As we left Part 2, Keith had just played in the play offs for Bristol City; a two legged final that needed a replay at Walsall and ended in disappointment. Keith was now facing up to a big decision in his career.
At the end of the 1989 season, Keith was faced with a decision and a decision which in hindsight he regrets.
“That summer an opportunity arose to join Coventry City. They were in Division 1 and as a professional I always wanted to play at the highest level and I thought that this was possibly a last chance to play in the top flight. Looking back, this was probably the biggest mistake I made in my career. I was well established at City, a good club and they were going well at the time.”
Under Joe Jordan, City were to gain promotion to Division 2 that season.
“Oggy (Steve Ogrizovic) was in goal, a super professional, a top bloke and I just couldn’t remove him. I made one appearance and went to Watford on loan in my second season. Steve Perryman was in charge and then signed me permanently at the end of that season. I went there hoping to break into their first team. Steve told me they had a good young keeper, plenty of ability but a bit naive and they just didn’t know if he’d make it. That keeper happened to be David James and I don’t think I have seen a more natural athlete and a player with as much natural ability as a goalkeeper. He was 19 and had just broken into the first team. The question marks they had at the time were about his mental strength at the time.”
The mental part of the game is particularly tough for a goalkeeper, as Keith knows too well.
“As a goalkeeper, if you make a mistake it can be fatal. I had periods in my career where I suffered from self-doubt and dwelt on my mistakes. But when times were really good, I believed that I could be up there with the best. I wished I had more of that belief when the times were good to carry me through those harder times. These days there are so many staff around the club there to help the players, with conditioning, diet and particularly with the mental aspects of playing the game. Obviously there was little back in my day. It is vitally important these days that if you are going to be a top class professional that you can deal with the pressure and when things are not going well. It is easy to look back now and reflect, could I have done this, or said that”
So which of Keith’s fellow keepers did he rate when he was playing?
“Neville Southall was by far the best keeper of my era. Hugely under-rated, yes Shilton and Clemence were fantastic but Neville was up there with them for me. Goalkeeping has changed a lot over the years. I remember getting battered in a challenge by Billy Whitehurst; he’d pick me up and batter me again. They don’t get that these days!”
“Sadly, today there are not many British keepers playing at the highest level, but the main one Joe Hart has every attribute required. He is still young and I am really looking forward to watching him progress and develop. He will be England goalkeeper for many years to come.”
“Cech, Vorm and Al-Habsi are all quality keepers as is Mignolet at Sunderland. You might think I am bound to say that, but I have watched and scrutinised his play closely and think he is under-rated.”
Back at Watford and with a talented keeper in his way, Keith was awaiting his chance.
“I started the season as understudy to David James. When he then moved on to Liverpool I was going to step in and take his place, but unfortunately I picked up a knee injury and I was out for about a year and missed my opportunity. 32/33 is a bad age to pick up an injury like that and have such a lengthy absence. You wonder if it is the end of your career. To get back playing again was the main thing, even though it wasn’t necessarily in the first team.”
“I did play a few games for Watford, most memorably when Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, who were then top of Premier League, came to Vicarage Road in March 1993. It was my first game for 14 months and I kept them at bay as we held on for a 1-0 victory. I guess being a Sunderland fan makes it even more special.”
The Independent report of the match describes two saves in quick succession early in the second half as outstanding; denying both David Kelly and Andy Cole. When his contract expired Keith was released by Watford, but a brief coaching career was about to start.
“Glenn Roeder took over as manager and asked me back to take the Youth team. However, after a very enjoyable year, Glenn told me that Kenny Jackett wanted to go back to running the Youth team and I had to make way for him. I was left with a difficult decision to make. I had worked really hard to get back playing and my first stab in coaching hadn’t worked out. Should I look to stay in football or make a clean break?”
Keith was out of work for 10 months, which was hard after 21 years in football. He had reached a decision that he didn’t want the uncertainty of a career in football and needed a new career and security. He joined the police force in the Bedfordshire Constabulary, who he still works for today.
“It was hard at first being out of the game. It was all I had ever done and all I ever thought I would do. It is easier now. I look back to when I finished and it would have been great to pass my skills and experience on, these days there would be roles for goalkeeping coaches, but it wasn’t really the thing back then.”
“I still go to Sunderland games on the supporters’ minibus from where I live. I am also a member of the Former Players’ Association which means I meet up with old friends and teammates at events. I get to most home games and things have gone full circle and I am back to being a supporter again, where it all started and with the team closest to my heart.”
“I still look out for the results of all my former clubs including the Blades. I obviously live close to Peterborough and I do get to see their games now and again.”
Looking back Keith has few regrets.
“After being released as a free agent at 19 I still had a playing career lasting another 17 years, won medals and played at Wembley. I met some fantastic people and made great friends. I played for great clubs with tremendous support and I look back on it all with great pride.”
Keith was great company to talk to and I want to thank him again for his time. I also recall that Keith was great with the supporters as a player. As much as I would like to think that the 8/9 year old me scored a penalty past Keith at a Bramall Lane Open Day, I think the reality was that Keith let it in, giving a young Blades supporter a great story for school the next day. In fact, he probably let a few in, not that I noticed. I was enjoying my moment. Thanks Keith.