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Amongst the attributes needed for a footballer, a thick skin is probably one near the top of the list, particularly at a club where expectations are high. Being a goalkeeper, the expectation is higher with no hiding places when mistakes are made. When a new goalkeeper usurps the old, they need to be good. Very good, especially if the old was highly rated and followed an even more highly-rated custodian. There’s no escaping criticism. Goalkeeping errors more often than not, lead to goals being conceded.
The received wisdom is that you have to be mad to be a goalkeeper. A shy, sensitive character is not someone you would expect to thrive in such a position but may be that was Manuel Almunia’s madness; putting himself in a position where he could be subjected to derision. There must have been times when he wished he was back in Pamplona with the horses. And yet, he stayed put, waiting for an exit to emerge, retaining his dignity in situations where others have bleated to the press about the lack of opportunities afforded them.
Maybe he just needed a better agent to get him the column inches. I don’t think so. He was what we might ordinarily refer to as a bloody nice bloke. My oldest who met him at the pre-season photoshoot in 2005 still thinks so. Almunia and Reyes were walking down the tunnel talking in Spanish when a little voice turned around and spoke to them in their native tongue. Reyes smiled and continued walking; Almunia stayed and spoke, his inherent kindness showing through.
But his career at Arsenal brings mixed memories. He suffered from a lack of confidence and consistency; that transmitted to what has become an unforgiving crowd. At Arsenal, if you do not produce the goods for a spell, you are never forgiven even if you do at a later date. Continually blamed for defeat in Paris – easier than criticising Henry for missing chances that would normally have been scored or Lehmann for being sent off. A scapegoat who is not a legend is much simpler.
Almunia was capable of outstanding brilliance – United and Barcelona in the Champions League spring to mind immediately. Capable of mistakes, sometimes in the same match. The final straw came for the manager against West Bromwich Albion, even though he was not the only culprit. But when a manager loses confidence in a goalkeeper, that custodian is on his way out.
And still after it all, Almunia bears no ill-will. He accepts his part in his own downfall,
I have big regrets about that game because maybe if I had stopped playing I would have played many more games for Arsenal. It was such a difficult time. At half-time I had been so happy about saving a penalty, but everything then went wrong for me, and I couldn’t understand why.
Sometimes its fate, sometimes its a combination of poor form by the majority of the team on the pitch. Sometimes it just is.
Throughout Almunia has been silent, uncomplaining; his dignity offers a lesson to us all.
It wasn’t a good moment for me when the Arsenal fans jeered me, and the end was very tough.
It was so, so hard to cope with. One day you are number one and everybody wants you, and the next day you disappear. I am quite a sensitive person and I am not good in the bad moments.
I didn’t talk to anybody about how I felt because I don’t like to disturb people with my problems. Maybe that was a mistake as well, maybe I should have talked to somebody.
Perhaps someone should have spoken to him? We have to remember this is his side of the story, the manager might reflect differently. Ultimately, Arsène has not treated Almunia any more differently than he had Lehmann or others who have fallen from grace. Successful managers have a ruthless streak and the pursuit of glory demands that. His relationship with Lehmann was fractious with the German’s competitiveness the underlying reason; it’s better now according to the Spaniard which is probably some relief.
And despite all this, he remains in love with the club,
But now I have left, all I have in my heart is good memories and good thoughts for Arsenal, the manager, the players and the fans. I would love to go back there with Watford. That would be my dream.
He might not be so happy if recent reports are true of potential signings and doors swinging open for malcontents. Arsenal possess at this moment, a squad of rich attacking potential. Contractual negotiations may alter that but with departures come arrivals; who knows whether anything will be the same in a fortnight’s time.
As it is, good luck to Almunia at Watford. As a swansong, there would be some justice in a genuinely nice man achieving success.