In truth, any goalkeeper is always a soft target for fans of a team that is conceding too many goals, even when the goals going in are through no fault of his own. The Owls certainly have been conceding too many goals this season. Even when Wednesday were riding high in the upper echelons of the Championship, in the early part of the season, they found themselves conceding two goals every league game.
For the Capital One Cup tie against Premier League Fulham, Wednesday managed to keep a clean sheet and herein lies the basis of the calls for Bywater to take over. Bywater was in the net for the game, which Wednesday won 1-0 over their lofty opposition, thanks to a Gary Madine penalty. During the match Fulham were restricted to a meagre four shots, with only one of these efforts on target. It would be clearly inaccurate to suggest that Wednesday’s defence was anything less than well organised over the course of the tie, and Bywater will obviously have played a large part in this.
Fans who feel that Bywater would necessarily improve the club’s defensive record in the Championship however, are missing the point. I have nothing against Stephen Bywater and will be forever grateful for the role he played in Sheffield Wednesday’s promotion push in 2011/12. Indeed I expressed my confidence in the keeper, in another article, over the summer when it appeared that Kirkland might be on the verge of leaving Hillsborough, without having played a game for the club. If there is one thing that should be clear it is that Stephen Bywater is a very able goalkeeper, who fans should have every confidence in.
The improved defensive performance against Fulham however, is likely to be the result of a number of factors. As a football club Fulham are unlikely to have taken the match overly seriously. The League Cup is not the same competition in which the Owls triumphed in 1991, and the majority of Premier League sides seem to view the tournament as a mild irritation, particularly in the case of the early rounds. Several Fulham players’ were rested, and those who played would be unlikely to put themselves on the line as they would for a top flight fixture.
Beyond this an improved defensive display is not down to just one player. There are four defenders, at the very least, that need to be credited for their positioning and reading of the game, not purely the goalkeeper. As a strong believer in the idea that football teams defend from the front, I would be including the whole team in this statement. Add to the mix the likelihood that the Wednesday players raised their games to reflect the higher divisional status of their opponents and additionally probably afforded them greater respect and paid more attention to their defensive duties than they might otherwise do. Most importantly it is worth noting that the Fulham game was just that. It was one game, although it would be churlish to point to the recent defeat at Southampton, where Bywater is reported to have played so well.
That is not to say that I don’t believe that Bywater could do well for a sustained period as first choice keeper. I fully expect that he could. I just genuinely do not believe that Chris Kirkland is in anyway the cause of our shambolic defensive record, and at a times shambolic defensive performances this season.
It is arrogant in the extreme for supporters to call in to question some of the most basic abilities associated with the position of goalkeeper, for a player of Kirkland’s experience and undoubted pedigree. It should not be disregarded that upon capturing Kirkland’s signature, Owls manager Dave Jones described Kirkland as a “top class goalkeeper”, a “major scoop” for the club and expressed his delight at having been able to bring him to S6. It should also be remembered that in spite of this, Jones was quoted in the media refusing to guarantee Kirkland the number one spot, placing the emphasis on form rather than reputation, and mentioning Bywater by name as Kirkland's competition. Jones knows he has two very able senior goalkeepers, and at the moment Kirkland has the shirt.
Kirkland has always had the reputation, since breaking into the first team as relative youngster at Coventry, and has shown fine form this season with confident routine handling, sound decision making and the odd top drawer save thrown in for good measure. With no disrespect intended to Aaron Jameson and Richard O’Donnell when people spoke, in recent years, of the ability to organise the defence, in reference to them it was because they were young rookies, with little experience of first team football. There is no reasonable comparison to Chris Kirkland, and no reasonable reason to suggest that Kirkland lacks the ability to command his penalty area, and organise his defence – comprised of fully grown, professional footballers - as much as they should need organising.
In Chris Kirkland we are talking about the player Liverpool made – at the time – the most expensive goalkeeper in British transfer history, at the age of just 20 years old, when they paid Coventry City £6 million to secure his services. Liverpool do not pay £6 million for a player unfamiliar with the basics of his own position. Prior to an ankle injury, in January 2003, Kirkland looked to have ousted Jerzy Dudek as Liverpool’s number one. Up to the point of the injury Kirkland played in 14 consecutive matches keeping clean sheets in almost half them. It was purely a succession of injuries that prevented Kirkland from taking up the mantle at Liverpool. The stopper was also regularly selected for the England squad from 2003 before making his 2006 debut, and sole appearance for the national side, that famously netted his father and other friends and family a considerable sum of money, based on a bet they placed, on his international quality when Kirkland was just eleven years old.
In Kirkland, Wednesday have a goalkeeper of undoubted quality and proven international class. It seems crazy that some quarters of the fan base are calling for him to be removed from the starting line up so soon, on so little basis. The whole team is still settling and still gelling together. The fixture against Bolton was the first to see Jones' new centre backs, Martin Taylor and Anthony Gardner, paired together, and for me the goals conceded in this game were due to individual mistakes and not poor organisation. In the season thus far we have rarely selected the same back four twice running and this is far more likely to be the cause of the number of goals conceded than the peak age, transfer record breaking, former England international goalkeeper behind them.
Follow Richard on Twitter @rjb81media1
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