacanian Symbolic. Such terminology is fitting for a form of sports writing which tends towards a phenomenology in which context seems too taboo or traumatic to acknowledge fully; one workable analogy is with the crate-diggers who head off to Mozambique or Laos to ‘find’ new sounds, hew them from their material lineage, and send them to London or New York for good, clean, de-historicised fun.

And this is where the followers come in. It’s only recently that Wilson himself has begun to lose sight of the terraces, but his imitators don’t seem particularly aware that they were there in the first place. Behold the ascendancy of the football hipsters, who can tell you every late-in-the-day switch Marcelo Bielsa (and latest inamorato Jürgen Klopp) ever made, without ever having paid a tenner to get the rush of being ushered through a turnstile only to watch an appalling 0-0 draw in weather that’s even worse. Even at its most sparkling, football would be nigh-on unwatchable without the experience of sociality that it engenders, but the rationalisation it undergoes on the tactics blogs seems to indicate a process whereby the action of the match comes to be regarded as separable from its social extensions. Again, this is not Wilson’s fault as such, yet this approach not only enacts a sceptical blanking of football’s political spectre, but more or less serves as an ascetic denial of its vast affective potential. Reading the scrutinising prose of the tactical hipster, one could come to think that nobody had ever sung a song, waved a banner, set off a flare, laughed or cried in a stadium, ever.

Wilson’s most recent book mediates this frustratingly asocial way of reading football and a more historically-engaged approach, although the accent falls largely on the former. The story of goalkeeping, The Outsider traces the development of the most specialised position from the 1863 standardisation of various local codes into the Laws of the Game through to the modern era. It acquires its narrative arc from a thesis which argues that the goalkeeper became gradually disconnected from the outfield during the early 20th century (a period in which No 1s had their handling privileges radically curtailed) before being drawn back towards open play with the emergence of ball-playing custodians over the last 20 years. This is a persuasive claim in many ways, and provides the esoteric-seeming belief that the keeper is analogous to the Camusian antihero with some tactical heft.

The downside is that emphasising the alienation of the goalkeeper – a state of affairs dramatised frequently, but never so powerfully as in Peter Handke’s 1970 novel The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick – diverts attention from the way in which they also serve as a conduit between pitch and stand. It’s surely proximity which means that, for all their eminent culpability when goals are conceded, the men between the sticks often become cult heroes with supporters, and they’re invariably the players most likely to engage verbally with those behind the goal. With this in mind, one might make the counterclaim that they’re less alienated than, say, midfielders, and draw from this the conclusion that the oft-proclaimed spiritual isolation of the goalkeeper only exists if one believes that football begins and ends at the touchline.

There are other, more prosaic, flaws with The Outsider. While the tale of alienation and (near-) redemption provides overall shape, the chapter organisation gets stuck between chronological and thematic imperatives. Early in the book, the story is relatively linear, beginning with charismatic British keepers of the pre-World War One game such as William ‘Fatty’ Foulke and Leigh Richmond Roose to (via a bit of a leap) Lev Yashin, the Russian many regard as the position’s best representative. But just as we begin to expect the straightforward ‘history’ implied by the title, temporal glitches appear. There’s a chapter on the ‘Sweeper-Keeper’, which opens with Gyula Grosics, first on the teamsheet in Hungary’s 1950s ‘Golden Team’, and ends with José Luis Chilavert and René Higuita, South American extroverts of the immediate past. This is structurally counter-intuitive. After this is a chapter titled ‘They Also Serve’, which focuses on Brazil and Scotland, nations typically regarded as having relatively weak goalkeepers. Wilson also uses this section to discuss the exclusion of black players from the canonical version of goalkeeping’s Grand Tradition, a decision which feels at best like a category error and at worst tokenistic.

This is a book which needed to be written, and the drive to delineate the uniqueness of the goalkeeper is completely understandable. Additionally there is, as in all Wilson’s books, an anecdotal talent that belies an assiduous journalistic attitude: some of the individual stories, especially that of the rivalry between Cameroonian keepers Thomas N’Kono and Joseph Antoine-Bell, are genuinely captivating. For the reader, though, the morphing organisational principles are disconcerting, and those resistant to the sterilisation of football implied by an over-emphasis on tactics won’t be sold by the general thrust of Wilson’s argument. Anyone can see that goalkeepers are different, but there are multiple ways of framing this difference, and The Outsider doesn’t seem to alight on the best of these.
Joe Kennedy is a teaching fellow in English and cultural studies at Gothenburg University at Sussex. He has written for publications including the Times Literary Supplement and The Quietus. His book, Games Without Frontiers, is forthcoming from Repeater Books.