It’s tough being a No2.
Just ask Simon Mignolet, Alex Smithies and Ben Hamer. All three were thrust into FA Cup Third Round action last weekend as their respective No1 counterparts enjoyed a matchday off. All three were singled out for errors. And, more importantly, all three, who have played a paltry eight games combined without being on the winning side for Liverpool, Cardiff and Huddersfield respectively this season, will be back on the bench this weekend.
For Hamer, playing just 15 first-team games in the three seasons prior to this has had a huge effect on his form. He conceded nine in Huddersfield’s opening two outings this campaign and, while it wasn’t the archetypal “near post” mistake pundits alluded to in the clash with Bristol City, the error was compounded with the fact Hamer was returning to a club where he endured a disastrous loan spell a few years back.
They knew it was a one-game deal and they knew fans were wishing the other guy was playing instead
For Mignolet and Smithies, this is unfamiliar territory. You can train all day, work hard in the gym and put in extra hours with the goalkeeper coach, but when you haven’t played a “proper” game of football for a substantial period of time, strapping on a pair of gloves at the highest level isn’t as natural as it once was.
Both have been first-choice goalkeepers for the majority of their senior careers, yet neither have solid No2 experience and understandably don’t harbour the mindset required to successfully take up that position. And that’s ultimately because they don’t want to.
Over the years we’ve seen certain goalkeepers who can adopt the No2 role without fuss. Had Steve Harper been desperate for regular first-team football, for example, he would have left Newcastle long before his 20-year spell ended in 2013. Being a laid-back character helped, too. Harper wasn’t fazed by temporarily stepping in and the general consensus was that he’d always do a job. More recently, the same can be said of Sergio Romero at Manchester United.
Other goalkeepers, like Mignolet and Smithies, can’t boast that experience. While they may be used to a first-team environment, they’re not accustomed to suddenly confronting thousands of fans in a fast-paced contest when recent action has been with the less-demanding U23s in a sparsely-populated stadium.
Then you look at who they’re replacing. At Cardiff, Neil Etheridge has made the most saves of any Premier League goalkeeper and earned rave reviews for saving three of the five penalties he’s faced this season. At Liverpool, Alisson can do absolutely no wrong even when he slips up. Last weekend wasn’t an opportunity for Mignolet and Smithies to stake their claims as first-choice stoppers moving forward. They knew it was a one-game deal, they knew fans were wishing the other guy was playing instead and they both made mistakes contributing to an FA Cup exit, thus further reducing potential future game time. Tough.
On the flip side, Wolves No2 John Ruddy showed how accepting the role can work in your favour. Now 32, you get the impression he’s content to remain a quality backup at this stage of his career. He’s well paid, well respected and Nuno Espirito Santo knows he’s capable when called upon, just like he was as first-choice goalkeeper when Wolves were promoted last term. And just like he was when producing a save of the season contender to deny Xherdan Shaqiri against Liverpool on Monday night.
At some point Ruddy may decide he wants to play regularly again, but having racked up more than 400 career appearances and openly claiming he feels “part of it” at Wolves, you don’t see him being overly forceful to engineer an exit, especially as opportunities are few and far between in the Premier League. Would he rather remain a solid No2 in the top flight rather than drop back down to the Championship? Most probably, yes.
Earlier this week, Ruddy claimed his situation as No2 was a case of “sink or swim”. As Mignolet, Smithies and Hamer will attest, waters aren’t always as forgiving when you’re stuck in second place.