When the teams are announced an hour before kick-off there are only two positions I look for – who is in goal and who is up front. Others analyse the details of the rest of the team trying to unpick the mysteries of formation and strategy. For me, apart from the keeper and striker, the rest is just a blancmange of players, there could be eight changes and I’d struggle to know who they are.
When the team was announced for the Burton game, seeing the name Simon Eastwood at the top of the list came with a bit of a jolt.
I like Eastwood a lot; I like his loyalty, I like that he’s self-effacing, I love that he prefers to watch Downton Abbey rather than football. A couple of years ago, he won the Oxford United World Cup of Goalkeepers on Twitter. That result was a travesty, he’s not the greatest, but he’s one of the best.
Then there was THAT mistake in THAT game. As mistakes go it doesn’t get bigger – breaking a near twenty year unbeaten run in the last minute with a howling air-shot – that’s a good one. It’s up there with Rob Duffy rolling the ball into the Exeter City’s ‘keeper’s hands in the 2007 play-off semi-final and Ryan Clarke’s clanger against York at Wembley.
Most footballers are like wild animals – they’ll never let on that they’re wounded for fear of being attacked by a predator. We’ll probably never know the real impact that moment had on Eastwood emotionally, but it must have lurked in every dark corner for some time, particularly as it resulted in him being dropped to the bench. I wonder if it was worse that it happened in the deathly silence of an empty stadium, the only place for the primal maelstrom of despair to manifest is inside your head. At least with a full stadium the experience can be shared around a bit.
For fans, that moment is likely to haunt their thoughts, not just their nervousness about Eastwood’s decision making in one-on-ones, there’ll be doubts about every aspect of his game resulting from that one moment. He himself said that it could come to define him, much more than the countless times he’s saved us.
His new three-year contract last year came as a complete surprise, Jack Stevens is young, fresh and playing well, a new breed of goalkeeper who looks like he could easily play outfield. Above all, he seemed unfazed by his new elevation; there was talk of a move to Aston Villa, but beyond a big money move elsewhere, it’s hard to see how Stevens would give way to Eastwood; goalkeepers rarely get injured, they just slowly wear themselves out and Stevens is too young for that.
It was always going to take something unusual to re-instate Eastwood. The news that Stevens has glandular fever is just that. It can be a debilitating and lingering condition, the fortnight of rest that Craig Short said he needed seems optimistic. Suddenly, the decision to retain Eastwood is looking like a master stroke.
We could have released him, saved some money and gone with a junior back-up knowing it would be necessary to dip into the loan market if we lost Stevens. We could have brought in a keeper like Scott Shearer, super-senior and dependable, and broadly happy to simply have a contract. To retain a player who would get into a lot of lower league sides seemed like a folly.
In 2016, the Welsh national team made it to the semi-final of the Euros, the unlikely run was based on a simple formula. They had the superstars in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, but they also had a squad of ‘good blokes’. People like Chris Gunter and Jonny Williams who both play in the lower leagues. Lots of players in tournaments don’t get much game time, it’s easy to get bored and frustrated. You need players who enjoy being part of the squad, who are positive and set an example. Gareth Southgate has successfully employed a similar principle with England, people like Jordan Henderson and Conor Coady know they might not play much, but they have a bigger role to play.
I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that footballers, who are often maligned, tend have higher standards than many of the fans, politicians and media who criticise them. They’re certainly physically healthier, but they also work harder, are more supportive of their fellow professionals and, in recent years, have become more socially aware.
Simon Eastwood is a very good goalkeeper, of course, but he’s also a thoroughly decent human being, prepared to keep working, be ready and not be disruptive. Confidence, if it has taken a hit, will build and we can be assured that Stevens’ absence, if it does stretch on, is not as destabilising as it could have been.
Eastwood slotted in comfortably to a team which is in a very healthy groove. The performance against Burton showed that we’re found a rhythm; the early season jitters of the past are gone, we are well set for the mid-season chaos that comes with the FA Cup and Christmas.
This is because the foundations of the squad are deep and stable. On the pitch, the highs are not as high, but more importantly, the lows are not as low. Results depend on players like Taylor and Henry performing, but their job is made much easier by the good people like Simon Eastwood that form the bedrock of the squad.