Playing for keeps – the rise of Rob Elliot and the now impending battle for the Newcastle goalkeeper jersey.
It was a strangely optimistic summer on Tyneside. The club had just avoided relegation thanks to an unforgettable, Gutierrez-inspired afternoon on the final day, the owner had finally opened his gob, and most importantly of all, he had opened the cheque book.
Newcastle being Newcastle however, that optimism lasted about twenty minutes into the new season, when Graziano Pelle nodded Southampton into a 1-0 lead on the opening day. From that point on, the season didn’t get much better. The ‘new’ Newcastle looked suspiciously like the old one.
By the autumn, the optimism that was so tangible in the summer had all but dissipated. The team had failed to win a single game, were entrenched in the relegation zone and had just been decimated 6-1 at the Etihad. The last thing Newcastle needed was to lose their number one goalkeeper for the season…
When Tim Krul ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament whilst on international duty with Holland, many of us feared the worst. A team seemingly bereft of quality, confidence and leaders had just lost one of its mainstays.
With Krul out for the season, McClaren had two options; the young and untested Karl Darlow, or the seemingly out-of-favour, Rob Elliot. The rumoured acquisition of Victor Valdes was always going to be a non-starter – this is Newcastle after all! With Darlow picking up a knock, the door was wide open for Elliot to take his chance.
There was a palpable apprehension amongst fans in anticipation of Elliot’s return to the first team, an apprehension that this writer never really understood. Tim Krul was injured for a big portion of last season and during that time Rob Elliot never let anyone down.
Those apprehensive fans needn’t have worried. Since his return to the Newcastle first team, Rob has been nothing short of superb. If last season Elliot proved himself a worthy understudy to Krul, this season it could be argued that he has gone on to make the number one spot his own and should now be regarded as Newcastle’s first choice goalkeeper.
This season Elliot has produced performances that have been right out of the top drawer. Performances that if produced by another, more fashionable goalkeeper (I’m looking at you Jack Butland), would have earned far greater praise in the mainstream media.
World class saves, like the ones against Manchester United and West Ham, have got Newcastle out of jail on countless occasions so far this season. The games at Bournemouth and Spurs, where Rob single-handily kept the opposition out, were some of the finest goalkeeping displays our club has seen since the Shay Given days.
When you factor in the speculation that Elliot has reportedly been playing through the pain barrier with a thigh injury for a large percentage of this season, his performances deserve even greater admiration.
Whilst his performances on the field have been exceptional, its Elliot’s off-field performances that could potentially see him remain as Newcastle’s number one. For a long time now, the Newcastle side has looked like a ship without a skipper. Coloccini wears the armband, but vocal and rousing he is not. In Elliot, Newcastle seems to have found a voice and leader that has been so clearly lacking.
Of course like any good goalkeeper, Elliot barks and organises all in front of him, but there are other aspects that have really stood him apart.
Since coming into the team, it’s not been unusual to see Elliot conducting the pre-match team talk in the huddle, or fronting up and facing the cameras following a game.
Possibly, and most significantly of all however, by all accounts it was Elliot who conducted the now infamous half-time team talk at Spurs that inspired the superb come-from-behind victory.
In just four months, I’ve see more leadership qualities in Rob Elliot than I have in seven years of Coloccini.
So, presuming Newcastle stay up (a big presumption, I know!), what happens next season!?
If Elliot carries on like this, surely there is no way he can be dropped and McClaren will have a huge dilemma on his hands. One of the club’s crown jewels and the long-term number one; or the man in form who has now become one of the central dressing-room leaders?!
Technically speaking, Krul is potentially the better goalkeeper, but it could certainly be contended that his form has plateaued in the last few years. After an immensely promising start to his career, he’s yet to become the world-class goalkeeper we all thought he could be and has certainly had his questionable moments in recent times.
Neither are the greatest with the ball at their feet (just ask Ashley Young!), but Elliot does at least possess a truly amazing throw. A throw, which could be argued, is up there with any goalkeeping great in terms of quality.
Personally speaking, I’d stick with Rob. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Krul had become complacent in recent times and that the competition could well bring the best out in him upon his return. By no means am I ready to give up on Tim, the potential for greatness is still there, but if you lose the jersey, then it’s up to you to win it back.
At the start of the season, when optimism was rife following the arrival of Wijnaldum and Mitrovic, it seemed unthinkable that the third-choice goalkeeper could be one of Newcastle’s heroes this season. Yet here we are. Rob Elliot, a man who few believed was anything more than a championship-level back-up, has proven that he truly belongs at this level and in this team .
In a side badly lacking in quality, confidence and leaders, Rob Elliot has filled the void and gone from being Newcastle’s forgotten man, to being Newcastle’s main man.
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