Back in early 1996, Peter Reid sprang a major surprise by signing young keeper Shay Given on loan from Blackburn Rovers.
Alec Chamberlain, the number one, was an experienced keeper who’d played in the top flight for Luton and had arrived under Terry Butcher a couple of seasons earlier. He had been in decent form during the season – he’d kept nine clean sheets in 23 as the team had mounted a promotion challenge, hitting the top of the league for a few weeks in December – but Reid saw room for improvement.
Given was 19, and had the grand total of five league appearances for Swindon under his belt upon arriving at Roker Park.
If the signing came out of the blue, Reid’s decision to put him straight into the first team, away at Leicester, live on TV, a few days later seemed to be an unnecessary risk.
It proved inspirational. Despite looking like a school under 16 keeper, in a shirt that was way too big for him, he kept a clean sheet as the lads earned a hard-earned point.
For those who didn’t see Given play for Sunderland, it’s difficult to explain just how good he was. He was inspirational. He would appear from nowhere to keep the ball from hitting the back of the net. His tender years and slight appearance belied enviable bravery.
And he provided the platform from which we were able to gain promotion. He won us points single-handedly. Twelve clean sheets in 17 were critical, his brave performance in a 1-0 win away at Barnsley, during which he was injured in the first half but continued for the full game (in the days before keeper subs) remarkable.
Of course, we all know what happened at the end of that season; despite Given wanting to sign and Reid wanting to sign him, we couldn’t get the deal done, and a year later he followed his former Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish up the road.
If we’d been able to sign Given upon promotion, there’s no way that team gets relegated in 1996-97.
Lee Johnson’s decision to seemingly replace Lee Burge and Anthony Patterson shows a similar ruthlessness that Reid displayed 25 years ago. (Although I’m sure it will be dressed up as ‘extra competition’ in the short term.)
Burge is a solid League One keeper, the League’s keeper of the year for last season. He’s always ‘done a job’ without ever being brilliant.
Anthony Patterson has come in for a few games and looked decent – pulling off some good saves while displaying obvious areas for improvement that will only come through experience (which I hope he’s allowed to get if he’s not first-choice – maybe the ‘emergency loan’ for goalkeepers will enable him to get some League One or League Two action?).
I’d have been pretty happy with either of them in goal for the season – it certainly wasn’t an area of obvious weakness – but the club obviously saw an opportunity to improve, and seized it.
Thorben Hoffman arrives from Bayern Munich on a one-year loan with an option to make the deal permanent at the end of the season. Johnson highly praised the new arrival’s ability with the ball at his feet, and as we’ve seen from both Burge and Patterson this season, playing the ball out from the keeper is a major feature of our game plan.
Of course, Hoffman’s young and inexperienced, too. And he’ll probably make some errors along the way – just as Burge and Patterson would likely do.
But his potential is – evidently – significant. The club must believe he can certainly play in the championship, if not the Premier League. And that’s the type of player we need, and have prioritised over the summer – young players on an upward trajectory. Union Berlin winger Leon Dajaku is another who fits this bill, as do Dennis Cerkin and Niall Huggins.
A great goalkeeper can win points on his own – in my estimation, a top performer in nets can be worth at least 10 points a season. We saw the cost of having terrible keepers during our relegation from the championship – ironically, if we’d had Burge in goal then we probably wouldn’t have gone down.
The drive to continually improve is evident already at SAFC, and the arrival of Hoffman could be a significant moment in our season – just as the arrival of Shay Given was all of those years ago.