In the absence of players communicating the newly-intensified rivalry between the two clubs by kicking each other and using terminology that belongs in a movie based in America’s Deep South at the start of the last century, ITV needed something to talk about. Liverpool and Manchester United’s FA Cup 4th Round tie sizzled and threatened to take off, but largely involved shadow boxing mixed with bursts of the real thing. In the 21st minute came the chance.
Liverpool, in an almost Pulis-esque stroke of maximising an advantage over an opponent, crowded around David De Gea prior to a corner kick. It was football’s version of survival of the fittest with De Gea clearly identified as the weakest of the herd. The cross came into that sort of grey area where commentators presume the goalkeeper can saunter off his line and pluck it out of the air and people who have played the position at any level know it’s never that straightforward. There was a shamozle – a comedy word carefully chosen to communicate the general disorder of the situation – and Daniel Agger rose unchallenged to head the opening goal. The replays showed United players falling over each other and the Dane converting the surprisingly facile chance. All that was lacking was a Benny Hill soundtrack and some canned laughter.
The uncertainty of De Gea’s panicky run didn’t flatter him. In the eyes of the commentators the fact none of the United defenders mustered even a faint challenge to Agger could be ignored and the goalkeeper singled out as the culprit – clueless, weak and an object to be bullied. Sadly, there were plenty of things to criticise De Gea for – the overall lack of command of his penalty area; the fumbly handling of the ball we rarely saw at Atletico Madrid; the strange mix of silly overconfidence on some occasions and the obvious lack of confidence on others – both of which lead to some poor choices. Despite some decent saves, he didn’t have a good game. Any decent analysis would have highlighted this and not just focused on one supposed howler. Criticism was warranted, but what we got was a shallow attack which skirted around the actual problems.
In the studio, the producers pointed their pundits to the incident like dog-handlers directing their famished charges to prime ribeye. It was seized upon it and the opinions for hire duly obliged. Paul Ince mumbled some comments about it not being good enough in that geezer-ish manner of talk that seems to undermine his points regardless if they’re valid or not. Roy Keane – licking his lips at the free rein to have a go at United – was arguably the least helpful, suggesting that De Gea’s confidence would get the requisite boost if he could only go out there “and nail somebody”. Wise words for someone suffering a drought in the bedroom department, less so for a young goalkeeper trying to find his feet in the Premier League.
The sense of mindlessly kicking a man when he’s down wasn’t helped later in the game when – clearly riding the wave of unwarranted viciousness – co-commentator, Jim Beglin decreed that the young Spaniard should have done better in preventing Kuyt’s winner. Perhaps getting De Gea confused with Mr. Potatohead or any other toy with detachable limbs, Beglin suggested the goalie ‘could have thrown a leg at it’. If there is a hierarchy of knee-jerk comments, this was at the lower end of the scale just a step above ‘the complete drivel’ label. The keeper could have done nothing about it. Evra was sleeping. The ball fell perfectly for Kuyt on his stronger foot. Talking a conservative estimate, he would have hit the ball at a speed of about 60mph at a distance of about 6 yards from the goalkeeper who was a couple of yards off his line. That gives De Gea an approximate reaction time of around one fifth of a second, the point where any save is almost entirely down to dumb luck rather than superhuman reactions. Not for the first time in his punditry career, Beglin’s analysis was overly simplistic and hinted towards populist pandering.
The benefit of time and increased hindsight hadn’t brought much enlightenment to the highlights show. Gordon Strachan and Neil Warnock – the latter looking like life outside management has given him a new lease of life and Brylcreem – toed the line and blurted out what they were told to with the absence of genuine balanced critique. Not dissimilar to his post-match rants, Warnock focussed on an incident that didn’t decide the game and ignored the numerous issues that did decide the game. Again the incident for the 1st goal was the centre of attention and the various other errors largely swept under the carpet – chiefly the silly fumbles that gave Liverpool hope when they were rendered largely toothless by an industrious United midfield. Considering that both Warnock and Strachan have both been at various times considered hot managerial property in the British game, it doesn’t reflect well on how some managers approach the role of the custodian. If this is how respected figures are happy to talk about young goalkeeping talent, is it any wonder that the Premier League has a string of indigenous talent between the posts that has already been knocked down repeatedly throughout their careers?
There is a point to all this grumbling and once again it’s the lack of understanding of the goalkeeper’s role. ITV are an entertainment business and their obligation is to deliver profit for their shareholders. They are free to take as short-sighted and sensationalist a view as they see fit. The pundits however are under no obligation to mindlessly take the bait. It was saddening that not one of the experts took an opposing view or declined the opportunity to slate De Gea for an offence his defenders were at least partially to blame. De Gea clearly has his problems, but he’ll eventually get over them. The problem of the media misunderstanding the goalkeeper may be something that’s harder to eradicate and have far more damaging consequences.