Manchester United goalkeeper Raimond van der Gouw plays in Bryan Gunn's testimonial in 1996.

Van der Gouw: The level was high at Man Utd, you have to give everything

Sean Cole

Many casual observers assume that it’s the easiest job in football, occupied by people who have little interest in actually playing, but there’s much more to being a back-up goalkeeper than meets the eye.

How do they stay focused and motivated when they’re unlikely to see much competitive action? What fulfilment do they get from training hard all week without the release of a game at the end of it? Are they able to share in their team’s success when they’ve spent so long on the sidelines?

Raimond van der Gouw is well-acquainted with that dynamic. He joined Manchester United in 1996, making 60 appearances in all competitions over the next six years, serving as understudy to Peter Schmeichel and Fabien Barthez throughout a successful period, including the famous treble-winning season.

United won nine trophies during Van der Gouw’s decorated spell at Old Trafford. He was rarely on the pitch at the point of triumph, but football is famously a squad game, and he believes that he more than played his part.

“First of all, you have to give everything. You know what you have to do. There’s only one player who can play. If you’re not playing, you have to do everything to get the chance to play. You have to be positive for your teammates because they’re your colleagues and you want to win,” he says.

“You can never win with just 11 players because there are so many games. You have the FA Cup, the Champions League, the Premier League, the League Cup. You have to be positive for your teammates, and if you can’t handle that then you have to find another club.”

Van der Gouw understood what the opportunity entailed when he left the Netherlands for a huge club with global reach. He went from being a regular for Vitesse, playing 258 games in eight seasons, to taking on a much-reduced role at United, which depended on the form and fitness of the commanding Schmeichel.

“Tony Coton was leaving to go to Sunderland, so they needed another goalkeeper,” he explains. “In football, you never know how it’s going to go. In the back of your mind, you always have a chance to play. Man United were playing so many games, so that means you always have a chance.”

Manchester United's Raimond van der Gouw and Jordi Cruyff in 1997.

Manchester United’s Raimond van der Gouw and Jordi Cruyff pose with the Premier League trophy in May 1997.

Despite being rivals for a spot in the team, Van der Gouw enjoyed a good relationship with Schmeichel, who was a few months younger than him. They lived close to each other and would often travel into training and home games together. He knew that he was there to keep the Danish international on his toes – to both push and support him.

“It was great to be there. When I was playing in Holland, I always wanted to see what it was like to work at a top club and to see how Peter Schmeichel trained and played. It was strange because this was years before and I got a chance to do that,” says Van der Gouw.

“I was really looking forward to working with him. He wanted to stop all the shots and he did it with so much determination and belief. He had the quality to do it. It was very interesting to see.”

After being undisputed first choice at Vitesse, Van der Gouw had to adopt a different mentality at Old Trafford: “It’s a mindset, absolutely, because if you go there wanting to be No.1 and expecting to be No.1, then I think that’s wrong. But it’s not an easy job.

“You never know when you have a chance to play. You always have to be ready for the moment the manager needs you. For example, when the goalkeeper gets an injury or is suspended. Or maybe the goalkeeper’s out of form. When the chance is there, you have to be ready. That means the whole time you have be in top fitness.”

Just being amongst the elite was a great experience, with the chance to learn and improve every day, he says: “I enjoyed training and playing for Man United. The group was good. The level was high.

“If you’re at a top club, you’re at the highest level in the country. The facilities were there, you have some of the best coaches around you, so if you want to develop, that’s the perfect place to be.”

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READ: ‘Someone has to do it’ – Three keepers on what it’s like to be second choice

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Van der Gouw took on an unexpectedly prominent role during the transitional season that followed Schmeichel’s departure in 1999. New signings Mark Bosnich and Massimo Taibi failed to impress, so the reliable Dutchman stepped in to make 23 appearances.

When called upon, he showed his quality, helping United win all but one of the 14 league games he played in as they retained the Premier League title with ease. A consummate professional, Van der Gouw was well respected in the dressing room for his unwavering focus and work ethic.

Even during long spells on the substitutes’ bench, his manager and teammates always made him feel valued. “Ferguson was very good to me. He gave me games. If you’re the champions, you need to play at least 10 times to get a medal and Ferguson looked at that as well,” says the 58-year-old, who is currently the goalkeeping coach at PSV Eindhoven.

“In my first year I didn’t play a lot, but I played a few important games. One of them was the Champions League semi-final away to Dortmund. That keeps you going because you want to play in those games. You want the chance to be involved. I had the feeling that I’m part of the whole squad. I’m part of the club.”

The demands placed on back-up goalkeepers, in terms of mentality and motivation, are often underestimated. Performing well, without the rhythm of regular games, is hard, but Van der Gouw enjoyed the challenge on some of the biggest stages imaginable.

“I think it’s even more difficult when you never know when you have to come on,” he says. “You don’t get many chances, so the pressure is even higher, because everyone expects that you will do well, just like the No.1.”

That scrutiny has helped him become a better coach too. He can sympathise with goalkeepers in many different situations. “I’ve been in every position. I know what it’s like to go down with a club and I know what it is to be a champion with a club. I know what it takes to win trophies. You take all those experiences with you and pass them on to the players.”

By Sean Cole

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