Bobby Clark, Jim Leighton and Theo Snelders are just three goalkeepers that generations of Aberdeen supporters have enjoyed the privilege of witnessing represent the club throughout a vast history that will span to 113 years in April.
As imposing figures, capable of marshalling their defence, claiming cross balls and producing fine reflex stops when it most mattered, it is clear why they endeared themselves to the support during their respective tenures at the club.
Great goalkeepers are difficult to come by in the present era, a harsh notion that Dandies have had to live with in recent seasons. The Dons have had good shot stoppers, of that there is no question, but have struggled to source an all-round anchor that strengthens the heart of the defence.
There have been disasters and there have been goalkeepers with some of the required attributes but the reality is that we have been left longing for a figure of calm, assuredness and ability to adopt the space between the goalposts.
At least that was the case, until the summer of 2015 when somewhat out of the blue Derek McInnes confirmed the loan signing of a promising yet unfinished article from Liverpool Football Club and his name was Danny Ward.
Involved in the Wales set-up and with the ink barely dry on a fresh five year contract at his parent team, Danny wasn’t here to play second fiddle to either the unspectacular Scott Brown or the simply inept Jamie Langfield. In fact, his arrival coincided with the long awaited departure of the latter.
The goalkeeper’s debut away to Macedonian side FK Shkëndija in the Europe League qualifiers left question marks. A bobble on the pitch almost proved costly as Ward narrowed the angle on a loose ball, but with each game a greater sense of composure emerged. This was followed by a growing confidence that manifested itself in a domineering display the following round in Rijeka, Croatia. Ward produced several top class saves and claimed high balls with an ease that had eluded the Aberdeen goalkeeping position for a number of years. The indication was positive, we had found ourselves a goalkeeper.
Since arriving at the club, Ward had made the proverbial ‘number one spot’ his own by producing a number of exemplary performances and amassing twelve clean sheets in the process. Not only had the goalkeeper made countless saves that verged on the sublime, he fulfilled his role in the team with minimal fuss and a sense of humility that suggests he has the character to be a long term success in football.
Ward made it plain that organising a backline does not merely amount to being vocal but communicating at the right times and relieving the pressure of those in front of him. The goalkeeper’s distribution was steady but more remarkably, his handling of cross balls practically impeccable. This is a trait that seems to be growing less and less common in the modern day goalkeeper. Additionally, Ward has shown an uncanny ability of doubling his size in one on one situations to the point where the odds no longer favour the striker.
Naturally Jürgen Klopp decided to recall the goalkeeper and whilst it was a sore one for us Dandies, we cannot begrudge Danny for pursuing the bright future ahead of him. Neither can we expect Liverpool to act any differently when the solution to their own goalkeeping ills has been staring them in the face for the last six months.
The Aberdeen faithful will have their own fond memories from Ward’s time with us, whether it be that night in Croatia. This was an evening where Aberdeen were expected to crumble at the hands of technically superior opposition with a remarkable home record across all competitions yet emerged 3-0 victors. Ward’s confident persona in a Europa League setting bred a similar attitude throughout the team and surely acts as evidence that Ward has the potential perform for Liverpool in European environments.
The display that held the defence together in the first 2-1 victory over Celtic of the season, which at the time sent Aberdeen five points clear at the summit, confirms that Danny has experience in ‘big games’ domestically. Liverpool will ultimately have aspirations of challenging for the title under Klopp and should have no qualms of Ward’s capability of growing into a player who can play a pivotal part.
In addition, Danny became known for agile fingertip saves and a physical presence in one on one situations that reflected all was not lost if a defensive lapse were to occur. A reflex save to deny a bullet header from one of the Scottish Premiership’s most prolific strikers in Martin Boyce of Ross County is just one example that the Aberdeen support will remember. Another being the response to Hearts’ Spanish striker Juanma bearing down on goal following some unfortunately loose defending. Ward swiftly narrowed the angle and spread his figure to cover the frame of the goal and instinctually block the striker’s effort.
These are merely a few instances of a goalkeeping maturity that exceeds his years. The question many Aberdeen supporters will put to those at Liverpool is how long will one of the world’s biggest clubs persist with a goalkeeper that has proven shaky time and time again?
There is a belief in the North-East of Scotland that the solution to their goalkeeping ills may be staring them in the face. Persevering with Simon Mignolet is not necessary, while spending money on an underwhelming replacement such as Jack Butland would be harsh given that Danny Ward has excelled in all that has been asked of him so far.
Scottish football fans do not profess to be experts of the English Premier League. That being said, however, judging from Klopp’s comments and team selection it seems that the former Borussian Dortmund manager has invested faith in the Belgian goalkeeper, stating that he is “young enough to develop in the things he has to develop”.
At twenty-seven Simon Mignolet is expected to be at the peak of his goalkeeping career and despite being a good shot stopper, there comes a point when the question has to be asked is that enough?
While the Liverpool defence has perhaps not helped his form, the goalkeeper’s decision making seems questionable and a wariness with cross balls, particularly at corners, seems to be a consistent aspect of his game. It is evident that he needs to be more commanding in his area and in the organisation of the players in front of him.
We understand the quality of Scottish football may often be perceived with derision South of the border but Danny Ward’s loan spell has revealed much promise in many of, if not all of, the areas that seem to bewilder his Belgian colleague. The case for Danny Ward to be given his opportunity at Anfield seems strong but now the dilemma is over to Jürgen Klopp.
Big thanks to Jack from Stats and Miniskirts! We wish you and Aberdeen well, good luck for the rest of the season. Make sure you follow him on twitter here.
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