Sunday, 12 February 2017

The fourth wheel

In the old days, football clubs only employed two senior goalkeepers; in the case of an emergency, it was assumed that the junior team’s keeper would step up. (We all know what happened when Graham Taylor ignored this convention in the 1987 FA Cup semi-final.) The first time I can remember Watford employing a third keeper was our first season in the Premier League, 1999-2000, when the Austrian Herwig Walker was brought in as back-up for Alec Chamberlain and Chris Day. He was never used and was released at the end of the season, to be remembered only as an answer to a trivia question.

More recently, Irishman Rene Gilmartin has taken on this thankless role. In response to a tweet from Sky Sports’ Adam Leventhal in the run-up to transfer deadline day, I bemoaned Gilmartin’s lot, expressing the view that he had purely been included in the Premier League squad to fill a homegrown slot, and that the club had no intention of ever playing him. In response, I received a few dismissive replies. “I wouldn’t feel too sorry,” said one. “Premier League salary, great lifestyle and all that. Sounds perfect to me.” Another suggested that “He gets the benefit of being a pro without any stress.”

This may all be true, and I’m sure that Rene doesn’t want or need my pity. He’s a grown man who’s made his own career choices. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering how he felt on the day of the FA Cup 3rd Round tie against Burton when, with Heurelho Gomes given a day off, Costel Pantilimon started in goal and Giedrius Arlauskis (not even included in the Premier League squad for the first half of the season) was on the bench rather than Rene. It seemed to prove my point. You get the feeling that, if a freak illness struck down the aforementioned trio of keepers, Walter Mazzarri would rather summon a wine-waiter from South Wales than entrust Rene with the gloves.

After the transfer window closed, Watford named their revised 25-man squad – which now includes Arlauskis as well as Gilmartin, effectively making the Irishman Watford’s first ever fourth-choice goalkeeper, and presumably meaning that he won’t even get to take part in the pre-match warmups any more.

I’ve been trying to think of another profession where this can happen: where a person can be handsomely paid, yet have no prospect of doing what they’re trained to do. The closest equivalent I can think of is an actor hired as an understudy to a star who never misses a performance. Then again, most understudies take minor roles in the production, so they still get to act.

But Rene Gilmartin never gets to play a competitive game of football (apart from rare run-outs for the Under-23s), despite the fact that this is presumably the one thing in life that he is really good at, the thing he dreamed of doing when he was a boy. I just looked up his statistics: in 12 years as a professional, he’s made fewer than 80 appearances.

You’ve got to admit that it’s an odd situation. It’s rather like me being paid to turn up at work five days a week, spend the day sitting round in reception and then going home again. I don’t think I’d find that very fulfilling, salary or no salary.

I hope Rene enjoys the training, and the cameraderie of being part of a squad, and hopefully he gets to pass on the benefits of what little experience he has to the younger goalkeepers at the club. But I would like to see him get the opportunity to play for Watford one day. The fact that this seems unlikely is just one facet of the increasing strangeness of modern football.

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