Goalkeepers, it is often said, are different. You have to be when in a game where the ultimate aim is to put the ball between the goalposts you dedicate yourself to stop it from doing so. There is often little glory to be had and the expectation that you are willing to do anything – including throwing yourself into trashing boots – to get hold of the ball. It is a tough, unglamorous and thanklessness job. So why would anyone decide to become a goalkeeper?
“I wasn’t good enough to play outfield!”
Ruud Hesp laughs as he recalls how it was that he picked up goalkeepers’ gloves for the first time. “I was always big. I started as a striker, moved to midfield and in the end I was a central defender because I was the biggest player and I could head the ball well so they moved me over there.”
It is there that he would have stayed if fate hadn’t intervened. “When I was twelve years old I played at an amateur club and the goalkeeper was sick, the second goalkeeper had to play a table tennis game so they said ‘Ruud will you go in goal?’ because I was playing goalkeeper at my school. I played very well in that first game and they said ‘you stay in goal’. And I liked it. So it was a coincidence that I became a goalkeeper.”
This seems to be the conventional path for most goalkeepers. The main difference for Hesp was that he was good enough at it to make a career out of goalkeeping. Most of this career was spent playing for mid-size clubs who often lagged behind the three giants of Dutch football. He was good enough to catch the attention of Dutch national coaches but call-ups never turned into appearances.
Then, at the age of thirty two, he received a surprise call: Barcelona wanted to sign him.
Louis Van Gaal had just been re-appointed manager and it was on his recommendation that Hesp was approached. Barcelona had signed Vitor Baia the previous summer but whilst the Portuguese was at the time considered among the world’s finest goalkeepers not everyone was convinced.
“Van Gaal had already tried to sign me for Ajax but there was Edwin Van Der Saar there and I knew that he was better than me. I didn’t fancy going to Ajax to be a reserve so I turned him down. Clearly, he must have thought highly enough of me that he mentioned me when he moved to Spain.”
“After a couple of weeks, Baia got injured and I stepped into his place.”
Hesp retained his place even when the Portuguese goalkeeper recovered – indeed, Baia was loaned back to Porto midway through the season - and he eventually went on to win two league titles, a European Super Cup and a Copa Del Rey in his three years with the Catalan giants. “Barcelona are the biggest club in the world and playing for them was amazing,” he says.
After Barcelona he went into coaching and was the goalkeepers’ coach of the Dutch national side that reached the World Cup final in 2010. “When Edwin Van der Saar played his first national game I was the second goalkeeper,” he recalls. “When he played his last national game I was there as the national team’s goalkeeping coach.”
By that stage, Hesp had started to put the experience that he had garnered to the benefit of others as a goalkeeper’s coach and the main current beneficiaries are the PSV goalkeepers, where Hesp works.
“When I arrived Jeroen Zoet was already at the club although at the time he was on loan at a smaller club to get experience. We put him at a smaller club where he could play a lot of games, develop himself and get back.”
“When he started to play no one expected anything of him. The next year people started having expectations. He was expected to play better than the previous year, he had to be important for the team, to win points for the team. And then the pressure starts to come.”
“So it is very important that you have played a lot of games to be able to put the pressure less for yourself. If you are young it is more difficult - and I experienced the same - but if you are older it is easier for yourself. You get more stable in your head. You don’t panic that fast.”
This importance of experience might sound like a cliché but Hesp can point at particular moments in his career that support this.
“When I played for Barcelona, I always enjoyed playing in Nou Camp but also in other stadia. For Barcelona, the best club in Europe; the world maybe. It gave me a lot of confidence. When I started playing for Barcelona I was already 31 years old so that was an advantage for me as I had already played a lot of games. Not at the highest level because in Holland I had played for smaller teams, but I had played a lot of games.”
“I had the experience of recognising situations in a game. And then it doesn’t matter if it is at the highest level or at the lowest level, if you recognise situations then you can perform well. That was, for me, an advantage.”
There is a particular moment where the benefit of this experience stuck out. “I can give you an example. When I played for Barcelona against Chelsea in 1998, we lost at Chelsea 3-1 so needed to win 2-0. We were leading 2-0 and I received a ball that I played badly. I wanted to kick it long but instead gave to the Chelsea striker Tore Andre Flo and he scored; 2-1.”
“In the end we won and went through but at that moment we still had to play 15 minutes to score another goal. After that mistake, in the next minute, Frank Lampard shot at goal because maybe he thought that I was insecure or my confidence had gone. And it was a ball that was swerving in the air. The ball came just to the right side of me, I got it and I held it. That was the first moment after the mistake.”
“Afterwards I was trying to analyse what happened and I realised that I had been able to analyse the mistake as one with my kicking, not a mistake of catching the ball.”
“So I instinctively realised that a mistake of my passing should not influence my goalkeeping (shot stopping). And that is what I try to explain to our goalkeepers, even our youth goalkeepers. One mistake does not have to influence other parts of your goalkeeping. But that comes with experience. That’s difficult in the beginning.”
The benefit of his experience played out even off the pitch. “Before Barcelona I played in Roda and we had a lot of foreign guys who couldn’t speak the language.”
“They walked past supporters who wanted to speak to them but they couldn’t talk back. I always thought to myself that if I ever moved to another country I wanted to know the language because I wanted to speak to the people. And it is easier on the pitch.”
“So there was a translator who was always helping the new foreign players with the press conferences. He started doing the same with me for one month but afterwards I started doing them in Spanish.”
“I made a lot of mistakes but afterwards the journalists came to me to tell me that it was great that I was doing so after one month. They appreciated it and they gave me tips of what to say in certain situations. So I started talking Spanish really quickly. And I also asked people. Speaking the language is very important.”
Hesp is clearly passionate about his job and loves what he does but there he admits that being a coach is second best to actually playing.
“As a goalkeeper you think you have control of the situation and you can influence the situation. As a goalkeeper trainer your influence lasts until the players get on to the pitch. Then it stops. That is the big difference.”
“As a goalkeeper coach you cannot make corrections on the pitch. Then it stops. That is the big difference.”
“When I started as a goalkeeper coach I was more nervous than when I was a player.”
“Being a goalkeeper is the most beautiful thing to do and being a goalkeeper’s coach is the second most beautiful thing to do. I enjoy coaching young players because they’re hungry to learn about the game and eager to hear what you have to say. I really enjoy what I’m doing at a very beautiful club.”
At PSV he is tasked with coaching not only the first team players but also those players coming through the ranks meaning that he is tasked with continuing the rich Dutch tradition for great goalkeepers.
“I think that it is because in Holland we spend a lot of time training goalkeepers. Even in the old days. In Holland everyone had his goalkeeper’s coach and that has been the case for a lot of years. Before other countries started having a goalkeeper trainer in Holland we already had that,” he says of this tradition.
“We always thought in Holland that goalkeepers were very important and that they are the foundation of the team. You can have good players but if the goalkeeper isn’t good enough then you have a problem. A house is built on a good foundation. It is the same with goalkeepers.”
“That is why in Holland we spend a lot of time on goalkeeper training. When I started my career in professional football it was only shooting at the goal but I got the attention.”
“I’ve had a lot of goalkeeper trainers myself and now I’m doing it. It is good to have a goalkeeper coach because he sees and feels the thing you feel. For me (as a coach) it is much easier to see into the head of a goalie. A goalie can come to me and ask me things on why it happened and I can talk to him about it.”
“These days games are decided by details and having a good goalkeeping coach can be a very important detail.”
“Today all players are very fit, they have power, and they are well conditioned. So in those cases you look for the details and it can help make you champions.”
Special thanks to Thijs Slegers, the press officer at PSV Eindhoven, for his assistance in the setting up of this interview.
Enjoyed this article? Join Blueprint for Football Extra to ensure that you don't miss future articles and get the full transcript of the interview plus a free e-book in the process. Other Blueprint for Football e-books available here (international version here).