Second-string goalkeepers in League One and League Two aren’t what they used to be.
Goalkeeping structure has changed. And with it, so have the hopes of first-team football for a number of aspirational stoppers who, once-upon-a-first-pro-contract, thought they were set for a big break.
We’ve developed the Fake No2. The kid who, despite injury befalling his superior, won’t realistically be given an opportunity barring a rare matchday situation occurring when it’s too late to call in someone better.
This is due to the existence of the emergency loan. Football League rules state, if a club’s replacement goalkeeper has played less than five professional games, that club can utilise a seven-day loan system and recruit a more substantial option. Hello Mr Championship No3 – a candidate temporarily dispensable to his parent club yet on a par, or arguably even better, than the injured lower league No1 and a most definite improvement on that doe-eyed No2.
Let’s take it from the top. In the Premier League, clubs will have a strong No1, a strong No2 and, more recently, a semi-strong and ultimately reliable No3. High-profile examples this season include Lee Grant at Manchester United and Chelsea’s Rob Green.
Some Championship clubs do the same. West Brom, for instance, have opted for Sam Johnstone, Boaz Myhill and Jonathan Bond as a well-equipped, three-pronged union at the Hawthorns.
However, with less money naturally available in the third and fourth tiers, less resources are forthcoming. Ergo, goalkeeper quality is compromised.
Imagine the general goalkeeping budget for a League Two club is £2.5k a week. That club could plump for two decent goalkeepers – one on £1.5k a week and the other on £1k a week. A certain degree of assurance is guaranteed with a reasonably strong No1 and No2.
Conversely, with the benefit of the emergency loan system, that club could instead throw the full £2.5k on a very strong No1 and stick a young hopeful on the bench. With lower budgets and an ever-increasing demand for results, this is becoming an increasing trend.
Young, lower league goalkeepers are in danger. They can’t leave a club and gain valuable experience elsewhere because they make up the numbers on a matchday, but they’re barely given a chance should the opportunity arise. They’re effectively a stop-gap until an emergency loan is required.
While it may initially be exciting to sign a contract in professional football and have that debut carrot dangled at any given minute, long-term progression is stunted. Young goalkeepers are seeing out the stop-gap contract and then being released to make way for their copycat successor. Yes, they’ve been involved in a professional environment, but with a CV which boasts a big, fat zero by professional appearances. With that comes an inevitable drop into non-league in a bid to start the journey again.
Of course, not all clubs live by these rules. Some, like Wycombe with Ryan Allsop and Yves Ma-Kalambay, will stick with a decent double act. Others, in the case of 40-year-old Steve Phillips at Yeovil and the slightly younger – and recently very successful – Dean Brill and Rene Gilmartin at Leyton Orient and Colchester United respectively, promote their goalkeeper coaches as a readymade No2. You’d argue this is a better option altogether; muscle memory will help in a spontaneous appearance from the bench, while the experience and communication skills of an older goalkeeper would, in such a scenario, serve clubs better than an 18-year-old stopper thrown in at the deep end.
A second-choice goalkeeper has to exist. And a young goalkeeper has to start somewhere. Finding a balance between that and the system is the issue in preventing a fake future for a fake No2.