Pepe Reina and the Liverpool tradition

Posted by Yorkykopite on April 10, 2009, 07:49:10 PM

Who’d be a goalie? Alone amongst footballers they are defined by their mistakes. And, by cruel irony, this seems especially true of those who make the fewest. Hence, Peter Shilton will forever be the bloke who dived over a weak Polish shot and got Alf Ramsay the sack. David Seaman will always be the chump who was ‘beaten by Nayim from the half way line’. And even the greatest name of them all - Ray Clemence’s - still causes mirth in Scotland because he once let an extraordinarily duff shot from King Kenny trickle between his legs in a Home International match (‘Clemence opens his legs wider than the Forth Bridge’ ran one Scottish banner the next time the two nations met). Perhaps the only other trade in the world which operates according to this unfair principle is air-traffic control, where years of impeccable service can be ruined and forgotten by a single moment of madness.

Pepe Reina had his moment of madness in the worst possible arena - at Goodison Park.  This, I suppose, was like an ATC electing to fuck up at the Farnborough Air Show. Only a masochist would want to replay the thing on video, but I’m sure we can all still see him, jumping like a pregnant girl and flapping like her granny as he and Andrew Johnston contrive to score one of the most slapstick goals ever seen in that hallowed fixture.  To the insular English football world that cock-up seemed to confirm what it thought it already knew: when the crunch comes ‘Latin’ goalies will always let you down with a stunning act of high buffoonery. Sure, foreign goalies had long become acceptable in the domestic game because of the success of Schmeichel and Jaaskelainan, but Reina lacked the Nordic gene and consequently whole regiments of knee-jerking football pundits reached for the Latin stereotype to explain blunders like the one at Goodison.   

Liverpool supporters, on the other hand, knew that it was a blip. There was a question mark about how Reina might recover from such a howler – as there always is when goalies make catastrophic errors in big games. But no one who’d watched the lad regularly could be in any doubt about his fundamental excellence. We’d already seen enough of him to know not only that he was a shrewd and agile keeper but that he was probably on the cutting edge of his profession – a genuine innovator who was in the process of redefining what modern goalkeepers are meant to do. That innovation is as much about Reina being an ‘attacking’ player as it is about his method of shot-stopping and I want to say a few words about that in a sec. But, first off, I would start with the essential feeling you get with all great keepers - which is a gut feeling. Most of us have that gut feeling about Pepe. We get it at the start of a game when he trots towards the Kop shaking the torpor from his limbs and begins marking out his territory. It’s one of assuredness. “It’s going to be ok today”, we tell ourselves. “It’s going to be ok. Pepe’s in our goal”. Much as I once revered Bruce Grobbelaar I haven’t really had that feeling since Clem was between the sticks. And it makes Reina possibly the most important player in the team, pretty much as Clemence was the key member of Shanks’s second great team of the 1970s.

The Liverpool Tradition
He has a lot to live up to of course. No English club has such a dignified tradition of keeping as we do. Those who remember seeing Sam Hardy and Elisha Scott are now gone but their names live on at Anfield, woven as they are into both our practical achievements (3 league titles between them) and our folklore . The best football story I know is the one where Dixie Dean nods a greeting to Elisha as they pass in a Liverpool street only to see our goalie dive instinctively to the ground and turn the nodded hello neatly round an imaginary post. Everton foiled again!

I never saw our next great keeper, Tommy Lawrence, and as a child only remember him from acrobatic pictures inside ‘Football Monthly’ and the ‘Topical Times’ annual football book. But there are those who say he was the best of the lot and you have to respect that. Clem and Grob, though, I did see. I grew up with them and went to many of the same games that they did. In their different ways they epitomised what Liverpool goalkeeping is about and I think Pepe Reina has a bit of both of them in his make-up.

Clem, I believe, was the greatest goalkeeper of all time. We Kopites remember not the strange Hampden mistake but things like the sequence of flying finger-tip saves he made against Ipswich at Portman road and Man City at Maine Road. We remember him nicking the ball off Allan Clarke when the Elland Road man had broken through our back line and was about to tilt the ’73 title race in Leeds’s favour. Above all, of course, we remember him robbing Allan Simonsen in Rome in ’77 with a piece of goalkeeping that was (characteristically) brave and skilful. When you’re breaking at speed as Simonsen was doing after he unexpectedly nabbed the ball off Case, and when you have the element of surprise on your side, the last thing you expect is for someone to be coming the other way at an even greater pace and an ever greater state of readiness. That was Clem all over. Speed off his line and an ability to force his decision on a striker rather than the other way round. We’d have lost that match if Simonsen had scored then and there’d still be four stars on our flags, not five. I was on the Kop when Clemence came back with Spurs and got that marvellous ovation. I can tell you now, even after all these years, that when the Kop’s thunder broke around me I was thinking of Ray beating out that Simonsen shot.

Even when Clemence was beaten there was usually something to admire in his effort to keep the shot out. Filler recently mentioned on RAWK the Justin Fashanu goal at Carrow Road which he says made him want to be a keeper. An odd conclusion to draw from the goal of season you might think. But check it out on youtube. He’s right. After all these years the most awesome thing about the goal is Clemence’s interstellar flight that almost keeps it out. The same thing happened with the Charlie George goal at Wembley in ’71 and the Bathenay equaliser for St Etienne. Each goal was given a surcharge of grace through Clem’s astonishing leap. Stuart Hall once described Clemence on the radio as “twisting himself into a human corkscrew” to turn away a shot headed for the top corner. Most of the time Hall talked in metaphors, but on that occasion he was describing the simple truth. That’s what Clem was like. So that the Scottish banner mocking his open legs meant nothing really.  There was a better one at the ‘74 Cup Final: ‘Jesus Saves, but He’s not as Reliable as Clemence is He?’. I’d say that was definitely true. Even a devout group of Christians would if they were really honest with themselves.

Brucie’s style of goalkeeping was different. He always made it difficult for Kopites to fully relax and assume a normal breathing pattern. There was a quality that made you feel the art of goalkeeping had been revealed to him by some Old Testament-type prophet. A fork of lightning across an epic African sky, a thunderous voice filling the sub-Saharan scrub and this slightly unhinged Zimbabwean had suddenly acquired the divine art of keeping balls out of goals.  “You must go to Liverpool, Bruce, and take the place of God’s favourite custodian Ray Clemence” says the voice and lo! there he ends up (after a short loan period had been meticulously arranged by the OT prophet at Gresty Road).

There were some catastrophic moments in the first few error-strewn months of Bruce’s tenure at Anfield (Man City at home on Boxing Day, right? Those who were there that day still carry a bit of shell-shock I think). But there were also scattered clues that goalkeeping was about to be revolutionised – that behind the astonishing Olga Korbut-like elasticity and Rommel-like audacity ticked a shrewd brain that was capable of calculating risk. And that, the supreme calculation of risk (or when to come and when to stay) is what marks great goalies off from merely very good ones. Grobbelaar’s calculations were right, most of the time. And they had to be for his career to survive in such a high-performance unit as Liverpool’s. In the team of perfectionists that Bob Paisley built in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s there would have been no room for a goalkeeper who was merely theatrical and spectacular. Grobbelaar was unorthodox but he wasn’t a foolhardy risk-taker. The same is true now of Reina whose style of goalkeeping is more reminiscent of Grobbelaar than Clemence I think.     

The Reina Revolution
His first great offence against conventional English football wisdom was that he liked to punch balls as well as catch them. I shared the scepticism about punching-goalies but after a few games of watching Reina became a convert. Partly it was a question of his wonderful timing. The Reina fist rarely seems to slide off the ball. It goes right through it - and as a result the punched ball can travel 20-30 yards very quickly. If it falls to an opposition player they are consequently too far out to make instant use of it. If it falls to a Liverpool player it can become the spark that produces a swift counter-attack. But Reina’s ability to punch cleanly means he also reaches crosses that most other goalies avoid. In other words the punch, if properly done, works on both offensive and defensive grounds - added to which there is probably a subtle deterrent effect at work. If you’re a centre forward going for a cross and you know that a flying fist is coming your way you might not attack the ball with as much faith or enthusiasm as you would if the main thing you had to worry about was two perpendicular arms. Reina caught rather than punched a Chelsea cross that ended with a John Terry booking on Wednesday night. There was a part of me – and surely a part of him – that wished he’d punched through the ball with his normal power and caught the lachrymose Chelsea skipper on the nose with his follow through. It would have been nice to have seen Terry spilling blood - and not just his usual tears - on to the Anfield sod. 

Like everything else with Reina you get the feeling that he must have thought through his options. For too long at Liverpool we had been used to keepers who had neither the intelligence to innovate nor the coaching staff to encourage them. The consequence was David James, a promising talent who allowed himself (and was allowed by the club) to vegetate. He literally did this, by his own admission, when he started to spend 23 hours a day on play-station. But aside from that bizarre episode it was plain for all to see that a cloak of amateurism was forever going to be draped around James’s shoulders. When I think of James now I think of a man grinning at his own mistakes. How were we meant to take him seriously when his first reaction to a mistake was to cackle at himself?

Reina’s not like that. He is the consummate professional and like all true professionals he is constantly in a state of learning. The most obvious and gratifying result of this scholarship is his penalty-saving. Not only does Reina always seem to go the right way. He saves the fuckers. I don’t know whether this is because he’s studied the penalty-taking habits of his opponents or because he’s worked out from the distribution of a kicker’s bodyweight the most likely direction of a shot. Probably it’s both. But the fabulous result is certainly the product of a man who thinks deeply about the game (and, incidentally, gives the lie to that typically English amateurism which insists that there’s no point practising penalties).   

I’m not on top of goalkeeping tactics – but I get the feeling when watching Pepe Reina that we’re seeing cutting-edge goalkeeping. It isn’t just the punching. It’s his extraordinary pace around the box. We live in a different era to Clem’s when the first move of the goalie who had seized the ball was to calm everyone down and to take a breath or six. Pepe’s first reaction to getting hold of the ball is the opposite. To take a breather is the worst thing he could do. Like Danny Agger, our other great attacking defender, Reina’s priority is to inject pace into the game when he has the ball. The first move is, invariably, a rapid run to the edge of the box. The second is a quick release and an accurate pass of high velocity (whether thrown or kicked). You can see what he’s thinking. The run alone usually takes Reina past three or four opponents, so for him it’s the equivalent of a mazy dribble, providing he can release the ball at the end of it. The release itself is a thing of beauty because Reina, being committed to speed of delivery, only believes in a flat parabola. Hence the superb kicking technique that sees the foot making contact with the ball almost at shoulder height (instead of the usual shin height). Torres, of course, thrives on this stuff.

The man’s a winner
Which is why we will win the league with him between the sticks. Big characters with skill, like Reina, always end up in winning teams. On Wednesday night he was probably the least demoralised Red on the pitch and it was a really important thing he did when he joined the attack for our last corner. It was a sign that this thing isn’t over and we will be a going concern in the second leg. 

Anyone who has seen Reina celebrate a Liverpool goal knows how important winning is to him. Anyone who has seen the footage of him celebrating with his Spanish teammates after their Euro victory knows that he’s the ultimate team player. I can’t wait to see his reaction when we lift number 19, which we surely will with him in our team.

(inspired by a conversation in Clerkenwell, London with RAWK's Raul)

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