Goalkeepers’ Union: “It’s Like A Bromance”
By Kevin Affleck
Back in 2016, in an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, Costel Pantilimon was readying himself for another stint on Watford’s bench when Quique Sánchez Flores, the then Head Coach, patted him on the back in the changing room just before the bell rang and wished him good luck.
Pantilimon was confused as a tactics board in the team hotel on the morning of the game had clearly shown Heurelho Gomes’ number in the goalkeeping spot. Sánchez Flores had said all week Pantilimon was going to continue as the cup keeper but those in the team room just thought Sánchez Flores had had a late change of heart and decided Gomes was the man to keep Arsenal at bay after all.
It turns out Sánchez Flores had just made an error on the tactics board and that Pantilimon was playing all along. What followed in the bowels of the Emirates, just minutes before kick-off, was an 11th hour petitioning of the referee to allow Pantilimon to play and a frantic resubmitting of the team. Despite the chaotic preparation, Pantilimon had a fine game as the Hornets knocked out the winners of the past two seasons.
But this is not what’s important. What’s key here is the communication lines and how no-one, not Sanchez Flores’ assistant, not the goalkeeping coach, not even Gomes or Pantilimon, challenged the Head Coach’s decision. Now, such is the democracy of the dressing room and the characters in it, that Ben Foster, the undisputed No. 1, would probably stand up in the team meeting and tell Javi Gracia that he had made a mistake, that Gomes, the No. 2 and the cup ‘keeper this time round, should play in the final. In fact, he’d insist on it. That’s the dynamic of their relationship, you see.
In the week building up to the quarter-final win over Crystal Palace you had Gomes telling the media that Foster was the best ‘keeper in England. Foster later reached for the crying emoji on Twitter when it was announced Gomes is “99.9 per cent” he is retiring this summer. They only became teammates last summer, but it feels like they’ve been mates for a lifetime. This is a friendship that will endure.
There is a mutual respect and it’s a far cry from Kepa Arrizabalaga refusing to come off for penalty specialist Willy Caballero at Wembley in February. Foster is 35 and this might be last crack at winning a trophy, but there is no trace of him pulling rank. He’s not banging on Gracia’s door, demanding he now plays because the stakes are high and we are at the business end of the competition.
“For a team like us when you are changing outfield players it can maybe make a difference but when it comes to the goalkeeper, especially when you are talking about someone with the talent of Gomes, I get to see him in training and he’s an unbelievable goalkeeper, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference,” said Foster. “If you are changing a handful of outfield players then it can make some difference, but Gomes is still a world-class goalkeeper.”
Gomes has been an automatic choice since he joined the club in 2014 and he could easily have had his nose put out of joint when Foster rocked up in the summer from West Bromwich Albion. But he’s taken his medicine and accepted time moves on.
“When you lose your place for someone that is below [your level] in performance [that’s difficult], but Ben is up there, and I cannot complain, because I lost my place for a very, very good goalkeeper,” he said.
It’s not just words, either. Gomes raced onto the field at the Amex Stadium when Foster produced one of the performances of his career to keep a clean sheet against Brighton in February. Foster reciprocated when Gomes produced a masterclass in the art of commanding your box at Queens Park Rangers in the fifth round.
“For a position where a huge degree of selfishness is needed to be No. 1, it is imperative your working relationship with other goalkeepers is competitive and respectful,” said Graham Stack, who was second choice to Jens Lehman in the year Arsenal became the Invincibles. He is now Academy Goalkeeping Coach at Watford. “When I see how well Foster and Gomes train together, push and support each other it is great to see for other goalkeepers. They share a strong bond which has bought the best out of both of them this season.”
They are also grooming the long-term successor in Pontus Dahlberg, the 20-year-old Sweden international who is the No. 3 stopper on the club's books.
“They are two amazing goalkeepers and I’ve learnt a lot,” said Dahlberg. “They have huge experience in the Premier League and with the national team. It’s an honour to train with them every day. I can learn a lot and I’m taking every chance to watch and see what they do. I just want to take everything in. They explain different situations to me.”
Foster and Gomes are also showing just what a No. 1 and No. 2 relationship should look like. “It’s like a bromance,” said Dahlberg. “They have such a good relationship and really push each other in training. After training we laugh and chat so much. I can’t ask for better goalkeepers to have as teammates. We have a WhatsApp group and we just post some crazy goalkeeper stuff and congratulate each other on birthdays and stuff.”
Or, fingers crossed, on winning the FA Cup final.
Credit: Emirates FA Cup matchday programme.