PETER Shilton had a point. By choosing to play for Celtic, Fraser Forster has chosen a different kind of weekly examination to that which he would face if playing for a club in the Barclays Premier League, with one or two possible exceptions.
Statistically, he has a quieter life, as the neighbouring panel shows.
Forster’s sequence of 12 consecutive clean sheets in the Scottish Premiership, which equals the record set by Bobby Clark of Aberdeen in 1970/71, has required him to deal with only 25 goalbound shots, just over two per game. You may have deduced by now that this means he has only been tested an average of once in every half of league football he has played since Aberdeen’s Niall McGinn put one past him on 23 November.
That statement would not stand up to surgical scrutiny. For example, the only save that Forster had to make on Sunday against St Johnstone came as the result of a cross deflected by his own player, Efe Ambrose, which did not count among St Johnstone’s shots on goal tally (which numbered zero). But the numbers do give a broadly accurate idea of the type of examination Forster has been receiving, and if anything, Sunday’s non-contest epitomised the lot of a Celtic goalkeeper when the team is strong, and dominating and subjugating weaker rivals every weekend.
Forster has been protected by an effective force-field, of course, a defensive structure that has limited the opposition to 47 corner kicks in these 12 fixtures, and a paltry 69 attempts on goal in all. At busy periods when La Liga has coincided with the Champions League, Barcelona might have registered that many shots in a week.
The Scotsman asked Peter Latchford yesterday about his own experience as Celtic No 1, and whether it was generally easier for a goalkeeper to prove his prowess in matches when he is not required to wonder when the action is next going to come his way. “No, it’s harder to wait,” said Latchford. “The hardest part of playing in goals for Celtic is that sometimes you’re not involved, because you have to concentrate the whole time and it’s harder to concentrate when the action is in the other half of the field. You have to find ways of keeping yourself alert.
“You can disappear through a whole game, and you might only be called on for a couple of seconds’ work. You might be called on to make one save all day, and it’s difficult. But it doesn’t matter what league you are playing in, you are going to be busy at different times and a keeper has always got to be there and he’s got to be ready.
“Keepers are more involved in the game than they used to be. Things have changed and they are more like fifth defenders now. But principally it’s still the same. The way the game is played today, teams like to build from the back, keeping possession of the ball, and the keeper has become more involved in that. He gets to touch the ball as much with his feet as with his hands. He’s got to be capable of coming into these triangles of play.
“But it doesn’t matter what level he is involved at, if he isn’t involved it becomes difficult for him. Things are going in the other half of the field, they are keeping the ball up there and you’re stuck on the edge of the 18-yard box. You’ll see defenders go back to the halfway line and shouting to the keeper to keep him interested. Some used to go back behind the posts for a cigarette. You can’t do that in the modern game, obviously. You’ve got to keep in touch with everything.”
Shilton’s point about Forster, which he outlined in plain terms last week, was that he would be better served if he wanted to play for England in the World Cup this summer by playing for a team that is more often under the cosh.
Despite the aggregate statistics suggesting otherwise, Celtic have not had an easy ride in all 12 of the fixtures in which their goal has not been breached. On 29 December, Inverness produced more shots on goal and won more corners than Celtic did in a match that was won 1-0 by the champions. Hibs had five on target in a match they lost 4-0, and Motherwell five in a 3-0 reverse.
One way in which Shilton, or anyone who buys into his argument, might counter this point would be to suggest that those attempts on goal may have all been accurate but some probably lacked the venom of delivery that might more often be found in Europe’s major leagues. And the inference would be that Forster has been performing well in an environment where his reflexes, strength and athleticism are not being tested as acutely as they would be if it were top international players asking the questions of him. Even if those questions were only being asked twice per match.
Latchford is adamant, however, that the 25-year-old from Northumberland should not be subject to a jaundiced view when Roy Hodgson comes to select his squad for the summer finals in Brazil. This seems unlikely to occur, as Forster himself argued the other day when he pointed out that he has already been capped by England by dint of his deeds for Celtic in the Scottish top flight and the Champions League. But it is hard to dispute the reality that other keepers will have more opportunity to make a persuasive case for inclusion in the coming months than Forster will in a league that has already been won.
Latchford, though, is no apologist for his latest successor as Celtic custodian. Best remembered for repelling Real Madrid in the home leg of the 1980 European Cup quarter-final, and domestic advances in the double-winning season of 1976-77, Celtic’s youth goalkeeping coach never got further in international football than the England Under-23 side. But he does not blame Scottish football, which was far stronger in relative terms than it is today, for that. If anything he sees “waiting” as an important part of a goalkeeper’s education, arguing that the challenge of playing in the quiet half of the pitch is no less arduous in the final analysis, only different. “Fraser is such a size that he gets himself to stuff that other keepers wouldn’t. He is never going to be the complete goalkeeper because nobody is. He is still working at his game, on every aspect of it, because he has got to. The more he plays, the more he will learn and if he gets international games, that will improve his game too,” he said.
“I hope he does go to the World Cup, because it will be fantastic experience for him and he can bring it back into the domestic game here. Playing in Scotland does not preclude him from going to the World Cup. He has played for Celtic in the Champions League, and that is a high level.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable that he will leave Celtic, but if he does move on, he is going to encounter the same thing – long periods when he is not involved and has to stay focused. Unless he goes and signs for Brechin or something, but I don’t think he will do that. He’s a good keeper and wherever he goes, he will benefit from the experience he has gained here.”