Long read: The last line - goalkeeping at Newcastle United
Written by Tom Easterby
“I walked outside, devastated,” remembers Simon Smith. It was 1982, he was 20, and the young goalkeeper had just been released by Arthur Cox. He shuffled out of the manager’s office, down the steps behind the old West Stand, “and bumped into Jackie Milburn.” He chuckles at the memory. “He was saying, ‘don’t worry, I’ve seen you play for the reserves, you’ll be fine’. Looking back, you think, that’s bizarre isn’t it?”
The chance meeting with one of Newcastle United’s greatest on the steps of St. James’ Park marked the beginning of a path which keeps leading Smith, now 57, back home. He played part-time for Whitley Bay, working in a North Shields sports shop while amassing over 500 appearances for Gateshead, before a earning a degree in Sports Studies at Newcastle Polytechnic at the age of 30. “I was quite lucky,” he says. “I hit on a time where the actual role of goalkeeper coaching was just evolving.”
He spent time working at the Football Association, Carlisle United, Wigan Athletic, Sunderland and the Magpies’ centre of excellence before being appointed first team goalkeeping coach under Ruud Gullit in 1999. That September, Sir Bobby Robson arrived. “He said, ‘I don’t know you, son, and you don’t know me, but I’m sure we’ll get on fine’,” Smith smiles. “I thought, ‘really? I do know you!”
He spent the next five years at St. James’ before resigning after Robson’s sacking. There were further roles with the Canadian Soccer Association and LA Galaxy before he returned to the FA as national goalkeeping coach for under-16s to under-20s, at a time when Joe Hart, Tom Heaton, Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland and Dean Henderson all passed through that bracket. “I speak to people who I worked with at that time, and they’d say, ‘you’re such a Newcastle fan’, and I never really thought I was,” he says. “But obviously, through conversation, it must have come through.”
He returned once more in 2015, joining Steve McClaren’s backroom team, and this is his first opportunity to delve into the intricacies of his craft on the record. As head of goalkeeping, he oversees all of the club’s keepers from under-nines to the first team and it all begins, he says, with the development of an excellent technical base. “I’ve always been of the opinion that if you have that, you won’t go far wrong,” he explains. “There’s the tactical side, the decision making and everything else that goes with being a goalkeeper, but if you’ve got that base – catching, diving, kicking and jumping for crosses – it leads massively to confidence in your own ability.
“But you need to make sure, that when (managers) say, ‘can he do this?’ you can say with confidence, ‘yes, he can’. I’m not saying it’s going to be perfect 100 per cent of the time, but if they did something ten times, you’d hope they’d get ten out of ten. Unfortunately, in the Premier League, if you get nine and fail once, that’s the one that people remember.”
There seems no way of getting around the fact that this, in essence, is goalkeeping. It is a sport within a sport, a specialism with different principles, over which the spectre of expectation and error always looms. Smith smiles as he remembers another exchange with Robson. “In the end with Sir Bobby, I said to him one night, ‘can you just tell me what exactly you’re expecting from your goalie?’ He wrote me a letter, which I’ve still got.”
An extract from the letter Sir Bobby Robson sent Simon Smith
The week’s work begins the day after a game. The Magpies’ current number one, Martin Dúbravka, studies clips of his performance, projected onto a big screen in the strategy room at their training centre in Benton. Each of his saves, kicks, throws and punches are scrutinised and discussed with Smith 24 hours on. “It’s all about the little details,” says the Slovakian.
In Dúbravka, Karl Darlow and Rob Elliot, Smith has three senior goalkeepers to work with. Another, Freddie Woodman, is on loan at Swansea City, while younger stoppers from the academy are invited to train with Smith’s group twice a week. Handling and footwork drills form a warm-up, followed by shot stopping, some “short and sharp” work testing reactions and agility, and then crossing. “When I first started, after everything I did, I would say, ‘good, good, good’, but if you say it too much, they let one in and you say ‘good’, they’ll look at you,” says Smith, and you can imagine the look. “So you have to be quite selective with what you say.”
Practically, the repetition is crucial, but equally important is the dynamic in the small group. They work in close proximity every day, away from the rest of the squad, in the unspoken knowledge that only one can play. “When I wake up in the morning and think, ‘what am I going to do with the lads?’ it’s often the one who is going to be left out that I’ve thought about most,” says Smith. “It’s odd in one way, because who is playing is most important, but on a day-to-day basis, keeping the third choice happy is always a challenge.”
"What I’ve tried to do is keep it professional – I don’t go out for dinner with them, I don’t go round to their houses. Out there on the training pitch I try to treat everybody the same."
Elliot is currently third choice. He is 33 now, a Republic of Ireland international and a popular, friendly figure. His spirit has been tested in the last 18 months. Cast aside by former manager Rafa Benítez (“I didn’t really think I did anything wrong. I never let anyone down,”), he trained voluntarily at the club’s academy, but is now back in the first team. Each day, he pulls on the gloves and goes outside, knowing that the landscape in this fickle old sport can shift quickly; he was third choice at the start of 2015/16 too, but ended it as United’s player of the year.
But he hasn’t played a game since December 2017. “The hardest thing is coming into training with nothing to train for,” he says. “I know people say, ‘you’re on loads of money’ and stuff, but when you come in every day, you don’t think, ‘I’m on loads of money and I should be happy’. You come in and you want to strive, to train, to be involved.
“It’s nearly been two years since I was involved in a matchday squad. I think that’s the thing that frustrates me. The last time I walked out at St. James’ was Man City, and I don’t want that to be the last time I walk out at St. James’. I didn’t have any concept or idea that that would be the last time I would play for the club.”
Creating a respectful – and not resentful – atmosphere in the group is crucial to Smith, who knows from experience that an open, supportive goalkeeping environment cannot be taken for granted. Dúbravka says he has been in situations in the past where competitors for his shirt would “do some **** things”, like make him collect stray balls himself or refuse to serve him in the warm-up, and is grateful that is not the case at Newcastle, where Darlow and Elliot have offered handshakes and encouragement after his mistakes. “You don’t need to be best friends, but you should respect each other,” nods Dúbravka who, as a 15-year-old, was greatly influenced by Slovak coach František Smak’s discipline and focus in training. “I respect my teammates, and they know it. I’ve been in a position where I’m sitting on the bench as well. I know how it is.
“It’s all about attitude. What’s going to change is if you act like an idiot. It’s not going to help you and it’s not going to help your relationship with your teammates. It’s always better if you are friendly, open to talk with anyone. I think it should be like that, or you will ruin your career, I think. People can notice that, people can see that.”
For Darlow, whose 13 clean sheets helped Newcastle clinch the Championship title just over two years ago, the nature of the challenge is different. He is the number two, and must prepare just as intensely as Dúbravka for matches he is unlikely to feature in. How does he motivate himself? “I think it’s probably self-pride, more than anything,” says the former Nottingham Forest custodian. “I know it’s a cliché but I’ll always train as hard as I can out there, and that’s my standard. I know that every single day I’m going to do that and to be fair, if I didn’t, I think it would be quite obvious to everyone else – a ‘he’s trained like that for the last four years, and now he’s just not bothered’-type thing. I’d never want that said about me. That would hurt me more than anything. It’s a short career, isn’t it, so you can’t mess about too much.”
Darlow keeps out Yohan Cabaye's penalty in United's 1-0 win over Crystal Palace in April 2016
Smith, a warm, genial character with a soft north eastern burr, has seen many trends influence the way the position is played. As a player, he watched Pat Jennings’ one-handed catches and Bruce Grobbelaar venture way off his line to claim crosses. In later years, he saw challenges to the idea of the time that suggested foreign keepers would simply punch crosses that English ones would catch. Fabien Barthez and Edwin van der Sar’s clean takes and swift deliveries would start attacks at speed in the early 2000s, “and then all of a sudden you had Pepe Reina coming to Liverpool, who had a great side volley,” he says. “So people would look at it – ‘can you do it? Can you teach it? When would you use it?’
“The trouble with that is, that then things like throwing a ball die a death. All of a sudden, you’ll go to an academy at the age of 12, and nobody throws it any more – they’ll all do side volleys. Well, hang on a sec – there’ll be times when it’s not appropriate. But because so-and-so does it…”
It is a balancing act. He must add such skills to his players’ armouries, careful not to do so at the expense of other traits, while being mindful of his own role in such a tight-knit group. For Smith, it is about “not trying to get too close to them, so you don’t become their best friend or personal coach. But you’ve still got to have that relationship with them. What I’ve tried to do is keep it professional – I don’t go out for dinner with them, I don’t go round to their houses. Out there on the training pitch I try to treat everybody the same and try and help everybody as much as I can. But that’s it.”
By Friday, the team is preparing for the weekend’s fixture. Two goalkeepers join the rest of the squad for work on shape, with a third remaining with Smith, whose drills are by then informed by United’s next opponents. He will subtly replicate the pattern of their attack or a favoured routine, while the keepers themselves can dictate elements of their work; Dúbravka will often work on his jumping in the gym, or ask Smith to run an extra practise on crossing or handling. At 30, he’s seen different styles of training in each of the four countries in which he’s played. “I know what fits me,” he says. “I know what I have to do to feel ready.”
Darlow, Elliot and Dúbravka - who all made their Premier League debuts at Newcastle - in training
The trio all joined United from clubs playing below Premier League level and though each arrived with that core skill base Smith values, the pace of England’s top division is difficult to replicate. Dúbravka arrived on transfer deadline day in January 2018, short on sleep after being pulled out of Sparta Prague’s training camp in Spain to complete the move. He found his first week of training hard. “Everything was much faster, much quicker, the decisions, the shots were more powerful. In that moment I thought, ‘wow, that’s tough, but I need to get used to it, because this is my only chance to be here’.”
“Martin, for me, is a classic example,” adds Smith. “He’s been scouted by the scouting department, Rafa’s watched him, I’ve watched him. Those technical bits of goalkeeping look fine. He comes to training, and in the first week the ball is whizzing past him – we’re doing shooting, and the ball is whizzing past him for fun. The manager says to me, ‘what do you think?’ ‘Well, he hasn’t saved anything yet’.
“Another week goes past, and he starts to save the ball, because he’s got the technical ability and is realising maybe he needs to stand an inch, foot or yard further back to be able to make a save. He works it out for himself, and I hope that our practises helped to bring him up to speed. After two weeks, the manager played him against Manchester United.” Dúbravka has played in every Premier League game since.
Smith can usually sense, too, when pressure is weighing heavily on a keeper, or if he might not stand up to the scrutiny or psychological strain when Saturday comes. “When they’re in that situation,” he says, “I can see people who don’t want to be there, or don’t want to be involved, and people who are thriving.” Can you teach people how to cope with that? “That’s experience, and why you need to play. Goalkeeping training with me is great, getting them to where they need to be, but then they need matches.”
Freddie Woodman is 22 and a few months into the fifth loan spell of his career. Already an Under-17 European Championship winner in 2014, when Smith was part of England’s backroom staff, he lifted the Under-20 World Cup three years later, claiming the tournament’s golden glove award.
Woodman’s father, Andy, made almost 400 Football League appearances between the posts before moving into coaching. He later coached Elliot at Charlton, where ten-year-old Freddie would accompany his dad to the training ground and, unbeknown to him, watch his future teammate train. As a teenager, Woodman believes he was naïve, in a constant rush to impress, but on a six-month stint at Kilmarnock in 2017 he felt his game beginning to click.
“I felt like when I came back I had more, not authority, but a bit of a bounce in my step,” he says. “People weren’t saying, ‘oh, its Freddie Woodman, he hasn’t got any games’. They were saying, ‘he’s got 20 games under his belt in in Scotland’, and I think it carries a bit more weight, because there is such a difference between reserve football and league football.”
Elliot went out on loan to Erith & Belvedere, Bishops Stortford, Notts County and Accrington Stanley during his time at The Valley, and can see the reason why there is such a requirement for experience in such a unique position. “You feel like it’s a cop out when you’re a young kid, but you get older you realise it isn’t,” he says. “It’s because the manager knows you’re going to come for a cross and drop it, or the crowd are going to grumble because you’ve taken a bad touch and got closed down. He’s thinking, ‘we’ve got 80 minutes to go here – are you going to collapse and let another bad goal in, or are you going to wipe the slate clean because you’ve been there and done it before?’
“You can be unbelievable for 89 minutes, make a silly mistake, cost the game, and no-one cares about your development. The manager doesn’t care about your development. It’s first team football, and you’ve just lost the game.”
Elliot celebrates Accrington's promotion to the Football League after a 1-0 win at Woking in April 2006
A 19-year-old Elliot’s debut for Notts County, his first start in league football, was a 4-0 midweek defeat to Boston United in March 2005. He had his nose and both cheekbones fractured by a centre forward’s swiping boot inside the first five minutes, leaving him fearing his nose would end up “like Steve Ogrizovic’s.”
There are other physical demands that come with loans – the frequency of the games, the travel and late nights you wouldn’t typically have to face in academies – but Darlow reckons the burden of responsibility is a greater spur. His first was to Newport County, then near the foot of the National League and managed by the late Justin Edinburgh. “I used to smash the gym, so I was quite a big lump at the time,” he laughs. “I quite liked the physical battle. I always backed myself to come and take crosses and if I got clattered, I’d try and smash them at the same time. It was never really a fear of mine. It was more the fear of letting people down, and not wanting those lads to suffer just because I’d done something wrong. I wanted to show I cared.”
Darlow, then 21, helped the Exiles beat the drop, setting him up for a subsequent spell with Walsall where he proved to be too good for League One. Elliot’s next loan took him to Accrington, where he won promotion to the Football League under the evergreen John Coleman, who wanted his youthful keeper to “come for everything” that was launched into the box. “The first game I played, I just did that, it came off and I saved a penalty,” he says. “It was brilliant time for me. Going to the Conference and starting really well, it sort of reset me.”
The ultimate aim of most loan spells is to nudge a young goalkeeper further along in his development; to get slightly closer to his parent club’s number one. Woodman has played every Championship game for Swansea so far this term and after Hartlepool United, Crawley Town, Killie and Aberdeen, this the latest test of his burgeoning potential. But he feels young goalkeepers can do themselves harm away from their parent clubs if self-interest starts to show.
“When you go, you have to buy into what the club want instead of being selfish and personal and thinking ‘it’s just about me, and my development’,” he argues. “I think that’s the wrong way of going about things. I think that’s where people go on loan and end up not playing, because they just think about themselves.”
Woodman, second from left, focusing moments before his United debut against Luton Town in January 2018
“When I was a kid, I got accused of being mentally weak by a couple of coaches,” says Elliot, who first tried goalkeeping at 15. He wrote to 20 clubs in the south east, and Charlton – where he had held a season ticket since the age of five – responded. Within a few days he was training with Scott Parker, Chris Powell and Luke Young, realising the demands of his position are not purely physical. “I was quite emotional, and probably in the games I’d play my emotions would go up and down. But looking back, it’s because I was 17 years old, I’d been playing in goal for two years and was playing for my boyhood club. How was I not going to be emotional?”
He always felt like he was playing catch-up, as though his unusual route into the game might hinder him in the end, but as each wonderkid slipped away and he remained, his confidence grew. The retention of that belief seems to be even more critical in goalkeepers. “A lot of goalkeeping is psychology-based – keeping people’s confidence, dealing with failure, decision making,” says Smith, who reckons as much of 60 per cent of a keeper’s work is in the mind. “Some people are very good at hiding things. Sometimes, you won’t actually realise until it’s over, and they’ll say, ‘I was really nervous there’. ‘Well, you didn’t look like it to me’. But inside, they might be.
“You’re looking for tell-tale signs. The classic will be when a keeper starts the game and they’re vocal, talking and moving, but then if they make a mistake sometimes they go back into themselves – they stop talking, stop moving, and you think, ‘we’ve got a bit of an issue here’.
“I see it in young kids, they have this natural arrogance, a natural self-confidence,” adds Elliot. “I don’t mean it in a bad way. As you get older, you realise that actually sometimes that’s a mirage to make people believe they’re confident. That’s a big thing with goalkeeping. Because people walk, talk and act confident, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are confident.”
Elliot replaces Magpies hero Shay Given during the Republic of Ireland's win over the USA in November 2014
That inner conviction can be a delicate trait at a young age. Dúbravka played ice hockey, badminton and volleyball in his youth before an axe injury (“I can’t tell the story again, my mum is going to kill me,”) pushed him towards goalkeeping, the profession of his father and grandfather. As a teenager who hadn’t holidayed for five years as he pursued a career, he remembers the first time he realised he could hear every word the supporters behind him were saying. “They would mostly be talking **** to you,” he says. “You had to be strong.”
“Especially in away games, when people are piling pressure on, you have to be so strong mentally to think, ‘I’m not going to let you score’,” offers Darlow, who has come to relish that sense of confrontation after almost 200 senior games. That boyish love of throwing himself around in defence of his goal never left him. “You want to ruin everyone else’s day. That’s the way I think about it. I always want to ruin the party, even more than the winning part. The fact that you’ve got thousands of fans egging the team on to get past you and you’re not letting them, that’s more of a statement for me than the win at the end of it.” And the buzz at the end of it? “Oh yeah. It’s ridiculous. When you get through it, and the final whistle goes…”
That feeling of single-minded defiance does not come naturally to all who take up the gloves. Football is a sport which seems to expect young men to be public symbols of strength, unburdened by mental fragility or human worries and that is why, Elliot feels, it vital that players are viewed as ordinary people. He still deeply appreciates Alan Pardew’s understanding when his son had some issues after his birth; the former Newcastle manager told him to go home and forget about training for a few weeks, before arranging transport to help him make games in that period.
It was recognition that the twin stresses of life and football intertwine and, with life’s strains of far greater importance, that there is a human need to look after yourself; to cope with it all. “We live in a society in football especially, where you can’t have any weaknesses,” adds Elliot. “You get battered by everyone. You get battered by the press, by fans on Twitter, other teams. The last thing you can do is then be harsh on yourself.”
For the third choice, Saturday matchdays begin like any other day. Elliot trains in the morning before travelling to St. James’ Park. “You’re the constant who’s always there. You feel like you’re that cliché, number three – ‘oh, Rob’s number three’. And you feel like it’s not going to change. But you just have to rely on your experience previously, and hang in there.” He is settled by kick-off, but as the teams walk out to warm up, he realises how much he misses that feeling of being out there, of having something to prepare for. “The things that now you don’t get to do, the things that have made you you, and have got you to where you are,” he continues, “you want to go and do them again.”
The team is named in a meeting shortly after 1:15pm, and Smith jogs out to begin the warm-up with both goalkeepers an hour before kick-off. Ten years ago, Dúbravka would fly around, facing shot after shot and reach kick-off tired but now, after some short passes, some kicking, handling and distribution work, he is almost done as Smith begins to fire some shots his way. Occasionally, the ball squirms into the net, and Smith has to choose his words a little more carefully on a matchday. “You can’t say unlucky because ‘unlucky’ is not a thing, and you can’t say ‘poor technique’. You have to acknowledge that’s what’s happened. I normally say, ‘hey, better to do it now than in 45 minutes time’.”
Smith with Dúbravka and Darlow just before they begin their warm-up and, inset, with Shay Given and Steve Harper
United’s number one heads back down the tunnel. “You need to feel a little bit nervous to make you feel ready,” says Dúbravka. “If you feel like, ‘OK, it’s a game today, as normal’, that’s not good.” He has a quick shower and gets changed as some final thoughts – about the opposition, usually, or the idiosyncrasies in an opposition forward’s game – run through his mind. His right boot is always put on first but there are no real superstitions; no rush, no stress.
Darlow, meanwhile, remains on the pitch, going through similar drills to those Dúbravka has just completed, and he sees it as a challenge. He wants to save everything that’s thrown at him in that warm-up, and “go into the changing room absolutely knackered”. After the game, he’ll be annoyed he hasn’t featured, but for now he just has to make sure he’s ready.
Smith wishes Dúbravka good luck, listens to the team talk and takes his seat in the dugout. Once the game kicks off, he’s helpless. “That’s a great word for it,” he says. “I sit there, I don’t watch where the play is, and I stare at the goalie. There’s one classic picture from when Sir Bobby was here, with John (Carver) and him looking to left and I was looking right. People said, ‘what are you looking at?’ I was just looking at Shay, to make sure he was OK. I do that quite a lot.”
He has walked around the side of the pitch to speak to his keeper a few times, under the guise of dispensing bottled water or a towel, but won’t enter the technical area. Once, with then-coach Mick Wadsworth in the stands with a radio, Smith took the receiver in the dugout. “He radioed down to say we were getting outrun and couldn’t get hold of the ball. He said, ‘tell Sir Bobby we can’t get hold of the ball’. I thought, ‘really?’ Because I had to lean over John and say it to Sir Bobby.
“Eventually, I had the courage to say, ‘boss, Mick says we can’t get hold of the ball’. He just looked at me and said, ‘Simon, I know we can’t get hold of the ball’. What I wanted to say was, ‘yeah, but it’s Mick who’s saying it!’ But at the moment, you just think, ‘no, no, I’ll just take that’,” he laughs. “I don’t do the radio anymore.”
Smith, third from left, in the dugout at St. James' Park alongside Robson in April 2002
On the pitch, a goalkeeper’s concentration can fluctuate. Smith has worked with cricketers like Geraint Jones, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow, and sees a link between the sports. “(Bairstow) said to me that it’s all about switching on and switching off. He’s involved in every ball, but you can’t maintain focus while the ball is 30 metres up the other end before (the bowler) runs in. Goalkeeping is very similar.”
The strain of complete attentiveness – which leaves Elliot with splitting headaches after playing, and which Woodman points out cannot be measured in the same way an outfield player’s running statistics can – is heightened when play reaches Newcastle’s defensive third. “You aren’t even thinking at that point,” explains Darlow. “You’re concentrating so hard on the movement of the players and the ball. There’s no time to think about anything else. It’s all reactions when it gets to around the penalty box, and it’s instinctive as well when it comes to your own movement.”
At half time, Smith offers an encouraging word in the tunnel before the team talk is delivered. He hopes that in an hour’s time he will be able to congratulate his keeper.
England cricketer Jonny Bairstow, left, with Elliot before the test against Sri Lanka at Durham in May 2016
“Football is about mistakes, you know,” says Dúbravka. An essential part of any discussion around goalkeeping, it is the avoidance of them which often determines the trajectory of a keeper’s career. “If you make a mistake, it’s important how you react. If you are not mentally strong it breaks you down, and it’s very hard to put yourself on the same level as before.”
Dealing with errors in the most isolated position of them all can be troubling process. “I beat myself up for a good two days,” says Darlow. The moment will roll through his head at night, sometimes ballooning to catastrophic proportions as he lies in bed. “It happens to every single goalkeeper, and every single person in football will have seen it all before or worse. It’s putting it into perspective more than anything. People have always done it in bigger games. It’s just trying to make yourself feel better – that’s the process that you go through. You think, ‘he’s done that, he’s done this before, the manager’s seen this before’.”
Dúbravka talks about a game for Zilina, his hometown club. He was 16, already in the reserves and trusted by his teammates, with his father and sister watching from the stands. Zilina scored as he was stood on the edge of his penalty box but by the time he had refocused, their opponents had taken a quick kick-off and fired a leveller straight back over his head. His coach, Miroslav Seman, came over to the distraught youngster. “He hugged me, and he said it was good that it happened now, because now you know you were standing too high. That’s experience. It can happen again, but it’s very important how you react. ‘Don’t worry, train hard, think about it, and learn from this mistake’.
“That meant a lot to me. Imagine if the coach had come to me and start to yell at me, ‘what the **** are you doing?’ It doesn’t work.”
Dúbravka in his Zilina days, celebrating a Champions League victory over Sparta Prague in August 2010
It isn’t always easy to find the right words. Smith doesn’t always mention the mistakes in the aftermath, but his sessions the next week may reflect the incident in question. “Goalkeepers tend to know when they’ve made a mistake, and that makes the job so much easier,” says Smith, who once undertook a government-backed study into the biomechanics of goalkeeping in Toronto. “It’s when you think they’ve made a mistake, and they don’t – that’s when it becomes a bit blurred.”
The hope is that, eventually, they will become able to effectively self-diagnose, as Shay Given and Steve Harper – now goalkeeping coaches, at Derby County and the Northern Ireland national team respectively – would in those heady days under Robson. “But I do take it personally when they make a mistake,” admits Smith. “I feel guilty. I feel guilty to the manager, because it’s my department. It’s maybe let the team down. People say that’s silly, because you’re helpless – you can’t run behind them and dive and kick it away, or make a save – but I do. That’s just the way I am. I do take it quite hard if they fail. But if they’re successful, I’m absolutely delighted.”
Dúbravka is congratulated by Smith after the 3-2 win over Everton in March 2019
“That’s quite weird, isn’t it?”
Smith points over to the large wall in the restaurant at United’s training ground and traces the frame of a goal with his left hand. Goalkeeping sounds quite straightforward, he says, when you think that you’re teaching people to prevent an object entering an 8ftx24ft space. “But, by the way, while you’re doing it, there’s 52,000 people going to be watching you. And then it builds up – if you do catch it, now you’ve got to make sure you keep possession for your team. Then it builds up again – but the principles stay the same.”
For Smith, who monitors every goalkeeper’s progress from under-nines upwards using the online analysis tool Hudl, it is a labour of love. He is a coach, a support network, a mentor, and the multifaceted complexion of the position still grips him. “I have an enthusiasm and passion for it that is verging on strange,” he laughs. “There you go. I just have. I don’t know why. Whether it’s the position itself, the responsibility of the position, whether being an individual in a team appeal to my personality of whatever, I’m not sure.”
His obsession has not diluted in four decades. Occasionally, on a free afternoon or a day off, he will pull on the gloves and head outside with Chris Jenkins, one of the club’s chefs. “Sometimes, when Chris the chef moves his feet and catches the ball, I get as much satisfaction out of that as if Martin makes a great save against Manchester United,” smiles Smith. “It’s weird, but it’s another part of me. I know I take it to heart too much when it doesn’t turn out as you’d like for the individual, but that’s part of it too.
“It’s a specialism within the team, and for me – and I’m going to say this, of course – it’s a special position. You need special people to play in it.”