Goalkeepers are often one of the most under-appreciated, and most heavily criticised players on a football pitch. When they play well, they rarely get the recognition they deserve. Make a mistake, however, and they receive pelters from fans and pundits alike. So it is no wonder they are sometimes referred to as ‘odd’ or ‘a different breed’ by their teammates, as it requires a certain type of temperament and character to take on the responsibility that comes with putting on the gloves.
What is undeniable is that throughout the few decades, there have been a number of truly special keepers, who do much more than keeping the ball out of the goal. Below, a number of our writers have included who they believe to be the greatest of all time.
David Nesbit – Pat Jennings
Pat Jennings was a literal and figurative giant of the game. In a career lasting well over 20 years, he made more than 1,000 appearances for Watford, Tottenham Hotspur, and Arsenal and in doing so achieved the near-unique feat of becoming a beloved icon of both North London clubs.
A goalkeeper who both dominated his area and was extremely agile, Jennings spent thirteen years with Tottenham, in which the FA Cup, League Cup (twice) and UEFA Cup were all secured. Appearing to be part of the White Hart Lane furniture, Jennings was remarkably allowed to leave the club in the summer of 1977, and so distraught was he at being cast aside that he ignored the overtures of Manchester United and signed for North London rivals Arsenal instead.
Eight more years at the top followed with further FA Cup success coming his way. In 1982, some eighteen years after making his international debut, Jennings finally appeared in a World Cup Finals at the age of 37, a feat he was to repeat four years later.
Jennings’ strength lay in his sheer size and determination to get in the way of the ball come what may, and although his style was at times somewhat unconventional, he was an imposing figure between the sticks. He was famed for his propensity to come for crosses as far out as the penalty spot and scooping the ball up one-handed. Known as one of the nicest men in football, Jennings finally retired in 1986.
Roddy Cairns – Gianlugi Buffon
What are the criteria for the greatest goalkeeper ever? Trophies? Consistency? Memorable moments? Longevity? By any metric, all roads lead to one man and one man alone: Gianluigi Buffon.
Buffon’s story begins way back in the late 90s when Serie A was basking in its Football Italia glow and capturing the imagination of Anglophone boys and girls. Gigi was the dashing young goalkeeper for neutrals’ favourites Parma, winning the Coppa Italia, Supercoppa and UEFA Cup – and giving the domestic big boys some bloody noses in the league.
His transfer to Juventus in 2001 for €51.65m set a world record for a goalkeeper (a record which remarkably stood until 2017, with Buffon still remaining in second place despite the incredible inflation in transfers in that period). Once there, he repaid that fee and then some, his outrageously strong performances and grinding consistency leading the Old Lady to 10 Seria A titles (so far), as well as three Champions League finals – although Buffon famously has yet to lift Old Big Ears.
Perhaps Buffon’s crowning moment, though, came in the colours of the Azzuri, the keeper playing a key role in Italy’s glorious World Cup win of 2006. It was a success built on defensive solidity more than attacking flair (as evidenced by Cannavaro’s domination of the personal awards), and Buffon was key to that effort. The final was just one of 176 caps for Italy, making him the country’s record cap holder.
Now into his fourth decade at the top of world football after over 1,000 professional appearances, for me, Buffon is and always will be the greatest.
An 11″ x 14″ print of the Italian is available to purchase in The Store.
Liam Togher – Dino Zoff
You don’t get to captain your country to World Cup glory at the age of 40 without being a consummate professional, yet that is a perfect description of the great Dino Zoff.
While Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick is the standout feat from Italy’s epic 3-2 win over Brazil en route to glory at Spain 1982, Zoff’s last-gasp save was no less crucial on the road to glory, as only a win would have taken the Azzurri into the semi-finals.
The goalkeeper was the epitome of calm as the last line of defence and, remarkably, that World Cup triumph came 14 years after his first major success with Italy as they won the 1968 European Championship on home soil – a testament to his longevity.
Zoff set numerous remarkable records during his career, including the fewest goals conceded in a Serie A season, the longest streak without conceding in the division and most Serie A appearances, which have since been overtaken. He continues to lay claim to the longest streak without conceding an international goal (1,142 minutes) and the longest run of consecutive Serie A games (332 over 11 years).
A Juventus stalwart for 11 seasons, he missed out on their tragedy-tainted 1985 European Cup triumph by two years, but his status as a Bianconeri legend is beyond dispute. Zoff’s consistent excellence throughout his 22-year career was rewarded with the deserved pinnacle of making history with Italy in Madrid as an evergreen 40-year-old in 1982.
Pete Spencer – Ray Clemence
Just as you were either The Beatles or The Stones, or maybe Blur or Oasis, or now you might be Messi or Ronaldo, back in the ’70s & ’80s you were either Clemence or Shilton. England was blessed with having two of the finest keepers the world has ever seen.
A tall man, Clemence made the goal look small. His agility and ability to hold the ball from a shot, rather than parry it away, made him very dependable. Apart from his consistency, one of his finest talents was the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, before being called upon to make a save.
One aspect which caught Bill Shankly’s eye was that he was left-footed, giving opposing defences a different angle with which to deal with a ball downfield. Clemence was scouted as an 18-year old by Liverpool when he was playing for Scunthorpe United in the third tier of English football.
He spent 13 years at Anfield, playing 665 times. He won five league titles, three European Cups, two UEFA Cups, an FA Cup, a League Cup and a European Super Cup. In one season he conceded just 16 goals in 42 matches, with just four let in at home.
He only won 61 caps for England as Shilton often got his own way, earning twice as many caps. He left Anfield after his third European Cup winners medal, and then spent seven years at Tottenham, eventually making over a thousand career appearances. In a poll, Total Football voted him the best goalkeeper ever, beating Shilton, Banks and everyone else.
Chris Darwen – Neville Southall
If we are being completely honest, are there many Welsh footballers who could categorically be considered the best in their position in the world at some point?
I’m talking indisputably the best. Not in the mix. The best. Ryan Giggs? Yeah, maybe. John Charles? I’d listen to that argument. Gareth Bale? You clearly don’t mean the current version.
But Neville Southall in that brief 1980s period? Tell me, someone, better. You can’t. No, you can’t.
Southall took the long road to Goodison Park, playing Welsh league, English non-League and then as a pro at Bury before Howard Kendall took him to Everton.
And what a signing it was – Southall was more-than-key to the most recent golden spell that those in Gwladys Street Stand can remember. Get on YouTube, see some of his saves. Jordan Pickford doesn’t do that, that’s for sure.
Southall won the prestigious FWA Footballer of the Year Award in 1985 when many thought he was at the peak of his powers. Interestingly, in his autobiography, Big Nev suggested his best form came later in his career.
92 caps for Wales, two First Division titles, two FA Cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup says a lot. So does Everton’s trophy haul since he left.
An 11″ x 14″ print of the Welshman is available to purchase in The Store.
Rodney McCain – Peter Schmeichel
Greatest ‘keeper of all time? Easy. I watched him play numerous times because he played for my club, Manchester United. His name is Peter Schmeichel.
It’s hard to know how long Sir Alex Ferguson had been scouting the Great Dane prior to the summer of 1991. However, there can be little doubt that Schmeichel’s heroics in helping outsiders Denmark to win the European Championship in Sweden the following summer simply confirmed his conviction that this was ‘his man’ for United for the long term.
The £500,000 he had given to Brondby for Schmeichel’s signature must surely represent one of the greatest “steals” of all time. Sir Alex himself opined that it was “the bargain of the century”. In the eight seasons that followed, Schmeichel became a towering, almost unbeatable “final hurdle” for teams facing a United side that dominated English football during the 1990s in a manner not previously witnessed.
With Peter as a permanent mainstay at the back, the Red Devils simply hoovered up silverware: five F.A. Premier League titles, three F.A. Cups, a League Cup, and most famously the UEFA Champions League in his final appearance for United in Barcelona on 26 May 1999. His cartwheeling celebration as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s last-gasp goal completed an injury-time 2-1 come-back victory over Bayern Munich is almost as famous as the winning goal itself.
By then Schmeichel had become famous for his “starfish” impersonations, spreading his lengthy limbs to their full extent in one-on-one situations against opposition strikers, greatly reducing the “target” size for them, duels which the giant Dane usually prevailed in. He took it as a personal offence when opponents scored against him, often screaming abuse at the United defenders in front of him who had failed to make vital interceptions; his rows with the hapless Steve Bruce, in particular, were legendary!
A United legend, his standing was somewhat diminished with the fans in later years when he returned to Manchester to play a season with City, but his ability as a goalkeeper was never in question: the greatest of them all, a literal giant of a man.
An 11″ x 14″ print of the Dane is available to purchase in The Store.
Eliott Brennan – Lev Yashin
When Eladio Rojas scored the winning goal against the Soviet Union at his home World Cup in 1962, he was left stunned. It was the quarter-final, and the Chileans expectedly went into jubilation. Instead of celebrating with the fans or his teammates, he first ran towards the Union’s goalkeeper, Lev Yashin and embraced his counterpart in disbelief. For the Chilean, scoring past Yashin “was like winning a trophy”.
You will find stories like this when you reminisce on Lev Yashin’s uniqueness. His broad shoulders, tall stature, bravery, intelligence and rapid reflexes all moulded together to become the perfect blend for a goalkeeper. Though this was rarely seen. Yashin’s desire to stay in the Soviet Union meant his club career between 1950 and 1970 was fulfilled at FC Dynamo Moscow.
At Dynamo, he won five league titles (1954, 1955, 1957, 1959, 1963) and three domestic cups (1953, 1967, 1970). Internationally, he achieved an Olympic gold medal (1956) and won the first European Championships (1960).
In 1963, England supporters marvelled at his spider-like traits during a friendly at Wembley Stadium. These attributes gifted him the nickname, Black Spider. Wider international recognition followed the same year with the Ballon d’Or. The Soviet is still the only goalkeeper to win the award.
These elements ensure Yashin is still the greatest goalkeeper to play the sport. His 151 penalty saves, and 270 clean sheets place him on a platform like no other. The Black Spider may not have the modern media privilege to support his claim, but he does have one of the greatest attackers to fight in his corner.
“He made me as a footballer,” Eusébio said. “When you’re able to score against the greatest goalkeeper in the history of world football, you remember it for your whole life. You realise that you can score against anyone.”
An 11″ x 14″ print of the Soviet is available to purchase in The Store.
Chris Darwen – Gordon Banks
‘You’re getting old, Banksy – you used to hold them!’
Folklore tells us these were the words the quick-witted Bobby Moore uttered after Gordon Banks made that save in 1970.
Whether that is verbatim or not doesn’t matter, as the save went on to be considered the finest ever seen. Now isn’t the time or the place to consider whether this moment of goalkeeping athleticism was the finest display of the art of all-time – I mean, England still lost that match and to some that would diminish the ‘greatness’ of Banks’ stop, getting down to his right to somehow get the ball up and over the Mexican bar.
But neither should that moment be solely what is remembered about the late, great Gordon Banks. He is still the only England goalkeeper to win a World Cup, four years before the Pele stop. Many forget that having Banks in goal was as important to Alf Ramsey as having Nobby Stiles in midfield, Bobby Charlton charging forward and breaking the net or Moore calmly managing the defence.
He was also part of a great Leicester City side, getting to two FA Cup finals in ’61 and ’63 before finally breaking his Wembley curse and winning the League Cup in ’64. He then went on to win that trophy again with Stoke City in ’72. It was in the same year that a road accident cost Banks the sight in one eye meaning his career took a different path, moving to the never-forgotten NASL for Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Even with one working eye, he won the NASL Goalkeeper of the Year Award in 1977, though you’d suspect the FWA Footballer of Year Award picked up in ’72 would have meant more.
England’s finest goalkeeper ever? He’s the one with the medals to prove it.
An 11″ x 14″ print of the Englishman is available to purchase in The Store.
Dave Proudlove – Andoni Zubizarreta
Although the first World Cup that I remember was the Spain 82 tournament, the first that I genuinely got into was the one that followed, Mexico 86. I had my first England shirt and was devastated when their campaign was ended by the combination of Maradona’s dark arts and his sheer brilliance.
It was during the Mexico 86 tournament when I filled my first Panini football sticker collection, and one of the last stickers I sought on my way to its completion was that of Spain’s number one, Andoni Zubizarreta. However, he was much, much more than an elusive need for my football sticker collection.
Zubizarreta was arguably the best goalkeeper around at the time. He built his reputation at Athletic Bilbao helping them to back-to-back titles, before signing for Barcelona in 1986 for a then-record fee for a goalkeeper. He quickly established himself as the first choice at the Camp Nou, and only missed four games as he helped the Catalan giants to four consecutive titles. He also helped them to their first-ever European Cup in 1992. He went on to end his career with Valencia, retiring in 1998 aged 37, after making over 950 professional appearances. For a number of years, he held the record for most appearances and clean sheets in La Liga.
He wasn’t just a great club keeper. Although he was Spanish number one during an era of repeated failures for the national team, Zubizarreta remained a constant and for a number of years, he was the all-time most capped player.
Was Zubizarreta the greatest? Well, you don’t spend 8 years as Barcelona’s first choice and win 126 Spanish caps unless you’re special.
Andrew Haines – Manuel Neuer
To choose the greatest goalkeeper of all-time is no easy task, that being because it is such a solitary position – there can be only one number one.
There is no player to accompany them to unlock their potential, there is no yin to their yang, the responsibility of being the final line of defence falls on just this one person.
However, amongst this list of illustrious names – many of which have long since retired – there must surely be a spot for the quintessential ‘sweeper-keeper’ Manuel Neuer.
It almost feels sacrilegious to choose a player who is still turning out at the highest level every week when selecting the greatest player of all-time in a single position but, in my opinion, Neuer has already done enough to be deserving of the title.
The 34-year-old German has seen and done it all in his homeland, having been born in Gelsenkirchen and forged by Schalke 04, his almost 10-year stay with Bayern Munich has been trophy laden.
He has eight Bundesliga titles, six DFB-Pokals and five DFL-Supercups to his name currently and the goalkeeper has not just made his mark at the domestic level, with two Champions Leagues in the bag, too.
On the international stage, Neuer played a huge role in Germany’s World Cup win in Brazil, picking up the Golden Glove award at the tournament’s end.
Yet, it is not just these endless accolades which make the stopper a great, it is the effortless ease at which he performs the ‘sweeper-keeper’ role which he has become acclaimed for – being integral for his side as the ’11th outfielder’.
His incredible ability has led to astounding stats, such as during the 2014 World Cup, the goalkeeper made more passes throughout the tournament (244) than one of their final opponent’s star names, Lionel Messi (242).
Whenever Neuer hangs up his gloves and calls time on his playing career, there is no doubt that he will be acclaimed as one of the greatest goalkeepers ever, if not the best of all-time. I am just fast-forwarding that praise to when he can be appreciated while he is still on the pitch.