Have Gloves Will Travel
How many goalkeepers does one club need? Tim Turner examines the shadowy history of Watford’s third-choice net-minders
When the team for the home game against Spurs was announced, it occurred to me that Vincent Angelini may have achieved the distinction of being the first fourth-choice keeper to make a Watford match-day squad. Indeed, with Ben Foster injured and Rob Elliot unavailable (for presumably Covid-related reasons), the warm-up arguably featured the Hornets’ second-, fourth- and fifth-ranked goalkeepers, Dante Baptiste having been recalled from a loan at Farnborough so that Joshua King and co could take pot shots at him.
I say ‘arguably’ because the more you delve into Watford’s stock of goalkeepers, the more confusing it gets. We could devote an entire article to debating which of Foster or Bachmann is actually Watford’s number one when both are fit, but I’m more interested in the others. For example, where do Pontus Dahlberg and the recently-signed Maduka Okoye fit into the pecking order? They’re both currently on loan, at Gillingham and Sparta Rotterdam respectively, but presumably one of them would have taken Angelini’s place on the bench against Spurs if they weren’t. Then there are Myles Roberts and Adam Parkes, both namechecked by Bachmann in his interview in the Spurs programme; members of the under-23 squad, but at the same level as Baptiste, and thus theoretically liable to be called into the squad in an emergency.
So that’s nine goalkeepers, at least six of whom have a realistic chance of being part of the first-team squad next season if they’re actually at Vicarage Road in August. How did it come to this?
When I started watching Watford in 1970, it was simple. As far as I knew, we had one goalkeeper and his name was Mike Walker. This was many years before clubs started giving fringe players a run-out in the cups, and in my memory, Walker played every game I saw. (In fact his deputy, Derek Edmonds, did play a number of games in 1971.) In those days there was only one substitute on the bench, so if the goalie got injured or sent off during a game, one of the outfield players would have to don the green shirt and gloves – something I never personally witnessed, though Nigel Callaghan famously did so against Arsenal in 1986 after Tony Coton was dismissed.
By the 80s, Watford did generally have two decent goalkeepers vying for the number one shirt: in his ten years at the club, Steve Sherwood had to compete with first Andy Rankin, then Eric Steele and finally Tony Coton. But I was never aware of a third-choice goalkeeper. Of course, there was always one in the youth team who could be kept on standby, but the one time we could have taken that option, in the 1987 FA Cup semi-final against Spurs, GT notoriously refused to pick the young David James and instead called up Gary Plumley. We all know how that turned out.
The first time I became aware of an official third-choice Watford keeper was also the first time we made it to the hallowed ground of the Premier League. I don’t know whether it was a rule or just a custom, but suddenly we had three goalkeepers, Alec Chamberlain and Chris Day being supplemented by the Austrian Herwig Walker in the list on the back of the programme.
Walker never pulled on a Watford shirt in anger, setting a trend for unremarkable stints at Vicarage Road that are mainly of interest to the setters of fiendish trivia quizzes. One that sticks in the memory – purely for his extravagant name – is Yves Makabu-Ma-Kalambay, who came to us on loan from Chelsea in 2006. He never played a first-team game either. And then there’s Jack Bonham, who did, and probably wishes he hadn’t. Then again, if he hadn’t let in those two goals against Leeds in 2013, we would never have had that Deeney goal, so we have something to thank him for.
For me, the epitome of the third-choice keeper is Rene Gilmartin. In a professional career spanning 15 years, the Irishman made just over 100 appearances, five of them in two separate spells at Vicarage Road. By all accounts he was a popular member of the squad, and he was heavily involved in the club’s community work. Still, it doesn’t sound like a very fulfilling career. (Imagine being a plumber and only getting called out to service a boiler or fix a leaky tap six or seven times a year. Wouldn’t you give up and go and do something else for a living?)
And that’s the problem with being a goalkeeper. There’s only one spot in the team and lots of competition – especially at Watford, where the theory is presumably that some of the young talent currently being stockpiled can be sold on at a profit when the time is right. You can’t help wishing that those in charge of recruitment took a similar attitude to full-backs and central defenders. But that’s a subject for another article…