First Team 15/05/2019

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.”

Stack was part of Arsenal's 'Invincibles' squad as No. 2 to Jens Lehmann

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. 

First Team 15/05/2019

Smith: “Anything Can Happen”

By Kevin Affleck

Tommy Smith knows all about facing an expectant Manchester City side and just what the pressure of being huge favourites can do.

Smith was in the Queens Park Rangers squad on that barmy day in May 2012 when City produced one of the great escapology acts to score two goals in stoppage time, including that memorable winner from Sergio Agüero, to clinch the Premier League title.

But it was about as far from plain sailing as you get as unfancied QPR came from one down to lead 2-1 with ten men and looked for so long to have ruined City's party.

“The script had already been written,” said Smith. “City were supposed to win comfortably and it was a party atmosphere at the start but the atmosphere quickly turned. Pressure does funny things and the fans really turned. It ended up being an incredible finish and to be part of that that was amazing. It was nerve-wracking as we needed Stoke to get a result at home to Bolton and I think Bolton were winning at one stage. We ended up being safe and it worked out well for us in the end, but it was one of those days when everything happened.”

Smith plays against Manchester City in 2006

Smith will be in the stands with his son, who is in the club’s Academy, with the rest of the Watford fans on Saturday and he is daring to dream.

“You just never know,” he said. “City have played a lot of games and they have been pushed all the way in the league by Liverpool. Wigan beat them in the [2013] final and Watford are a better team than Wigan. They can dig in and work hard but they’ve also got some good players who can change the game. City won't be taking Watford lightly. 

“Javi Gracia is a very good coach and he’s shown what a bright guy he is this season. He got a lot of good results in Spain and this is another one-off game. Anything can happen.”