26/11/1988 Chelsea 2 Shrewsbury Town 0
Hats off to Ron Green – lord of all he surveyed on this grey autumnal day at Stamford Bridge 30 years ago. A small sample of his brilliance recorded above.
Ron Green. Even the name conjures up images to engulf the ageing fan in the warmest of retro glows. His superb performance at Chelsea in 1988 remains one of the greatest goalkeeping performances I have ever witnessed & in retrospect a last hurrah for the era so readily evoked by the name itself. Ron Green. A solid yeoman with a solid yeoman’s name, a worthy holder of the flame for those great keepers (& characters) who were everywhere in the 1960’s & ’70’s, cornerstones of the English game. Harry Dowd. Charlie Wright. Roy Burton. Ken Mulhearn. Bill Glazier. Colin Boulton. You can imagine any one of those names belonging to a peripheral character in Coronation Street back then, one of those types hanging around the bar at the Rovers Return just long enough to garner a one night only bunk up with Elsie Tanner before beating a hasty small hours retreat, the old warhorse of crushed romantic dreams left once again with little more than additional heartache & badly smudged mascara. These are names evoking fast fading memories of Players No 6, pink evening sports papers, roasted chestnuts & Double Diamond, & also, lest we go full jumpers for goalposts here, fans amending Build A Bonfire to sing ‘You Ain’t Got One ‘Cos You’re A Bastard, You’re A Bastard Referee.’ Football & society may be much changed but the contempt for match officials at football remains firmly intact & is all too often well deserved. Blame the likes of Clive Thomas, Graham Poll & Mike Dean equally. I always do.
Admittedly It was easy to be generous to Ron Green on this occasion. Chelsea were 2-0 up against Shrewsbury before Green really got into his stride, Bobby Campbell’s team riding the crest of an unbeaten wave that would last another five months. Shrewsbury were never going to stage a comeback based around their loanee goalkeeper’s impressive exploits, & there was a fund of goodwill towards the opposition that day, their former Chelsea ranks swelled by terrace legend Micky Thomas, former youth & reserve team midfielder Phil Priest & the simultaneously hilarious & terrifying Doug Rougvie. Ian McNeill, John Neal’s popular assistant at Chelsea in the first half of the decade, was also the Shrews boss at the time.
Within barely a year of Ron’s successful efforts of depriving Chelsea a near double figure victory we entered the 1990’s. Things then changed. Quickly. There would still be the occasional Fred Barber to keep Ron company in his goalkeeping dotage but soon we were ensconced in a world of foreign goalies as the long held, seemingly unassailable British belief that our keepers were the best in the world foundered. Move over Perry Digweed, it’s time for Ludek Miklosko, Espen Baardsen, Dmitri Kharine, Hans Segers & Pavel Srnicek. Mysterious, exotic sounding names redolent of cold war Bond villains & high end international drug barons. Goalkeeping duties at Man Utd back in 1990 were shared between Les Sealey & Jim Leighton. Names that would have fitted your local brickie or plumber. After the departure of Peter Schmeichel the new century at Old Trafford began with the arrival of Fabien Barthez via a short disastrous flirtation with the ill fated Massimo Taibi, both sounding like they could be casino based international playboys. Now the English game has Claudio Bravo, Hugo Lloris & Rui Patricio, sounding glamorous & intriguing regardless of the reality of their respective backgrounds. Fabien Barthez even had a supermodel girlfriend, Linda Evangelista, notorious for saying she would not even get out of bed for less than £10,000 a day. Ron Green probably struggled to clear £10,000 a year at the start of his career. Never mind Ron. Balding of pate with a minor hint of paunch you nonetheless put on a goalkeeping masterclass at Chelsea that day. Here we come to praise the stalwart, traditional British goalkeeper that time & Murdoch billions has done its best to bury. Despite denying me an avalanche of Chelsea goals against Shrewsbury Town the memories are curiously fond. The selection of clips from that season’s highlights video are a sample of Ron’s excellence. A splendid tip over the bar from a near post Kevin Wilson flick & a superb point range block from a close range Kerry Dixon diving header are the best on show here, not to mention thwarting the valiant attempt of defender Doug Rougvie to repeat his famous own goal at Wembley wearing the blue of Chelsea in the 1986 Full Members Cup final. Ron spared Doug’s blushes this time but not future nightmares for the rest of us at Stamford Bridge. Big Doug leant his head back & laughed in the aftermath of this incident, revealing a ghoulish smile, punctuated by missing teeth, that rendered Freddie Krueger’s cinematic grin less terrifying than that of Bungle from Rainbow in comparison.
It is always pleasing to doff your cap at such an outstanding performance for goalkeeping is a precarious existence. No other performer in football walks the hero to zero tightrope with the same frequency. When things are going well a keeper is frequently a figure of wonder & sometimes mystery. In my formative years we heard tales of the enigmatic, black clad Russian Lev Yashin, lithe, agile & exotic. Sadly there was not much footage available to view with Yashin spending most of his career playing behind the Iron Curtain. Here we had the all encompassing brilliance of the late, great Gordon Banks. I had the very real pleasure of seeing him play a couple of times, so imposing he appeared to fill the goal yet in one of the last pictures I saw of him he was dwarfed standing next to the current Stoke stopper Jack Butland. Stature on a football pitch can clearly not be measured merely by height & weight. Nonetheless some of the man mountains in the modern goal have scaled similar heights of brilliance, namely Denmark & Man Utd’s belligerent Schmeichel in the 1990’s, & presently the splendid Bayern Munich keeper Manuel Neuer, both earning less affection but almost as much admiration as the men from yesteryear. The supernatural reflexes of Atletico Madrid & Slovakia’s Jan Oblak also see him currently vying for the joint accolades of current best keeper in the world & all time great. It must be said there were fewer plaudits for Mr Schmeichel’s mercifully shortlived ’90’s rap career.
This rather melancholy novel was a staple on many a young boy’s bookshelf in the early 1970’s. It is a rather cynical but doubtless honest riposte to the lovable 1950’s style cliches that infused comic book football legends like Roy Of The Rovers (Tiger) & Billy’s Boots (Scorcher)
Brian Glanville did not eschew cliche with the book’s title though, albeit one superglued to the truth. Goalkeepers are indeed different. Always have been & hopefully always will be. Maverick eccentricity abounds in the world of the goalkeeper & has done since the early days of the professional game. Chelsea bought Sheffield United’s legendary shot stopper William Fatty Foulke for £50 in 1905. He reputedly weighed in regularly around the twenty stone mark & plenty of tales are attached to his legend, often as tall as he was wide. At the tail end of the twentieth century we enjoyed World Cup sightings of Colombian Rene Higuita & Jose Luis Chilavert of Paraguay. Higuita’s extravagant mane of hair left him looking like Charles II in a tracksuit when he played at Wembley against England in 1995, during whch he famously unveiled his outrageous scorpion kick, contemptuously flipping his legs over his head & clearing a strange cross cum shot from Jamie Redknapp with his heels. Higuita clearly had as much regard for Mr Redknapp’s footballing prowess as most of us have for his tedious modern day punditry. Rene scored nearly 50 professional goals from free kicks & penalties, & frequently indulged his fondness for joining in the play a long way from the goal he was primarily supposed to be defending. Sadly he missed the 1994 World Cup in America due to a spell in prison, courtesy of having received money for acting as a go-between in a child kidnapping case involving the infamous drug baron Pablo Escobar. Makes Peter Shilton’s pre-senile pro Brexit sloganeering & one time alleged extra marital auto-erotic activities seem pretty tame. Rene’s contemporary Chilavert aced him on the goalscoring front, scoring 67 career goals including eight in international football for Paraguay. With both Jose Luis’s prison sentences having been suspended Higuita retains the edge on the porridge serving front though. Recent photographs of the long retired Chilavert suggest that William Foulke might sue anyone using the perennial soubriquet attached to his name were he alive today. Suffice to say that the Paraguayan is now one big chunk of hunk. All power to both him & Higuita anyway. Shine on you crazy diamonds.
There can undoubtedly be a dark side to the life of a goalkeeper. The most dramatic example of this is undoubtedly the sobering story of Robert Enke, deputy keeper in the German national team when he shocked an unsuspecting football world & threw himself in front of a train in 2009. He had struggled with deep periods of depression for many years & endured personal off pitch tragedy but his father later confirmed that football had also been a major contributory factor towards his awful & horribly premature death. Specific incidents & episodes in his career conspired to encourage the black dog to fester & linger throughout Enke’s career. After making a vital mistake in 2003 playing for Fenerbahce he was traumatised at being bombarded with bottles, firelighters & mobile phones by angry fans. At Barcelona the sense of isolation felt by many a goalkeeper, frequently outsider loners in a team sport, had been compounded by a sense that coaches & playing colleagues generally did not believe in his abilities or facilitate his settling in at the club. While there he was reduced to the occasional appearance in domestic cup tournaments, never a high priority in Spain. Generally though it was continuing to conceal the fact of his serious depressive tendencies from the football world at large that proved the most debilitating, constant & ultimately fatal hurdle to overcome. In the case of goalkeeper John Budgie Burridge what seemed to be a peculiar but harmless, childlike obsession with his craft masked a problem that would only manifest itself fully on retirement. At a quite advanced stage of his career Burridge once claimed in an interview that he liked to take both his goalkeeping gloves & a football to bed with him, sometimes wearing his boots as well. He eventually retired at 47 after playing for more than two dozen clubs between 1969 & 1997. The career longevity was telling, a preoccupation with physical health supporting the continuation of the football life he loved seemingly overriding similar considerations for his mental well being. He ended up in The Priory simply unable to come to terms with the prospect of an existence without playing football. Thankfully he is now back in the game coaching goalkeepers overseas.
The absurdist philosopher Albert Camus was a goalkeeper himself in his teenage years. ‘There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide’ he once wrote. If its shits & giggles you were after then an evening round at Albert’s was probably not the place to start but did he first formulate his ideas on acknowledging the true futility of human existence while standing between the sticks as a callow youth? Either way both his philosophical beliefs & goalkeeping exploits would doubtless have led him to appreciate the cruel irony of the stray dog incident at Griffin Park in 1969 when Brentford’s goalkeeper Chic Brodie was felled by a canine pitch invader running full pelt into him. Cue widespread mirth on the terraces. Not so funny for Chic. He sustained serious ligament damage in this freak incident & never played again, the laughter that rang around the ground as he lay in agony probably still ringing in his ears decades later.
The problem for all goalkeepers is that there is nowhere to hide when things go wrong. Miss three sitters as a striker but score a late winner & your aberrations are swiftly forgotten. A miskick or underhit pass to a colleague by any outfield player & there is a good chance a colleague will rescue the situation & spare your blushes. Often that colleague will be your goalkeeper. Unfortunately a string of brilliant saves made in a match will soon be overlooked by media & fans alike if you let one through your legs in the 89th minute & your team loses the game. Take lovely Peter Bonetti. A Chelsea hero with 600 appearances who famously helped the club to its 1970 first FA Cup win on one leg having been battered by Mick Jones of Leeds in the replay at Old Trafford. A year later a breathtaking late save secured a Cup Winners Cup final win over Real Marid. He was our Yashin, a slight but wonderfully agile & supremely fit man who still turned out for the veterans team into his ’60’s. Outside SW6 however, his name is eternally greeted with laughter & disdain in many quarters. He won seven international caps, keeping clean sheets in five with England winning six of these matches. Unfortunately the odd game out was the small matter of a World Cup quarter final, the first game he had played since his Old Trafford heroics. Bonetti had an off day. Somebody had to carry the can for the nation’s misery & it was the man known as The Cat, forever reminded about it by smartarses everywhere outside The Shed for the rest of his playing days. Several of his defensive colleagues went missing that day & appear to have been absent ever since whenever the postmortem recommences & the buck inevitably stops with Bonetti yet again. Another Chelsea goalkeeper, Dave Beasant, famously threw in three horrendous second half goals to cost his team the match against Norwich City in 1992. Within an hour of the final whistle his manager swiftly threw him to the lions, or more accurately the assortment of weasels regularly infesting the Chelsea press box back then. Many Blues fans were howling with rage long before he commenced his bowed head walk of shame off the pitch. As a fan I found his ineptitude that day infuriating but it was a hard heart that could not at least spare a thought for a broken looking Beasant at that moment. Inciting the rage of your own fans allied to the inevitable aftermath of frenzied media ridicule is a potent cocktail. Big Dave looked like the loneliest man in the world at quarter to five that day. God alone knows how poor Loris Karius coped after his notorious cock ups playing for Liverpool on the massive stage that was the 2018 Champions League Final against Real Madrid.
Being abused by your own fans may well be the worst experience for any footballer, but dealing with opposition supporters can also be a huge ordeal. Being closest to the terraces on the old days frequently involved goalkeepers running the gauntlet of a variety of missiles, from the ubiquitous toilet roll to darts, knives, coins, fireworks, ball bearings & whisky bottles. The fact that these were more commonly aimed at goalkeepers above other players was usually more logistical than personal but this was probably scant consolation at the time. Sometimes things did get personal too, especially for higher profile players, & often emphasising the complex & contradictory nature of the relationship between goalkeeper & fan. When Chelsea played Derby in the first match of the 1990-1 season Rams veteran goalkeeper Peter Shilton was given a resoundingly warm & effusive ovation by The Shed as he took his place between the sticks. Recently retired from international football & already over 40, Shilton had been part of the Italia ’90 England team that had helped restore faith in the national game after years of doom, gloom, terrace violence & Terry Fenwick. For the previous decade he had not always been so fortunate though. After lurid reports of a late night marital misadventure in his car Shilton was goaded by supporters of rival clubs throughout spells at Nottingham Forest & Southampton. He was a brilliant keeper in his prime but in the first game after the story broke the taunts of the Arsenal crowd were loud even on television highlights & the game was lost for Forest after an uncharacteristic Shilton blunder. When injury required on loan Eric Nixon to briefly replace him in the Southampton goal at the Manor Ground a few years later the Oxford fans regaled him constantly with chants of Shilton’s With Your Missus. Nixon found it amusing apparently. Shilts may have found it harder to raise a smile. In 1995 David Seaman ran out at Stamford Bridge to a sea of theatrically flailing arms singing Let’s All Do The Seaman. Four days earlier Arsenal had lost the Cup Winners Cup final to Real Zaragoza, the winning goal an outrageous 45 yard shot from former Spurs midfielder Nayim which induced the panicked & futile physical response from the Arsenal goalie now being reproduced by Blues fans in all four corners of the Chelsea ground. Seaman threw his head back & laughed & continued to smile thoughout most of the game depite the endless goading. His good humour departed only once, quite understandably, towards the end of the game, when a small section of supporters decided to bring his private life into the equation with Seaman Seaman Where’s Your Kids. Once again the proximity to the crowd rendered a goalkeeper vulnerable & exposed to pointless & wholly undeserved personal abuse.
Happily all is not torture & torment in the world of the goalkeeper. I know little or nothing about Ron Green’s life away from the football pitch but like to believe that he was one of those many stalwarts of the goalkeeping game who seem to have played through their careers bereft of existential angst. I fondly imagine him as a Banks’s Bitter & Dominoes in the snug at his local kind of chap. I have no evidence for this of course. He may have spent his spare time paragliding & dropping acid for all I know, but he cut a calm, steady, frill & fuss free figure on the pitch. He was not a big name in football but this performance was remembered by the Chelsea faithful. Two years later he returned to Stamford Bridge for a 1990 League Cup tie against Walsall, unchanged save for the balding pate looking to have slightly advanced. Walsall were the exception to the knockout rule in this era which usually decreed that Chelsea would lie down happily & spread their arse cheeks for any lower division opponent. Not Walsall though. We always battered Walsall. The first leg away had been won 5-0 & the second leg saw another comfortable win. Ron failed to repeat his 1988 heroics & conceded another four goals but The Shed showed they had not forgotten him, chanting Ronnie Ronnie Give Us A Wave, warmly delivered & reciprocated with the requested response by the man himself despite having just shipped eight or nine goals over the course of the two legged tie by this point. His name would not generally have been tripping off the tongues of too many in the SW6 area. The Shrewsbury game was the only explanation. In fact, while generosity & opposition players were usually alien concepts in The Shed during the 1980’s, it was goalkeepers who were usually the exception. For four years prior to the club’s absurd relegation in 1988 there had been frequent visits from Liverpool & Everton, then the two best teams in the country. Opposition to be respected but not usually engendering any love. Nevertheless I can recall both their goalkeepers, Bruce Grobbelaar & Neville Southall respectively, being warmly clapped when taking their place in the goal at Chelsea, & both readily acknowledging that applause. Liverpool & Everton had some truly hateful players at the time. Steve McMahon, John Aldridge, John Bailey & Pat Van Den Hauwe to name but a few. A veritable Who’s Who of 1980’s footballing shithousery. There was more chance of Chelsea fans turning up in white shirts with a cockerel logo on them & singing Nice One Cyril for 90 minutes than giving any of those charmless characters a clap or a cheer. Even in this feral era goalkeepers were not only different but frequently treated differently by opposition supporters. Grobbelaar & Southall were both brilliant & fascinating characters. Grobbelaar was the larger than life soldier from Rhodesia, a flamboyant attention seeking showman, egotistical & acrobatic, happy both to play to the gallery & engage with it. Southall was a natural scruff who sometimes looked like he both lived in & dressed from the dustbins he had emptied for a living before he turned pro. He largely let his considerable talent do the talking for him & may well have been the best goalkeeper in the world for a time. In retirement he has also shown himself to be a unique & admirable man, entirely untypical of someone from his footballing background & all the more impressive as a consequence. He is now a champion of all sorts of good causes, committed to defending & supporting oppressed & underprivileged members of society, & doing so with the same intensity & obsessiveness that drove him to such great heights during his time at Goodison Park.
Grobbelaar became famously embroiled in one of the more squalid episodes in recent footballing history before he retired, but a quarter of a century later still comes across as a boorish, unpleasant, spivvy chancer. The reckless arrogance which made him such a charismatic presence on a football pitch clearly translates rather less palatably into civvy street. Sadly he would fit perfectly into the modern game. I suspect it would be anathema to Big Nev. These are two goalkeepers who were definitely different though. Not least from each other.
And Ron Green? It must be said that Ron’s Google footprint is almost invisible apart from a Wikipedia entry & a few statistical career breakdowns dotted about the place. He retired in 1992 after a career taking in two stints at both Shrewsbury & Walsall as well as spells with Bristol Rovers, Scunthorpe, Wimbledon, Kidderminster Harriers, Colchester Utd & Bromsgrove Rovers. The glamour & glitz may have eluded him but we can be confident that he deserves to rest easier in his dotage than the likes of Bruce Grobbelaar. Photos of Ron also proved difficult to come by online. At least I did eventually come across a doubtless dated heads up at https://www.where-are-they-now.co.uk . In a similarly presumptuous & patronising manner to my prior imaginings of his social existence I envisaged him to be indulging the traditionally linear retired footballer’s route from playing days to pension. Running a newsagents or a pub. Was this correct or was there to be a delightful twist, the erstwhile guardian of the Gay Meadow goal morphing into a spy or an international jewel thief in his latter years? Neither according to https://www.where-are-they-now.co.uk – they last have him working as a postman in Sutton Coldfield. Maybe my pint of Banks’s & Dominoes in the snug theory is not so far off after all. You would imagine the Post Office would have to up their pay structure a smidgen before Linda Evangelista joins their ranks though doubtless she would rock a pair of those shorts better than Ron. I think we can also be confident that neither Fabien Barthez or Claudio Bravo are ever likely to see out their working lives delivering the Royal Mail in Sutton Coldfield, or indeed anywhere else. Then again neither has ever remotely put up as good a show at Stamford Bridge as Ron Green did on that chilly, drab November afternoon 30 years ago, earning not millions but a deserved & prolonged respect from those of us who witnessed it. Sadly this pays no bills in 2019 but for what little it is worth, in a sport now sickeningly consumed by greed, remains a proper football fan response to a proper footballer.