For my birthday my brother gave me Jonathan Wilson’s (author of Inverting the Triangle) newish book on goalkeepers, The Outsider. It’s good, a history churning with riffs on how fundamentally weird the position is, and how odd the characters inhabiting it often are. He begins it by recounting his personal best moment sporting moment, which he had while in goal for a hockey game.
“I remember thinking, as the ball rose to my right, that I ought at least to dive for it even if he were outside the D. Everything seemed to be happening very slowly. I even remember wondering what the rule was if he had shot from outside the D and the ball glanced in off my stick. I could also see the ball, its trajectory taking it a little above the stick. Apparently having all the time in the world, I moved my wrist, angling the stick to intercept the ball. The intersection of post and bar came abruptly into view and, about six inches in front of the top corner of the net, the ball slapped into the meat of the stick…
I could see the ball spinning loose and, for a split second, nobody seemed to be moving towards it. In that moment there was a glorious stillness, a silence.”
It’s not a sensation that frequents his sporting life (he admits to this being the first of a total of two such moments). He goes on:
“As the Ajax coach David Endt put it, ‘The second of the greats last longer than those of normal people.’ There is evidence to suggest the memory of control is false, that it is an invention of the brain to explain a reflex reaction that begins in the muscles themselves. Wherever it originates, that sensation of control over fractional changes happening extraordinarily quickly seems to lie at the heart of sporting excellence.”
David Bergkamp (alias God) has written a memoir called Stillness and Speed. Amy Lawrence interviewed him in the Guardian. She writes:
“Control is so much his obsession that he is completely frank when he says he prefers the first touch that started any of his most memorable goals than the strike that finished them. Others might say that, but it is doubtful they really mean it. Bergkamp does. The glory, for him, is all about control and touch.
Can that be taught? ‘The basics for me is the first touch,’ he says, as if a perfect first touch is some kind of alchemy. ‘First touch in football is so important. If you talk about Mesut Özil people say he is not marked properly, he always has a lot of space but he has got that space because he can create space by his vision and his first touch. With that you create your own time.'”
The Arsenal-Norwich game this past weekend is going to be remembered for its great goals. It wasn’t a particularly great game, and Arsenal were not as in control as the 4-1 scoreline might suggest, but the goals were the luminous type that do seem to occur in an elastic time. The seconds bend, the players understand exactly the geometry of their positions in a way that seems, as you watch, impossible. Then the replays begin and us spectators get a secondhand dose of slowed time- and the replays will continue, and continue.