Once again it is my task to sing the praises of the Goalkeeper.
Last year I was accused of having a clichéd view, by one of my long time critics, when I suggested that Fraser Forster’s reputation as our custodian swung on a crucial penalty save against a club now in administration – a save which I believed not only helped our heroes to win that game, but which provided a springboard from which we launched a successful bid for the title.
That the young man himself took great confidence from that save was not happen-stance. From such key events the reputations of sportsmen can be made or broken. Any follower of sport at the highest level – whether amateur or professional – will be aware of chances missed and taken, putts holed or missed, errors which were punished to a greater degree than was obvious at the time, or the path to glory from which such events can be launched.
Whereas the previous close season I was somewhat ambivalent as to whether or not this Hexham born giant would or would not join the colours, last year the delay in closing the deal which brought him to Paradise as our own player caused more than a frissant of anxiety.
That to be successful in the highest levels of the game demands a reliable if not a brilliant goalkeeper is also a clichéd viewpoint, but it is no less true for that. There have been great teams who have had erratic keepers but when the occasion demanded them to produce, such characters rose to the challenge, but I cannot ever recall a really successful team whose custodian was a dud.
Last season proved to my mind that Fraser Forster can not only be reliable, but when the occasion demands he can be quite brilliant.
That Celtic progressed as far as they did in the Champions League was very much a collective effort, with the group working for each other in a way that we had not seen at that level for several years. Underpinning this, for the most part, effective team, were key performances at different times from a variety of individuals – many whose praises will be sung by other contributors to this site in coming days, but throughout the qualifying campaign, and again in the group stages, the rock on whom the team success was based was Fraser Forster.
The Barcelona performances obviously garnered the most headlines, perhaps because in those he withstood pressure such as Celtic goalkeepers do not normally experience, but in the other ties he made saves of real quality at crucial times and overall exerted a calming influence on everyone around him – including I believe the fans.
It has not normally been our lot as followers of the Hoops to be relaxed about European performances away from Celtic Park, but I felt last season that there was a sense of purpose and discipline to our defending which is not always a hallmark of Celtic teams. Much of this I believe stemmed from the fact that everyone – players, coaches and supporters had confidence in the goalkeeper.
The winter break did none of us any real favours. A trip to Spain and an encounter with a dodgy pillow led to a neck injury which caused Forster to miss several games. When he returned he looked out of sorts and ill at ease compared to the player who had contributed so much to the success of the autumn.
Against Juventus he was a victim of careless defending (and I believe poor decision making by the manager) but there were games previously where he was similarly exposed and yet wrought miracles – this was not the case against the Italian champions and our European adventure came to an end.
There was more than one uncertain performance in the league in the next few weeks, and it seemed as if his confidence in himself and his defence had been undermined by the events of the winter. Against Dundee Utd, immediately following the first leg against Juve, although he saved a penalty, he was less than sure at the two United goals. In subsequent weeks the whole team seemed to suffer from a post Europe hangover away from home and he was no different from the rest.
Another penalty save in an important match at home against Motherwell seemed to help restore his self belief, but really the brilliance which illuminated the early months of the season was seemingly only there in flashes. He still made great saves, but there were more than a few goals which Forster at his best would have saved.
All ended well however with the double achieved, and a tremendous save early in the Cup Final ensured that the Hibs gained nothing concrete from their sprightly start, and Fraser could look back on a good match to finish the campaign to which he offered so much.
An apparent cloud on the horizon as far as Celtic are concerned is that Roy Hodgson is as myopic as his predecessors when it comes to seeing that an English born player can prosper north of Hadrian’s wall, and there have been suggestions that in order to fulfil his international ambitions Forster may see his future in the south.
It is some relief that Neil Lennon has stated clearly that of all his marketable assets, the goalkeeper is not for sale. How long this situation will pertain is a moot point, but while we can we should relish the prospect of Fraser Forster between the sticks at Celtic Park.
Last Season – 8th.