Goalkeeper-turned-author Justin Bryant lifts the lid on life in the football wilderness.
In 1988, 23-year-old American goalkeeper Justin Bryant thought a glorious career in professional football awaited him. He had just saved two penalties for his American club - the Orlando Lions - against Scotland's Dunfermline Athletic, to help claim the first piece of silverware in their history. He was young, strong, healthy, and confident. But professional football, he found, is rarely easy.
Small Time is the story of a life spent mostly in the backwaters of the game. As Justin negotiated the Non-League pitches of the Vauxhall-Opel League, and the many failed professional leagues of the U.S. in the 1980s and '90s, he struggled not only with his game, but his physical and mental health. Battling stress, social anxiety, a mysterious stomach ailment, and simple bad luck, he nonetheless experienced fleeting moments of triumph that no amount of money can buy. Football, he learned, is 95 per cent blood, sweat, and tears; but if you love it enough, the other five per cent makes up for it.
Adam Bate caught up with Bryant to discuss the writing of the book, the stress of being a goalkeeper and bust some of those myths surrounding the man between the sticks...
Was it a cathartic experience to write the book? Especially discussing your anxiety...
I didn't expect it to be cathartic - the anxiety had been gone for more than a decade by the time I wrote the first draft - but it was. I'd never really discussed those experiences with anybody, and it was highly therapeutic to write about them for the first time. But after the first draft, it stopped feeling like my life, and became more of a purely literary exercise. Through subsequent drafts and revisions, I remained true to how I felt and what really happened, but the longer I worked on the book, the more it felt like someone else's life.
Do you now suspect that a lot of top players have these worries and fears going into games or do you feel you were an extreme case?
I certainly don't think it's uncommon. I may have shaded slightly to the extreme side of the spectrum, but look, for example, at how important superstitions are for many footballers. That has always seemed like a manifestation of insecurity to me. Players are looking for some kind of assurance that everything is going to be okay - they'll play well, the team will win, and they won't get injured. The truth is you have no control over a lot of things in football, and believing in magic doesn't help. It's just an admission of human weakness. You'd think insecurity would be only for journeymen types, but Pepe Reina, an outstanding goalkeeper, has an incredible litany of superstitions he HAS to follow before every game.
When keepers start screaming at their defence, sometimes they are just deflecting because it was their fault, right?
Sometimes, yes. Also, they just want to look the part. Everyone today grew up idolizing Peter Schmeichel, and he was a screamer, so they emulate him. Goalkeepers do strange things. If you watch closely after a goal has been scored, you'll see some keepers chasing after or lunging for the ball if it's bouncing around in the net, as though it is still in play, when they know it isn't. It's a distraction and a form of denial, a way of momentarily ignoring the fact they've just conceded.
When writers or pundits refer to a goalkeeper as being a good shot-stopper, do fellow keepers find that ridiculous?
Not only ridiculous, but actually insulting. Being called a 'good shot-stopper' sort of implies you're no good at anything else, i.e. crosses, physical challenges, and distribution. There are some keepers who are truly exceptional shot stoppers, though. Hugo Lloris and David De Gea come first to mind. Samir Handanovic at Inter. Gigi Buffon too, of course. Always Buffon.
Surely goalkeepers absolutely love penalties and there's a part of them that's excited even when one gets awarded against their team...
I'd make a distinction between penalties awarded in the run of play, and penalty shootouts. Most goalkeepers love the chance to be a hero, and penalties afford that chance. They might not be so thrilled about a late penalty awarded in a crucial match, but I think most keepers secretly love penalty shootouts. There's more pressure on the shooter, and there's a good chance that not all five shooters are going to be confident.
Is there anything that annoys a goalkeeper quite like having to share No.1 duties...
It's not good for anyone. It doesn't make either keeper happy, and a team needs a settled goalkeeper. It's also usually a very public sign that the manager does not trust either goalkeeper. The only exception to this I can think of is when the England goalkeeper shirt went back and forth between Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton.
A lot of goalkeepers seem to make a living as second or even third-choice. Is it possible that some professionals don't actually want to play games?
That could be true, though nobody would ever admit to it. It's a good way to keep getting a regular payday. But I think at the highest levels, the dedication it takes to get there makes it hard to be satisfied with not playing, even if the money is good. Top-flight players have their sense of identity tied up with their standing in the game. Sitting on the bench is no good for that.
Your Twitter handle is @Keepers_Union and you talk in the book about the help you had from senior goalkeepers whose place in the team you were competing for. Do you think people would be surprised at the mutual support goalkeepers give each other considering they are effectively after the same job?
As I tell the goalkeepers that I coach, nobody understands the demands of your job better than another goalkeeper. I think they have to support each other, push each other in training, even cheer for each other. It's up to the manager to pick the team, so there's no point in any ill-feeling between goalkeepers, no matter how fierce the competition. It really is a union.
You mention in the book that you have to prove you can play before anyone in football will be your friend. Do you believe that's probably true of any dressing room at any level?
Yes, I think so. I think the context is important: it's not like other players won't like you if you aren't a brilliant player. It's just that you might not be sticking around for very long if you aren't playing well, so getting to know you might not be worth the effort. Anecdotally, friends of mine who played in Germany, Belgium, Chile and elsewhere had similar experiences. Once they established themselves in the team, their teammates opened up to them.
Is introspective analysis a particular issue for goalkeepers?
Part of the problem for goalkeepers is that you have time to think about what you've done in a game during that same game. That's fine if you save a penalty or make an extraordinary save, but not so great when you drop a clanger. An outfield player won't have time to dwell on it. The game is swirling all around him and he has to stay involved. Thinking about a mistake during a game tends to commit it to memory; it's still in your head as you lie awake that night, and likely still there when the next game kicks off. I think this is where the elite goalkeepers differentiate themselves from the rest of us: they can truly forget mistakes and move on.
Do you think the public underestimate the dedication that it takes many people to be a professional footballer?
Cristiano Ronaldo is a great example of that. You see people on twitter and in forums mocking his preening and his ego, and comparing him unfavourably to 'real' footballers of previous generations. What they don't seem to notice is how much fitter he is, how he takes care of himself, the diet, the extra hours on the training ground hitting free kicks, etc. It's probably even more true of players less naturally gifted. There is so much competition in professional football, and so much money to be made, that the days of a pro drinking his way through summer and going on a few runs the week before preseason are long over. Today they have to remain fit year-round, and a lot of physical pain comes with that territory. But let's be honest: it's still a dream profession.
Do you really think you just didn't have the right mentality?
I think the right mentality just took too long for me to develop. It came when I was almost thirty. I had one good, solid season, but I was already burned out by that point. To have a long career in professional football, you've got to have that mentality when your first opportunity presents itself. As I said in the book, I was too easily satisfied when I was young. The other problem at the time was the difficulty I had, as a loner, of fitting into a team environment. That's something else I outgrew a little too late.
Finally, are you still playing for the Brooklyn Gunners? And are you enjoying your football again?
I moved from New York City to Raleigh, North Carolina this summer to coach full time at NC State University and Triangle Futbol Club, so I had to leave the Gunners behind. I miss them, but love pulling on the gloves every morning, and still go in goal myself pretty often. There's still nothing like the feeling of making saves.
Small Time: A Life in the Football Wilderness by Justin Bryant is available to buy here