Sam Johnstone laughs. No, he says, there is no secret WhatsApp group for Premier League goalkeepers complaining about criticism of their performances by television pundits. But yes, it can get frustrating when people who have never played in goal pick apart their mistakes.
“I believe that standing in the goal and facing the unknown can be a solitary experience,” explains the goalkeeper for Crystal Palace. “There should ideally be more former goalkeepers providing commentary because they have firsthand experience. While the commentators on the field are knowledgeable, they haven’t personally stood in the goal and faced shots.”
You may not notice it until the very end because there are 10 people in front of you. With the current speed of the balls, you must make quick decisions in a split second. They should not be defeated at their nearest goal post – that is always a risk. However, if someone is shooting from eight yards away at a speed of 70 or 80 miles per hour and they aim for the near post, it can happen very quickly.
“You must anticipate the trajectory of the ball, but sometimes it may already be out of your reach. If an opponent redirects the ball at the edge of the penalty box and passes it back inside, it is not considered a near post shot. People often criticize goalkeepers, saying things like: ‘He should have caught that, he shouldn’t have punched it, he should have come out for the cross, he shouldn’t have come out for the cross…’ It is easier to pass judgment than to actually experience the pressure and split-second decision making of being a goalkeeper.”
Johnstone has a wealth of experience. The 30-year-old is passionate about his profession and becomes enthusiastic when discussing the complexities of goalkeeping. He explains, “Countless hours have been dedicated to it, on a daily and weekly basis, for the past two decades. And there’s always more to learn. I don’t believe it can ever truly be mastered. There’s always room for improvement.”
Reflecting on his childhood at Manchester United, Johnstone harbors no resentment towards never playing for the first team. He expresses gratitude for the upbringing and opportunities he had at the club, including the privilege of observing world-class goalkeepers in action. Johnstone recalls receiving advice from Tony Coton, the goalie coach, to observe training sessions while he was injured. He also remembers the experience of training daily with David de Gea, who was a few years older than him, as a valuable learning experience.
Johnstone had to find a new team after being loaned out multiple times. In 2018, he joined West Brom in the Championship and had to adapt to a different style of play. Graeme Jones, a member of Darren Moore’s coaching staff, encouraged Johnstone to pass the ball from the back.
“I was initially introduced to this concept while playing for the youth team at United under the guidance of Paul McGuinness,” he recalls. “It’s been 12 years since then, but nowadays, goalkeepers are expected to contribute as outfield players as well. Despite my time at United, I had never really played in this style before. We were always encouraged to play short passes, but if there were no options, we were told to kick it long.”
In all of my loan experiences, the instruction was always the same – to play long passes. During my time at Aston Villa, we rarely passed the ball out from the back. When I joined West Brom, I was faced with a new team and new players, as well as a new style of playing. It was challenging, but it ended up being one of my most valuable learning opportunities. At home games, if we opted to pass from the back instead of playing a long ball, the crowd would boo because they were aware of our tactic and didn’t want us to do it.
While searching for answers, it’s important to keep in mind that any missteps could result in a goal against. It was a challenging experience, but I gained skills that I can utilize if necessary. At Palace, we have the option to play from the back. Alternatively, I can pass to the full-backs or make a long pass. My time with Graeme Jones and during the Slaven Bilic era at West Brom provided me with a variety of techniques.
Johnstone was an instrumental player in West Brom’s successful promotion campaign in 2020, but unfortunately, the team was unable to maintain their spot in the Premier League and were relegated after only one season. Despite this, Johnstone’s on-field displays were highly praised and he was selected to represent England in the Euro 2020 tournament. Although his ability to make crucial saves is his top priority, he acknowledges the importance of being proficient with his footwork as well. Reflecting on his time at West Brom, he explains that he was 25 years old when he first had to utilize this skill during games and recognizes that it is a desired trait for goalkeepers.
Has the role of a goalkeeper become more challenging than ever before? According to Johnstone, it has, but he is still succeeding. In 2022, he joined Crystal Palace after leaving West Brom and has steadily solidified his position as Roy Hodgson’s top choice, although he had to wait his turn last season due to injuries. Vicente Guaita was ahead of him, but Johnstone finally got his chance to start a league game in April when Guaita got injured.
However, he maintained his determination. “I had to patiently wait for my opportunity, which was challenging. I participated in all of my loan experiences and played in every game during my four years at West Brom. This forced me to try different approaches. I would hit the gym before even having breakfast and then again before training. During the training session, I would also do additional work with the strikers. After lunch, I would return to the gym in the afternoon. I was putting in a lot of effort. It didn’t feel right to just train, shower, and go home. That’s not who I am. I needed to be prepared for when my chance finally arrived.”
Johnstone, who recently agreed to a long-term contract, has been performing consistently well ever since he made his debut in a 5-1 victory against Leeds. He has managed to maintain four clean sheets this season and has earned a spot back in the England squad after being absent for some time. With Nick Pope currently not being favored, it appears that Johnstone and Aaron Ramsdale are vying for the position of second-in-command to Jordan Pickford. The competition is still ongoing, but Johnstone showcased his skills during England’s win against Australia last month.
Johnstone, who was absent from the previous World Cup, has set his sights on securing a spot in Euro 2024. However, in order to achieve this, he must continue to play well despite facing tough competition at Palace. The team acquired Dean Henderson last summer.
Johnstone expresses concern about the challenges ahead for both himself and his teammate Dean. He mentions that it will be difficult for anyone who is not playing, and this could also be tough for the club to manage. Johnstone and Dean both have a strong desire to be on the field and do not see themselves as backup options. Even though Dean is currently injured, they have a friendly relationship and push each other to be better. Johnstone acknowledges that Dean will want to play once he is back to full health, but he is determined to maintain his spot on the team. This competitive dynamic brings out the best in both players.
Johnstone is content with his current situation, but he still feels a sense of dissatisfaction. He was recently asked when he felt like he had achieved success, but he admits that he still doesn’t feel that way. There is always room for improvement and he is grateful for the opportunity to play in the Premier League for a respected team. He is surrounded by talented teammates, a skilled manager, and a supportive staff, which motivates him to continuously strive for excellence.