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Does Age Matter For First-Choice Goalkeepers?

Is 19 year-old Joao Virginia up to being Reading’s number one?

Portugal v Argentina: Group F - 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup Photo by Boris Streubel - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

One of José Gomes’s priorities this transfer window would have been to bring in a new goalkeeper, and now he finally has one - João Virginia announced on a season-long loan from Everton on Thursday. Presuming the Portuguese has been brought in to be first choice (sorry Sam Walker), he’ll be given responsibility that few goalkeepers his age have experienced.

Although Virginia will celebrate his 20th birthday in October, he’ll be 19 years, nine months and 24 days old when Reading host Sheffield Wednesday in the opening Championship fixture, making him the club’s youngest league goalkeeper for over 15 years. Not since Jamie Young’s substitute appearance against Stoke City in March 2004 as an 18 year-old have the Royals trusted a teenage goalkeeper in league action. We haven’t even seen a shot-stopper under the age of 23 since Jonathan Bond’s (22y 7m 9d) last game in December 2015.

The average age of last season’s four goalkeepers was 28 while, in each of the last five campaigns, Reading’s most--used man between the sticks has been as follows: Emi Martinez (26), Vito Mannone (29), Ali Al-Habsi (34), Ali Al-Habsi (33) and Adam Federici (29). Age has not been a number, but a goalkeeping requisite.

Reading’s youngest league goalkeepers since 2000

Goalkeeper Age
Goalkeeper Age
Jamie Young 18y 6m 19d
Jamie Ashdown 19y 9m 13d
Alex McCarthy 21y 2m 16d
Adam Federici 22y 2m 1d
Jonathan Bond 22y 2m 20d

But Reading are hardly a unique case study. Out of the 50 youngest players to feature in the Championship last season, just one was a goalkeeper. That honour went to Brentford’s Patrik Sigurdur Gunnarsson (18y 3m 22d), who came on as substitute in the 75th minute against Middlesbrough in March to replace the injured Daniel Bentley.

He wasn’t trusted to start the following game though, dropping back to the bench in place of 31 year-old Luke Daniels. Instead, the youngest ‘keeper to start a Championship fixture was Will Huffer of Leeds (20y 25d) who kept a clean sheet against Bristol City in November, but that was his only league appearance of the campaign.

In total, 37 goalkeepers featured in the Championship last season. Of them, 19 were under 30 years old, eight were under 25 and just one was under 20. Meanwhile, the average age of the 24 goalkeepers most used by their respective clubs last season was 27.9.

Only three of these - Dean Henderson (Sheffield United), Marek Rodak (Rotherham United) and Bailey Peacock-Farrell (Leeds United) - were under the age of 23. There were mixed seasons for this trio - Henderson winning promotion, Rodak proving competent despite getting relegated and Peacock-Farrell being replaced in January after a series of errors.

Looking back through past second-tier campaigns, there’s not been a first-choice goalkeeper as young as Virginia since 19 year-old Jack Butland played every game for Birmingham in the 2012/13 season. The Everton loanee will certainly be breaking the mould.

Sheffield United v Brentford - Sky Bet Championship - Bramall Lane
Dean Henderson was one of the best goalkeepers in the Championship last season despite his age.
Photo by Richard Sellers/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Why do we not see that many young first-choice goalkeepers?

Goalkeepers generally retire later than outfield players and also tend to peak at an older age, so really it’s little surprise we don’t see as many breaking through as young as others.

Very few children start playing football wanting to be a goalkeeper. You’ll hear countless stories of professional shot-stoppers who started out as midfielders or strikers, but were thrown in goal as their youth team needed someone to fill in. Therefore, players start specialising as goalkeepers at a much later stage, meaning development naturally takes a little longer.

Even when individuals do break through, the role of a goalkeeper will always mean there is a preference for those who are older. The goalkeeper is usually one of the most vocal players on the pitch, organising and directing those in front of him. Unsurprisingly, older ‘keepers are better and more confident in doing that.

In addition, young players all over the pitch are usually more likely to make mistakes. But whereas a mistake from a striker may only lead to the attack breaking down, an error from a goalkeeper will more often than not result in a goal being conceded. It’s a predicament that ‘keepers of all ages face but it is particularly why managers usually steer clear from younger, inexperienced and therefore usually more error-prone goalkeepers.

As a result, teenage goalkeepers are sent out on loan to sides lower down the pyramid, where mistakes and their consequences supposedly matter less (they don’t). The aforementioned Dean Henderson featured in the National League North, League Two and League One before he was allowed a chance to impress in the Championship last season. England number one Jordan Pickford was sent out on loan to Burton Albion (League Two) and Carlisle (League One) at 19 while Liverpool’s Alisson was still playing youth football in Brazil. At Reading, Alex McCarthy had seven different loan spells before his Royals debut.

What do the stats show?

*Both graphs show the statistics for each club’s most-used goalkeeper last season. The ‘goals prevented’ rate is the number of goals that a goalkeeper was expected to concede as a proportion of the number of goals they actually conceded. Stats from WhoScored and Opta.

As you can see from the above graphs, there is virtually no correlation between age and quality of goalkeeper. Although the trend line (in black) is ever so minutely in favour of younger ‘keepers, there’s nowhere near enough evidence to make a comprehensive conclusion one way or the other. For example, Darren Randolph (32) has the highest save prevention rate and Scott Carson (33) has the lowest, while Dean Henderson (22) has the highest clean sheet percentage and Marek Rodak (22) has the second lowest.

Of course,, Virginia is at least two years younger than all of the goalkeepers on that graph, and there’s no evidence to show how well a 19 year-old goalkeeper would do regularly in the Championship since Butland six years ago who kept 10 clean sheets and rejected a move to Chelsea. Not bad.

What the Portuguese under-20 international does have on his side is fitting perfectly into José Gomes’s possession-based style of play, as well as having a healthy amount of self-belief. Upon signing for the club he commented:

“I don’t think my age counts because, if you see me play, you won’t recognise my age. When you see the quality and the work I put into my game, that’s all that matters.

“As a keeper, you need to be confident, to be worthy of the trust of your teammates. That’s what I’ll bring to the team. I’m up to the challenge.”

Those at Everton also believe that Virginia is better than his age suggests - David Unsworth claimed he was the best under-23 goalkeeper he’d seen and Marco Silva said he was too good for academy football. It could simply be the case that he is further ahead in his development than most goalkeepers are at 19.

After all, as Sir Matt Busby once said: “If they are good enough, they are old enough.”