Likeable Seaman: A Flawed Goalie?
If you missed it, you missed out.
Towards the end of last year, Rio Ferdinand, in his semi-official role as Team England’s yoof ambassador, gave an interview to BBC Radio 1Extra, in which he was asked to select his all-time British Isles XI.
Interestingly, he picked himself, which leads one to question whether Rio Ferdinand should be included in any all-time XI, including one selected by Rio Ferdinand, but the Manchester United defender proved his grasp of football history to be a little, shall we say, jejune – of his 15 picks, everyone, with the exception of George Best, played in the 1990s or 2000s.
Ferdinand’s all time team, then, was comprised thusly: David Seaman, Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, Des Walker (!), Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, John Barnes, Wayne Rooney, George Best. (Substitutes: Paul Gascoigne, Paul Ince, Ian Wright, Frank Lampard.)
It’s tempting to ponder upon whether his sole criterion for picking players was their Merk-able potential – one gets the impression Stanley Matthews probably wouldn’t be well up for being the unwitting stooge on a Thursday night wind-up show on ITV2 – but the goalkeeping selection left an especially sour taste.
Not that Ferdinand should be used as a barometer of good taste – I mean, remember those corn rows? – but Britain, when you think about it, has produced some pretty decent goalkeepers over time. Maybe the idea of standing all alone in a rain-sodden jersey appeals to a peculiar something in the British psyche, but look at the evidence: Swift, Gregg, Banks, Shilton, Clemence, Jennings, Southall, Alan Rough (OK, not Alan Rough.)
Talented, enigmatic ballplayers we struggle with; anvil-headed lunks with shovels for hands we do OK.
Yet Ferdinand plumped for Seaman above all others. Many others of Ferdinand’s generation would likely do the same: it seems that the big, bluff Yorkshireman, as Brian Moore would have had it, is especially fondly regarded by a fairly high proportion of football lovers.
But alas, for all his likeability, and good manners, and satisfyingly thick hair, Seaman was not half as good as we think. That’s not to say he was Pavel Srnicek.
Indeed, in the current climate of goalkeeping feebleness, with a clutch of terrible goalies vying for the England shirt, Seaman could well be the tonic. After all, this was a bloke who’d won it all; who’d been there, done it, and stayed so long he’d had time to grow that ridiculous moustache.
Just look at the evidence: three league championships with Arsenal, four FA Cups, one League Cup, one Cup-Winners’ Cup. Plus all the England stuff: two World Cup finals appearances, 75 caps in total – more than Swift, Banks or Clemence – and that penalty save against Scotland.
As part of a Gunners back five who conceded just 18 goals in winning the title in 1990-91, he’d re-written the rulebook on defensive meanness. Being name checked in the Full Monty was just the icing on the cake.
But, alas, Seaman was flawed. Certain top-class goalkeepers bring to mind an abiding image, an indelible something seared on the subconscious: Peter Schmeichel foiling an onrushing attacker with his patented star-jump technique, for example, or Neville Southall tipping one round the post in kit that looks borrowed from a soiled washing basket in a hospital laundrette.
Seaman, by contrast, recalls him sitting in his goal, gesticulating to no-one in particular, while the opposition run off and celebrate, pointing and laughing as they go.
The inability to keep out shots from distance was, as we all know, a Seaman speciality. Most obviously, there was Koeman, and Nayim, and Ronaldinho, but don’t forget Paul Gascoigne in 1991, Luis Figo in 2000, even Macedonia’s Artem Sakiri direct from a corner in 2002. Sympathisers may have explained them away as ‘freaks’, but each was eminently saveable.
It all stemmed from his lack of footwork. A big bloke – 6ft 3in and heavy with it – Seaman never quite got to grips with the notion that, for goalkeepers, feet are just as important than hands. (By illustration, Gascoigne’s free-kick in that FA Cup semi-final is not memorable for its sheer audacity, or for Barry Davies’s magnificently effusive commentary – “Oh, I say! That is schoolboy’s own stuff!” – but for Seaman’s foot position: he just doesn’t get off the ground.)
And there’s the rub: Seaman never saved the shots you didn’t expect him to. Sure, he was largely dependable, and didn’t really drop obvious clangers, but he never surprised you by pulling off a magnificent reaction stop, or thwarting an attacker when he seemed certain to score. His shtick was being solid, and could thus seem particularly inelegant and lolloping when searching for something in the athletic realm. As Harry Pearson put it, his attempt to keep out that Koeman free-kick in Rotterdam in 1993 was reminiscent of “a drunk pursuing a bus”.
So why is he so highly regarded? Well, Seaman’s stock rose exponentially after Euro 96, largely on the basis of saving two weak penalties from Gary McAllister and Miguel Angel Nadal. A hot summer, three lions and blind patriotism can do funny things to even the most rational of minds, but it became a truism that Seaman was brilliant in penalty shootouts, despite the fact that he didn’t get near any of Germany’s six spot-kicks in the 96 semi-final, or do anything worthwhile against Argentina in St Etienne two years later.
His performances in both tournaments were adequate, nothing more.
And let’s not forget, pre-Euro 96, a legitimate debate went on as to whether Seaman or Tim Flowers of Blackburn should get the nod between the sticks.
Flowers was the real deal, too – agile, commanding, and apparently an excellent cricketer to boot. But incumbency counts for a lot, particularly with England, and neither Venables, Hoddle, Keegan nor Eriksson was prepared to rock the boat by plumping for someone else. Maybe playing behind such a miserly back four at club level concealed Seaman’s weaknesses. Maybe it was Bob Wilson, his Arsenal mentor, appearing in the national press on a semi-regular basis reminding everyone just how brilliant he was.
But maybe it was that he just seemed no normal. Brian Glanville may have believed that Goalkeepers are Different, but the thing about Seaman was that he wasn’t at all. British football remains suspicious of eccentrics, and Seaman’s prosaic virtues perhaps seemed rather comforting, particularly in a position which attracts its fair amount of unhinged types.
He didn’t binge on his Nintendo 64 the night before big games, had never posed nude for a women’s magazine, or fought Marxist guerrillas in the Rhodesian army. He was just a regular guy from Rotherham, who liked fishing and Leeds United and had an endearingly daft haircut, almost an antidote to the modern lot, with their diamond earrings and baby Bentleys and Pro Evolution parties round John Terry’s house.
Maybe it seems unfair to criticise such a nice bloke – like having a go at Nelson Mandela for not being a very good breakdancer – but he was called ’Safe Hands’ and not ’The Cat’ for a reason. Gordon Banks, a true great, made the greatest save of his career from Pele; Seaman made his from Paul Peschisolido. Kind of says it all, really, doesn’t it?