“The grass is my office…”

What makes a good goalkeeper great, is it natural ability or is it something more? I interviewed experienced goalkeeping coach David Coles to find out.

David James, Rob Green, Antti Niemi, Asmir Begovic, Sander Westerveld; they’ve all been coached by David Coles. David has been coaching goalkeepers at all levels of the game for close to 20 years now and in the last Football League season, whilst at Bristol City, Frankie Fielding the City goalkeeper was chosen by his peers to be in the Division 1 team of the season.

David Coles started off as a goalkeeper at Aldershot back in 1983, and this is where he first found his love of coaching:

“I had to coach myself, as we had no goalkeeping coach, so with the help of ex-England international Ian Gillard I basically coached myself. So throughout my career, I’ve always been coaching at some level.”

How about your own playing career how did that progress?

“Well, I was having a successful time at Aldershot, when Newcastle got in contact with Len Walker (then Aldershot manager), and said they wanted a 2nd goalkeeper to cover their number 1. I was all set to go there, but I broke my leg a few weeks before the move. I was never the same goalkeeper after that, I played for about eight more seasons, but I knew I wasn’t the same.”

You started your coaching career at Southampton in 1997…

“Mervyn Day said to me, ‘you’re better at coaching than playing these days, why don’t you give that a go’, and luckily I was given an opportunity to look after their Academy goalkeepers U-7s U-8s U-9s, and this slowly progressed to having full control through the age groups from the very top to the bottom. So I could keep an eye on what youngsters were coming through, and advise the manager accordingly. However, in the modern day it is no longer like that.”

How so?

“Under the Elite Performance Player Plan (EPPP initiated by the Premier League) you’ve now got coaches for the following age groups… U-8 to U-12, U-12 to U-14, U-15 to U-18. Is that better than the old system? I’m not so sure, as you’ve now got four coaches with an input, and they’ve all got their own ideas of what makes a good goalkeeper.”

Such is human nature that there could be times when these coaches don’t get on?

“Oh yes, you’re always going to get my goalkeeper’s better than yours, why are you picking him etc. Goalkeeping coaching has changed immensely in that regard.”

So getting back to your coaching, how do you improve a goalkeeper? Without being too funny about it, every goalkeeper should be able to save a shot.

“Well the grass is my office, I’m a workaholic. Some may say a lunatic, with all the drills I do, but preparation is key.”


To use a tired old cliché, aren’t all goalkeepers lunatics?

“Haha, well I think there is some truth in that, but you look at some of the modern goalkeepers I’ve coached – David James, Asmir Begovic, Rob Green – these are very intelligent, astute men.”

Back to the coaching…

“Well Bristol City players knew something was up, when I had them in for afternoon sessions this season.”

It paid off though?

“Yes, all the hard work is done on the training pitch. I like to do what I call ‘painting pictures’ during the week, so when a certain moment arrives in the match, the goalkeeper I’m coaching knows exactly what is going to happen. For example, on the Monday we will watch a DVD of the opposition, and note how the strikers position their bodies for shots, and how they strike the ball.”

Naively I always thought that this was just done for penalties?

“No, it’s everything. So, through the week we will work on all this for the game on Saturday, we will replicate these scenarios in training, so my goalkeeper is ready on the Saturday. One game in the season, Frankie Fielding (Bristol City keeper) had one shot to save in a match, so that requires intense mental concentration anyway…the opportunity came for the opposition, and Frankie knew what he had to do and he saved the shot. We won the game 1-0, and it was all from the work we had done during the week. When that happens it’s hugely satisfying.”

I’m sure there are a number of goalkeeping coaches who do this though, so what makes you different?

“I like to think outside of the box, and I’m a great believer in doing other sports during training.”

Such as?

“Basically, sports which are great for hand/eye co-ordination…tennis, handball, even boxing as that allows you to position your hands in certain places, and be able to move your hands quickly. Details like these can make the difference.”

Going back to what makes a good goalkeeper, as we’ve said they can all save shots, but what separates the great goalkeepers from the good?

“It’s all about mindset. People say there is a fine line between madness and genius, and I think that’s true for goalkeepers. Goalkeepers are known extroverts, and they have to be. However, David James was different, he was introverted as well. He was a genius.”

You coached him at Portsmouth (David Coles was at Pompey 2005-2010)…

“Yes, Harry Redknapp brought him in the summer of 2005, and he was superb for the club. David was incredibly thick skinned, and he would not dwell on any mistake he made.”

What happened if he made a mistake in the game, what happened the following week?

“Well, on the Monday, we would review the DVD and I’d point out to David where he made the error, but he knew himself. However, he didn’t beat himself up about it, he just moved on, and focussed on the next game. It’s no good to yourself if you’re constantly beating yourself up about mistakes.”

I suppose with the advent of social media, and more and more airtime needing to be filled with sports news, every goalkeeping mistake is analysed more than ever?

“Yes, with Gary Lineker and co, analysing each mistake on the Saturday night, and then you’ve got Gary Neville etc, going over it again on a Monday, it can get a weak individual down. But that’s what separates the top goalkeepers apart. They move on quickly, and focus on the next match.”


How about social media though, that must be very tough? It’s on their own personal phone; it’s human nature just to check their Twitter messages etc…

“Yes, that has to be tough. As it’s just not in the papers anymore, you’ve got people contacting you all hours of the day and probably not calling you very nice things. However, goalkeepers now are very intelligent guys, and trained professionals, they know when they’ve done something wrong. I was coaching Rob Green after the 2010 World Cup, when he made that mistake against the USA. He knew himself, so we sat down on a pre-season tour after the World Cup and we dealt with it that afternoon.”

Moving away from that, you look at the Premier League today, and only 5 clubs have English 1st choice goalkeepers. In fact, you look at the 2nd choice keepers at the big clubs, and their foreign goalkeepers. How can we get English goalkeepers playing more top level football?

“Good question, and I don’t think there is an easy answer. You’ve obviously got Joe Hart at City, and Rob at QPR who’s had a fantastic season, but you’re right – it’s hard for a young English goalkeeper to get a look in. A top Premier League manager is very rarely going to take a chance on a young goalkeeper, he is more than likely going to give a young outfield player a go instead.”

You look at all the top clubs and they’ve got young English goalkeepers on their books, but they’re out on loan…

“Maybe it’s a case of them learning their trade at the lower levels and then playing at the top level after a couple of years. Admittedly, we did this with Asmir Begovic, who is Bosnian, we loaned him out to places like Yeovil, and then brought him into the 1st team at Portsmouth. However, Asmir is exceptional, a wonderful goalkeeper. Highly professional and intelligent, he can go right to the top of the game.”

But what about these young English boys? I look at the England under-age groups, you’ve got the likes of Jack Butland, Jamal Blackman (Chelsea), Sam Johnstone (Man Utd)… they never had a look in at their parent clubs….

“With the money involved at the top end of the game, the goalkeeper coming through the ranks has to be exceptional. Are managers scared of dropping out of the Premier League?…yes, so they go for a tried and tested foreign goalkeeper rather than a young Englishman. You look at young Jak Alnwick at Newcastle; he’s been the only keeper to come through this season, and that wasn’t through choice. They had no one else to call upon.

That’s not to say that there aren’t young goalkeepers through the leagues; you look at League’s 1 and 2. You’ve got Sam Johnstone, who you’ve mentioned. Daniel Bentley and Ted Smith at Southend are two superb talents. There’s Jordan Pickford at Bradford who is on loan from Sunderland, so there are plenty of young English goalkeepers out there, and hopefully some of them will be given the opportunity in the near future.”

Do you think that foreign goalkeepers are better technically?

“I wouldn’t go that far, but they’ve been taught differently. In this country a goalkeeper was always taught it’s better if you catch the ball. How many goals have you seen where a goalkeeper has tried to catch a shot, and it’s spilled out, and the striker has had a tap-in?”

Plenty, hundreds

“Well I was coaching Antti Niemi at Southampton, and he said to me, ‘why should I try to catch a ball, when I can palm or punch it away, and deal with the second ball?’ It’s not creating any danger, it’s minimising the risk. So with the influx of foreign goalkeepers, we are also learning in this country, so it’s not always a bad thing.”

 So what goalkeepers at the top level do you rate?

“In the Premier League you look at someone like Hugo Lloris at Spurs, who I’ve had the pleasure of seeing live a number of times. He isn’t the biggest, but he is lightning quick. He has amazing hand/eye co-ordination and is technically proficient with the ball at his feet.

Then there’s Asmir (Begovic), who I’ve said is destined for the top level. He has the ability to switch off away from the football pitch, which is another key attribute. It can’t be football, football, football 24/7. I also saw Manuel Neuer at the age of 19, what a specimen he was at that age. He is a great keeper. I also saw Thibault Courtois at 16/17 when he was playing for Genk, I was scouting for Portsmouth, and we enquired about him, but Genk knew they had something special and we were priced out of the market.”

David Coles has coached some of the best keepers in the modern game and understands the mindset of what it takes to become an international goalkeeper. Just ask David James, Rob Green and Asmir Begovic.