Pegguy Arphexad: Martin O’Neill was ‘ballistic’; I could’ve been Liverpool No.1
The life of a back-up goalkeeper can be a strange one sometimes. It features a lot of effort and focus on the training ground without the release of playing for points on matchday. It was a role that Pegguy Arphexad became accustomed to during his career, most notably at Leicester City and Liverpool, and it came with its own challenges.
“You have to concentrate and work as hard as all the other players because the day you’re called upon, you have to be ready,” Arphexad says. “You can’t be thinking, ‘Why am I not playing? Why am I not playing?’ You just have to work hard and expect that one day you’ll be called upon, or you’ll have the chance to be the first goalkeeper.”
Arphexad had to content himself with a place on the bench at several clubs, including Leicester, Liverpool and Coventry during a seven-year spell in England. He knew his place in the pecking order at Anfield when he signed in the summer of 2000, but believed that he would eventually be able to establish himself in the starting line-up.
“It was very frustrating because I think, personally, with my ability, I could have been the first goalkeeper somewhere else,” he says. “Maybe I made the wrong decision and should have gone to a smaller team to be the first goalkeeper before going to a strong team like Liverpool. I don’t know. But I thought at that time that I had the ability to be first goalkeeper at Liverpool.”
It didn’t turn out that way, and Arphexad served as understudy to Sander Westerveld, Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland at different points during his time ay Liverpool. Throughout he remained committed and keen to play, but the opportunities to do so were few and far between.
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“Maybe I wasn’t good enough to be the first goalkeeper at Liverpool. It was strange for me because every time I played for Liverpool I did well. The manager told me you need to be an international to be playing for Liverpool. I just replied, ‘If I play for Liverpool, I will be an international.’ You need to play for that to happen,” he laughs.
In many ways, just being part of the Liverpool squad was a remarkable achievement for Arphexad, especially considering his humble beginnings in a place not renowned for its football pedigree.
“I started playing on the Caribbean island Guadeloupe. I went to a tournament in Paris with the Guadeloupe Under-15s. After that, Brest came to watch me in Guadeloupe once again. They came to my family and asked them if I could join the academy.
“I moved over to France when I was 15. I found it hard at the start because back home it was sunny. You could go to the beach. It was a very nice life. When I came to Brittany the people were good, but the weather was really, really bad.
“I was born and bred in Guadeloupe up to the age of 15. When I had come to France a few times it was in the summertime. I didn’t know it would be like that in the wintertime!” Aprhexad laughs.
He made his debut for Brest while still a teenager because their number one, Argentina World Cup star Sergio Goycochea, was injured. With financial problems escalating, the club was declared bankrupt in December 1991, surrendering their place in the league.
“When I played my first professional game, we had a very good team – David Ginola, Maurice Bouquet. We finished mid-table in the first division. After that they had financial problems and went down to the second division. After six months in the second division the club disappeared. All of us who were under contract were free to move.”
Arphexad joined Lens and later spent a year on loan at Lille. Despite being highly rated, having represented France at Under-21 level, he was still considered too young to be entrusted as a regular starter.
“I decided with my agent that if I could make a move I would. It came about by coincidence when I signed for Leicester. They were looking for an experienced goalkeeper. My agent told them I was experienced, but I wasn’t,” he says, chuckling.
“I didn’t even know where Leicester was at the time! They gave me a chance to come on trial and they signed me after that. When I went there, I discovered nice fans and nice people. I really enjoyed my time there.
“I stayed on trial for two weeks. The goalkeeping coach, Seamus McDonagh, wanted me, and Martin O’Neill said, ‘Okay, let’s have a look at him in a friendly game.’ Everything went well and after the two weeks they offered me a contract.
In the previous season, their first back in the top flight, Leicester had finished ninth and won the League Cup, beating Middlesbrough in a replayed final at Hillsborough. They had a fiercely competitive and well-organised team, who enjoyed a close bond on and off the pitch.
“It was good. There were lots of strong characters, but we were like a family. We got on very well together. Every time they had something to say they would say it. They had nothing to hide, which made us strong. Everyone said what they had to say.
“My English was really bad at the start. I only had a few words. It was quite difficult, mostly to understand Martin O’Neill because his accent is really strong. And John Robertson, his assistant, had a strong Scottish accent.
“I decided to take some English lessons to learn a bit quicker. As a goalkeeper you need to speak a little bit, but football is like an international language. I was able to make them understand me.”
Working under O’Neill was eye-opening in other ways too. “He was a good man-manager,” Arphexad says. “I had a very good experience with him because he gave a lot of confidence to the players. Sometimes if we didn’t want to train then we didn’t train, but we had to be good on the pitch on a Saturday. When that went okay, everything was perfect. But sometimes he could go ballistic.
“If we were doing really badly, at half-time he would come to the dressing room and have a big go at us. Sometimes, even if we were winning, he just went crazy.”
O’Neill’s approach seemed to get the best out of his squad as they continued to finish in the top half over the next three years, as well as reaching the League Cup final twice more. Arphexad demonstrated his penalty-saving expertise on a couple of occasions, including in the quarter-final win over Fulham, but was on the bench once more as Leicester beat Tranmere at Wembley.
His final season featured 18 appearances in all competitions, more than any other in his career, and encouraged Liverpool to firm up their interest. An impressive performance in a 2-0 win at Anfield, where he made some acrobatic saves, certainly helped Arphexad’s cause.
“They were looking for a second keeper to challenge Sander Westerveld because Brad Friedel was coming to the end of his contract. When Liverpool come, you don’t think twice. Liverpool are a very strong team and I thought I had the ability to be the first keeper there. When I signed, I knew I was going to be second keeper, but I thought I could be the first one if I worked hard.”
Despite his close relationship with the Leicester supporters, Arphexad opted to join Liverpool on a free transfer because of a lack of assurance over playing time. In the circumstances, he felt it was better to be a back-up goalkeeper at a leading club rather than second-choice at a mid-table one.
“It feels great when the fans back you,” says Arphexad, now 47. “You’re very pleased because it means you’re doing a good job. I had a great time in Leicester, and I would have loved to have stayed longer, but I had the chance to go to Liverpool. If Martin had told me I would have been the first keeper I would have stayed.”
Arphexad’s Liverpool career consisted of six appearances over the course of three seasons, during which he claimed six winners’ medals, all as an unused substitute in cup finals. Not having the chance to step out on the pitch didn’t detract from his joy at being part of those big occasions, and feeling that he contributed too.
“When you go to a final, you’re part of the team. Every day I was at the training ground, working hard, motivating all the players, and when they called upon me I did okay. I feel I had a part in this success even if I didn’t play.”
Across the course of his time at Leicester and then Liverpool, Arphexad became good friends with Emile Heskey. He felt that the striker’s impact for club and country was often underestimated.
“I got on really well with all of the players, but mostly with Emile. We spent most of the time together and he was my room-mate on away trips. He was a top player and a top guy. He had a lot of ability. He was strong, quick, powerful. He was a very good player. I don’t know how many caps he got, but it should have been even more.
“Emile worked so hard for the team. Maybe it was his mistake to work so hard because he could have worked less and scored more goals.”
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Arphexad retired in 2005, a decision hastened by the pain he felt in his knee every day after training. His knowledge of the demands of top-level football, and the devastating effect of injury, have been put to good use in his new line of work at a sports insurance company.
“In France, if players are out with an injury they don’t get paid. They only get paid for 90 days and after that they get nothing. But we cover them,” he says.
“The guy who runs the company called me when I finished my career and asked me if I would be interested in this. I passed my badges to be a coach, and after that I said, ‘Why not?’ I’m still involved in football because we insure the player and we insure the club.”
As part of his role, Arphexad continues to watch matches and follows the ebb and flow of English football. One of his highlights was seeing Leicester claim the Premier League title against all the odds four years ago.
“That was wonderful. I went to watch one of the games and it was so unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it when Leicester won the league. It was a big, big, big, wonderful surprise. I was really pleased for the fans.”
Reflecting on his career as a whole, which featured plenty of silverware and great memories despite a low total of appearances, the former goalkeeper is proud of what he accomplished.
“I don’t have any regrets. Maybe I could have done more, or less, you never know. But I’m pleased with what I achieved and the trophies I won. The only thing is I would have been more pleased if I’d played more.
“At the end of the day, that’s life. You make choices. Maybe if I’d stayed at Leicester I would have played more. Maybe if I’d gone somewhere else I would have played more. It’s life. Maybe I wouldn’t have won all those medals with Liverpool. I don’t know. I have no regrets.”
By Sean Cole