DUTCH goalkeeping legend Sander Westerveld sat down with us to discuss his career, his silverware-laden time at Liverpool, South African football and goalkeeping in general.
You said a few years back that you grew up supporting Liverpool. How special was it to play for your boyhood club, and what are your fondest memories of your time at the club?
It’s always funny, because especially when you live abroad, everyone has a team that they support. Like a lot of players here support Manchester United. So, if you grow up like me in the 80’s and 90’s, it’s easy to like Liverpool. I think you will find a lot more United supporters now because they won the league a lot in the last 10 years. In my time, it was all Liverpool, with all the FA Cups and the tragedies as well. I always supported them, and when I was at Vitesse, Gérard Houllier was in the stands and they were interested, it was just one of those moments where your dream comes true. I remember putting pen to paper and then doing the photos at Anfield, and I just felt like I was looking down on myself. It was surreal. Afterwards, looking back you really feel the effect it had on you, especially if you were successful. Winning all those prizes with the club you love and supported from when you were a kid, playing an Anfield must be the highlight of my career. When I signed, they hadn’t won trophies for a while. The last FA Cup was in ’92, and they had a bad defence, and after I joined in ’99 we finished 3rd in the league and had the best defence. Of course, we had Sami Hyypia and Stéphane Henchoz . The next year, we won five prizes. I played 63 of the 65 games of the season. I was on cloud nine.
And that penalty save from Andy Johnson in the League Cup final?
Yes, looking back now, people saying it was only the League Cup, but at that time, they hadn’t won anything in 10 years and it was such a big game – the first final in Cardiff – the whole stadium was Liverpool and a little bit of Birmingham. I played a good game, and then I saved two penalties and also it was the last one. For a goalkeeper, you get the feeling like you won the game maybe. That was a special moment.
And off the field with the “Spice Boys”?
Well, I just missed the “Spice Boys”. When I arrived, Steve McManaman signed for Real Madrid. Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler were still there, but Fowler didn’t play a lot under Houllier. The biggest stories were just before I came, they were famous for their Christmas parties. When I signed, I remember Houllier cancelled the Christmas Party. We didn’t have any team building days, they banned the alcohol in the players’ lounge. I’ve been married now for 12 years, and have been together with my wife for 20 years, so I think I arrived at Liverpool at just the right moment. It settled down a bit, we didn’t have any of those lunatic parties. It’s like when Arsène Wenger went to Arsenal, they banned the alcohol and the sandwiches with ham and butter. They changed everything. If you read the stories before I came, it was funny, but as I say, they hadn’t won anything for 10 years so it can’t be good for you.
Liverpool signed Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland on the same day but also kept you, but you did not play. How did that come about and how hard was it to sit on the sidelines for those months?
A little bit later the real story was in the press. The worst part of the incident with two new goalkeepers joining was my game against Bolton. The story is, I started the season and during the training camp in Switzerland, Houllier said to me “I think you are my number one for the next 10 years”. There were stories of Edwin van der Sar joining Liverpool, and he showed me the article and swore to me that the article was bollocks. He told me that he wanted to sign a new goalkeeper, either a young one like Chris Kirkland, who would be behind me – the number one without pressure – and he would be one for the future, or an experienced goalkeeper who was a little bit older than me to push me a little bit. He told me “you can be the number one goalkeeper in the world”. There were some rumours about Jerzy Dudek. I was having some doubts, because you don’t buy the Polish number one as a substitute, but Houllier told me I was his number one to I thought I was okay. Then we played the Bolton game, and for 88 minutes I played really well and then I made a mistake in the last minute. After the game, Houllier told the press not to blame me because I had won Liverpool a lot of points in the past, and would win a lot of points for the team in the future. So I went with the National Team, and on deadline day at four o’clock, they bought Kirkland. And I remember all the players, Overmars, Bergkamp they all saying how I was okay. Then Feyenoord said they had an agreement with Liverpool for Dudek and that they have to sign him. The medical team forgot to get a blood sample when they did Dudek’s medical so they thought the deal was off, but then they had to sign him. I think the idea was to sign one goalkeeper but now they had two. Houllier told the press that I made too many mistakes after that. I still have the fax that Liverpool sent Feyenoord to get out of the Dudek deal for my book, if I ever write a book. Then for away games, they took a young goalkeeper as 3rd choice. Even if they just signed one goalkeeper and I was on the bench, then I could fight for my place.
How is your relationship with Houllier now?
I said I would never shake his hand, but I wouldn’t say I hate him. It was hard with his health problems. When I saw him a few years later, we said hello and shook hands. Until up that point in my career, it was all up and up, from Vitesse to signing for Liverpool for a British transfer record fee for a goalkeeper. This was my first set-back mentally. It took me a while to get over it. Now that I look back, I’m grateful that he let me be part of Liverpool and his team.
You played for a very good Liverpool side which won many trophies. I imagine there were some games where you had little to do. How do you maintain your concentration in a game when you have long periods of inactivity?
Yes, we had good defenders with Hyypia and Henchoz and for some games I did almost nothing. Maybe it is easier to be like Michel Vorm as Swansea and make a lot of saves and people can see your qualities even if you lose 2-0 at the end. Concentration was my biggest problem. I like to read books, so I tried to read books with the radio or television on in the background so I had to concentrate. Then in training, I would try to build it up from 20 minutes of constant concentration and do longer bit by bit. Now, when the games seem easy, I try to cause a fight with my defenders to keep everyone awake. Van der Sar was the best at concentrating. He would have nothing to do all game, then would make a world class save in the 90th minute to win his side the game.
At Real Sociedad, you finished 2nd in La Liga and just 2 points off Real Madrid’s galactios, including a 4-2 win against them and a clean sheet against Ronaldo, Zidane et al. Can you tell us more about your time there?
Funnily enough, John Toshack told me that he was in the stands for the Bolton game I mentioned earlier, and that he wanted to sign me based on that performance, besides the late mistake. When I arrived at Sociedad, it was similar to how it is now in Cape Town with Ajax. You would see the occasional replica shirt or poster. After that first season, the entire place was full of replica shirts, colours and posters. There is a saying in Spain about Monday being the worst day of the week because of having to go back to work, but in Sociedad, Monday was the best day because people could talk about the weekend’s game. I remember that we were top from week 5 all the way until there were 3 games to go. We were 4 points above Real Madrid, and our final game we knew we would win because it was against Atlético Madrid and they would never help Real win the title. Sadly, we lost at Celta Vigo and drew another game against Valencia, and Real Madrid beat us to the title. It was still a special achievement because 2nd place and qualifying for the Champions League had never been done before. We had a great side with Valery Karpin, Xabi Alonso, Nihat and the Serbian striker, Kovačević. I remember we beat Madrid at home for four seasons in a row. There was a big rivalry of course between the Basque Country and the other parts of Spain. Even now, if I go back, I get a great reception at the airport and I still have many friends there.
And of course, you played with Xabi Alonso at Sociedad, who went on to play for Liverpool. How good was he back then?
He was always a very good player, but you can never tell with young player how far they will go. Like in Holland, people knew Van Persie had talent, but I don’t think people expected him to ever be as good as he is now. Xabi had weaknesses back then. He spoke very good English and was a good guy. He was always trying to improve. He would stay after training to work on some areas that he thought he could improve. When we played that that last league game in my first season at Sociedad, I invited a friend of mine, a hairdresser from Liverpool who now works in London, to join the team for our party after the game. I still remember he got Xabi Alonso to sign a “contract” on a coaster to join Liverpool for £1. He still has that coaster, and that was two years before Xabi signed for Liverpool. I still keep in contact with him by text message. It was crazy to see him score, but nearly miss, that penalty in Istanbul.
In world football at the moment, who do you consider to be the best goalkeepers, and why?
Casillas, because he has been at the top level for a long time. Now some people are saying he doesn’t come for crosses, but how many goals do Real Madrid concede from crosses? Not a lot. The one season when I was at Sociedad, Real Madrid won the league but Casillas made the most saves of anyone. That is strange, but he has saved Madrid so many times over the years. Also, Van der Sar when he was playing. He was the most complete goalkeeper. I like Buffon, but sometimes in the big games he wouldn’t do as well. Cech has improved, but I don’t really like him. You know who I liked a lot last season? Courtois at Atlético Madrid. He isn’t doing quite as well this season, but he was very good last season.
Many top clubs now use their goalkeeper in a “sweeper keeper” role. Do you see this as a growing trend for goalkeepers?
I think this has been happening for 20 years. I used to do it for Liverpool, and sometimes I was a little bit late to a through ball and I got some red cards, but it allowed us to play a bit higher up the pitch. I remember Johan Cruyff doing it first with Stanley Menzo at Ajax.
Are you a believer in goalkeepers studying opponents before games? What about using technology before penalty shoot-outs like Joe Hart at Euro 2012 or Ben Foster for Manchester United in a Carling Cup final?
Yes, but only if it is very good video analysis. My goalkeeper coach at Sociedad was very good at this. We used to watch video of the attackers in La Liga – Torres, Vicente, Figo. I would know that Vicente liked to cut in from the left, and then would always shoot for the near post. Figo would run, stop, then curl a shot past you. Or he would do something different if he was going to try to chip you. Torres liked to run in from the left and then curve his run with the ball before shooting. So I knew what to expect. Sometimes it is harder. I remember sitting with Van der Sar watching videos of Michael Ballack’s penalties. But he had 15 clips and 5 were to the left, 5 down the middle and 5 to the right. So we had to look for really small signs in how the approached the ball, but it didn’t really help us. Last season, we had a penalty shootout for Ajax Cape Town against Supersport United. Before the penalties, lots of different people were telling me things about where the players like to shoot. But for every penalty, it was the wrong way. That was the first penalty shootout that I lost in my career. I have always been proud of that record. With Sociedad, I saved four out of six penalties one season. And twice penalties were in the last minutes and I saved them, so it was like earning 2 points for your team. So yes, video can be very helpful if it is done very well, but not just for the sake of it.
How important do you feel it is to have a strong number 2 goalkeeper to provide competition? Is it healthy for Pepe Reina to have had so little challenge for his place in recent seasons? And equally, how harmful is it for Manchester United to constantly switch between De Gea and Lindegaard?
I think it’s much better to have an older number two goalkeeper than a young one. It’s easier for the older keeper to come in and be very calm as he is experienced. A young goalkeeper needs to play, and can be nervous when they come in to the team. I don’t think it’s good for Man Utd not to have a constant number one. In the past, if De Gea made a mistake then he would be dropped for Lindegaard. Then you have a goalkeeper under pressure, and one on the bench that is unhappy. It is also hard to change back again if Lindegaard makes a mistake. It is better for a coach to tell his goalkeepers who his number one for the season is. For Reina, he has had some not-so-good performances, but he was very good before that, so the fans stay behind him. I don’t know if it’s because he doesn’t have someone to compete with.
You must have worked with many different styles of goalkeeper coach over the years. How have they differed from each other in terms of training methods?
Yes, I have. Without being disrespectful to any of the goalkeeper coaches have I’ve worked with, my one at Real Sociedad was the best. He worked with me on all sorts of small things that make a big difference. Which part of my feet to be on, the distance between my legs, how I positioned my hands, everything. He was very specific and as I said, was excellent with video analysis. Some other goalkeeper coaches, like Joe Corrigan – an absolute legend – used to do basic fitness exercises every day. Things you could get from a coaching manual. Nothing was specific to my game.
How did your move to Ajax Cape Town come about? It was certainly a high profile signing by the club.
I always wanted to play part of my career somewhere like Japan or USA because I wanted to experience different ways of life, and not just for three weeks on a holiday. I had been at AC Monza in Italy, a club that Clarence Seedorf owned. I was the goalkeeper, but also the Technical Director. After we had some problems finding sponsors, and with the bad atmosphere in Italy after the match-fixing scandal, I decided to leave and Seedorf decided to get out.
The most important thing for me in life is to be happy. I don’t think I could be at a big club now with all the pressure. I had joined an agency in Holland, Ajax Cape Town called me, and I was very interested in coming.
Have you made any observations on which areas South African football most needs to improve?
I don’t want to speak too badly as a foreigner looking in, but there are things to improve. Look at the game the other day (a 1-0 friendly defeat to Norway). South Africa had a lot of chances, but always the final pass or the finishing lets the team down. And the defenders make too many individual mistakes. When teams are 1-0 up in South Africa, they want to keep attacking.
After training I notice that no one does extra work on their own. In Holland, players do anything it takes to make it to the top. If a player is bad at crossing, they get 20 balls after training and work on their crossing. I never see that here.
I honestly think in 5-6 years, Ajax Cape Town will be the biggest club in South Africa. The work we are doing with young players, the way we train them, we can produce top players. If you look, Ajax Cape Town’s youth side are now starting to win tournaments when they go to play in Europe, so the philosophy is working.
Are there any goalkeepers in the PSL who have impressed you in particular?
Itumeleng Khune for sure. I was saying the other day, Khune’s distribution is the best. The best you will see anywhere. He kicks right to the attacker’s feet. He makes great saves. Against Brazil, he was unbeatable. He is good on crosses too, even if he punches quite a lot. I don’t know why he is not playing in Europe. Maybe not in England because it is so physical, but he could be playing for Valencia and would not look out of place. Maybe he is satisfied with what he has here, but maybe after the AFCON 2013 he will move.
Moeneeb Josephs is also very good. He is very agile, and I like how he is always very demanding of himself. Even if his team is leading by a few goals, he gets angry if his team concedes a goal. Last time I saw him, I asked him why he isn’t playing in Europe and he said he is too old now. Khune is still young.
I also like Wayne Sandilands from Sundowns. He is a very complete goalkeeper and Sundowns have a Spanish goalkeeper coach who I speak to. I also like the young goalkeeper at Supersport, Ronwen Williams.
What does the future hold for you when you finish your career? Are you considering becoming a coach?
I’m becoming an agent. I have already been studying Sports Management through Ajax Cape Town, and I’m going to study Sports Marketing too. I speak 5 languages. I will be working with an Argentine agency and because I speak Spanish, I can speak directly to clubs for the agency. I also have connections in Spain, England, and in Brazil where Seedorf is playing for Botafofo. Sami Hyypia is managing in Germany, and Markus Babbel until recently was a manager too. Jaap Stam has joined the agency too, so I will have good connections to many countries. Agents have this mafia reputation, but I think it’s important to help players move to better clubs.
Thanks very much to Sander Westerveld for agreeing to this interview.