Darren Behcet, Jamie Waite, Scott Howie, Luke McShane, Ayden Duffy, Paul Crichton, Shane Herbert, Alex McCarthy, Danny Potter, Aaron Grundy, Steven Drench, Adam Bartlett, Simon Brown, Danny Naisbitt, Laurie Walker, Robert Ambrusics, Jonathan Hedge, Craig Ross, Jed Steer, Nick Pope.
An illustrious list of goalkeeping colossi, I’m sure you’ll agree.
That, I think, is the full inventory of goalkeepers to have made a competitive first-team appearance for Cambridge Utd since we’ve been in the Conference (though I am unsure as to whether Grundy ever actually played). Looking at it now you can pick out probably only two or three who showed any genuine quality while with us: Potter and Steer undoubtedly, arguably Pope too and… well, that’s about it.
McCarthy of course has gone on to make the England squad but there wasn’t a lot to tell from his one appearance for us (although he did keep a clean sheet) and while Crichton and Naisbitt had their moments (with Crichton’s role in avoiding relegation under Jimmy Quinn of particular importance) it’s difficult to make a case that either were anything more than average.
It’s probably fair to infer from that list that goalkeeper isn’t really a position we’ve been blessed with quality in since our relegation from the League. When it comes down to it we’ve only really had one genuinely impressive long-term first-choice ‘keeper since the 2005/06 season; the fact that we’ve averaged using more than two per season backs up the assertion that it’s a position we’ve struggled to adequately fill. Thankfully, from his first appearances in a Cambridge shirt, Chris Maxwell looks to finally be bucking that trend.
The importance of a good goalkeeper really cannot be overstated. Referring to the cliché of the ‘spine’ of the team is necessary because, well, it’s true. You need quality, consistent performers in the particularly key positions of central midfield, central defence and, of course, between the sticks.
Having a good goalkeeper breeds confidence throughout the team. This confidence is so important it’s almost tangible when it’s there and when it’s lacking. Compare the way our defence played last season under Hedge and further back under Brown or Herbert with how it looked under Potter, Steer and now Maxwell: nervous, edgy, panicky play replaced with calm, authoritative and confident defending.
It comes from trust and communication. Hedge’s biggest failing was his weakness with crosses. His decision-making on when to come for them and when to stay, when to catch and when to punch (as well as his ability to effectively carry out either). I wasn’t nervous when the opposition took a shot but as soon as they got down the wings or won a freekick in our half I immediately was concerned. Sometimes he took it comfortably and then sometimes times he punched it a good distance and then others he would drop it at his feet or get it no further than the edge of the box. Often, actually. You simply didn’t know what was going to happen.
I didn’t trust him and the defenders didn’t trust him. Maxwell on the other hand I do trust. When he comes for the ball, he catches it (I’ve yet to see him fluff taking a cross). It’s amazing the effect that simple action has. It frees the defenders to concentrate on their jobs of marking their men, safe in the knowledge that if Maxwell comes for the ball it’s unlikely they’ll have to deal with the subsequent pingball-panic in the box if he drops it, or that they’ll have to quickly reorganise when a punch doesn’t go far enough away so the pressure keeps up.
In between the unflappable ability at crosses have also been scattered some fantastic saves. It’s worth noting however that the majority of these have come from well-struck long(er)-range shots. There have been one-on-one and close-range saves but these have generally been quite rare so far, a testament to the excellent organisation, communication and positional sense of the entire unit in front of Maxwell.
Our record so far of three goals conceded in eight games with five clean sheets on the spin is, frankly, remarkable and has underpinned the excellent start to a season in which we have at times been guilty of profligacy in front of goal. The very fact that we are sitting atop the table on goal difference underlines the importance.
We defend as a team and attack as a team – every player has played his part in the clean sheets we’ve kept so far. However, there’s no doubt that Maxwell is an absolutely crucial factor in our early season defensive success. It seems that, at long last, we might finally have found a No. 1 worthy of the accolade.
The big question is, of course, whether we’ll be able to keep him when his loan runs out in January. We were lucky to get him in the first place – young keepers with more than 100 professional games as well as youth international and play-off experience don’t become available very often, to this day it remains surprising that Wrexham released him – and there’s no doubt that his performances won’t have gone unnoticed by other teams in our league and the one above, as well as by his parent club too.
It does seem however that, should we manage to keep our form up and still be at the right end of the table come January, we’ll be in pole position to sign him. He’s already affirmed how much he’s enjoying his time with us, the board have shown they’re willing to back Money and if crowd figures remain as encouraging as they have so far the funding should be there for us to come to an agreement with Fleetwood.
Given our historical problems with goalkeepers there’s little doubt in my mind that Maxwell’s signing was the most important we made during the summer. With the rest of the squad appearing to be pretty well stocked, what happens come January will be a key point in our season. Hopefully Maxwell will be able to see through what he’s started.