From the past or present, every week we catch up with a different Fulham personality. Today, it’s Academy Goalkeeping Coach Vic Bettinelli.
The position of a goalkeeper is arguably one of the least forgiving in football – for these are the men who put both their bodies and their reputations on the line.
Vic Bettinelli knows all about the demands and pressures of the role, for injury would rob him of a professional career not long after joining Gillingham at 15. A fine coaching career has since been forged, though, with the 51-year-old currently overseeing our young goalkeeping prospects of the future.
Now in his 11th season at the Club, Bettinelli has also worked with some of our finest custodians, including current number one Mark Schwarzer and previous incumbents Maik Taylor, Edwin Van Der Sar and Antti Niemi.
Having spent 10 years at Crystal Palace and a short spell as assistant manager at Crawley Town, before taking up residency at our Motspur Park Training Ground, the likable Londoner is well positioned to pass comment on one of the most fascinating positions in football.
“I’ve seen and heard a lot in that time, I can assure you of that,” explained Vic to fulhamfc.com. “Although I never played the game professionally, I’ve worked with some of the country’s top coaches and some of its leading goalkeepers.
“I had a few serious injuries in my teens and I never recovered. Had it not been for those injuries, I like to think I would have got a professional contract – but I suppose it wasn’t meant to be.
“I quickly found myself playing non-League football, and spent time at Maidstone United, Leytonstone and Ilford, and in many ways, it was a period of my life that ultimately shaped what I do today.
“Back then, we didn’t have the specialised goalkeeping coaches that most teams have now. While the outfield players took part in all sorts of drills and exercises, us keepers were pretty much left to our own devices. We would have to wait until the last part of the session – when they wanted us to take our positions in goal.
“It got to the point where enough was enough, so I started taking sessions with the other goalkeepers. In the end I was designing full-blown programmes. To be fair, it’s probably only really in the last 20 years where goalkeeping coaches have been common place. In fact, I like to think that I was part of the first wave that was introduced.
“Bob Wilson of Arsenal really led the way, starting his own coaching school with the London Football Association. The FA quickly followed suit and alongside the likes of Mervyn Day, Eddie Niedzwiecki, Gerry Peyton, Mike Kelly and Neville Southall we were all completing the relevant badges.
“When the Premier League started, almost every club appointed a goalkeeping coach - that was the boom. If you look around now, some clubs could well have two or three. Here we have Hans Segers overseeing the First Team, while Martin Brennan looks after the Under-21 group. It’s an expert position – so it needs that dedication.”
When observing one of Bettinelli’s sessions it is clear that our young hopefuls have taken to his engaging, enthusiastic style of instruction. His drills are both inventive and thought provoking – he is constantly seeking improvement.
“In reality, coaching goalkeepers probably requires more time than it does with the outfield players, especially within the Academy,” reveals Vic. “I try and leave no stone unturned, and it can be a long and gruelling process for them – but there can’t be any room for error.
“If a striker misses from three yards, of course it can be costly. But if a goalkeeper makes a mistake then nine times out of 10 you’re punished by a goal. In most areas of the pitch, there’s a chance that one of your teammates could get you out of trouble, but the keepers don’t really have that.
“Most of the top goalkeepers make saves and deal with crosses. The biggest thing for me though, is how they deal with making mistakes and going through a bad patch. The very, very best have a real mental toughness about them.
“I use Mark Schwarzer as a great example, and not just because he plays for Fulham. If he makes a mistake he has an ability to lock it away and get on with the game. Some just can’t do that – they let it play on their mind too much.
“Through the eyes of the world and through the thousands of different camera angles, errors can be magnified. I’ve seen goalkeepers pulled apart during the game, within minutes of the final whistle, on the highlights show on the Saturday night and then on the repeated show on the Sunday morning. It can be brutal.”
He may be able to prepare his young charges for almost any on pitch scenario, however, helping them to overcome individual error has proved his most challenging.
“For the younger ones, this is difficult,” he said. “Technical ability is massive, as are self confidence, good attitude, physicality and bravery, but equally as important is mental strength.
“It’s a very demanding position, both on the body and on the mind. I suppose it comes with experience, but it can be very hard for a young goalkeeper – it’s an unpredictable game for them at times.
“I’ve been known to meet up with them of an evening after a match if things haven’t gone too well for them. The worst thing they can do is go home and sit in their room and reflect on what went wrong.
“We’ll have a chat over a coffee and talk it out. Most of the time they are far too hard on themselves, and sometimes it just takes someone else’s take on the game in question to put them right. Every player will have a bad game here and there, and it’s not what has happened that is important – it is how they recover.”
With many of our young outfield hopefuls making impressive strides towards First Team football, the pathway for our young stoppers is somewhat more complex. With one place up for grabs, it is a challenge that few have managed in recent years.
Academy graduate Neil Etheridge made his debut in the UEFA Europa League last season, and with the likes of Marcus Bettinelli, Jesse Joronen and Max Oberschmidt showing signs of progress, Vic would like nothing more than to see one of them go on and claim the number one jersey.
“The route for a goalkeeper is more difficult, there’s no doubt about that,” said Vic. “It always has been. It was great to see Neil get his chance during the last Europa campaign and it was a massive moment for him.
“But it is difficult to give young keepers the chance in the Barclays Premier League, that’s not just here – it applies throughout. I think you have to be an exceptional talent to be thrown in like that.
“Players like Iker Casillas, Gianluigi Buffon and Edwin Van der Sar all came through in their teens, but of the recent era, they are three of the best we have seen. Very few have the chance to make a name at such a young age.
“Joe Hart was at Shrewsbury Town before joining Manchester City and even he had to go out and get experience while on loan at Tranmere Rovers, Blackpool and Birmingham City. It was the same for Ben Foster too.
“I remember when David Seaman came through, and he had to drop down to Peterborough United when leaving Leeds United. He did well there and got a move to Queens Park Rangers where he won his first England cap. As we know, he then joined Arsenal and for a time was one of the best around.
“They have to be patient, but it can be hard for them. Working so closely with the young keepers, you can tell that they just want to be out there playing. It was the same for Wes Foderingham who came through the ranks here. He just found it difficult to break through and having played non-League for a bit, he’s now doing very well at Swindon Town – which is great to see.
“We’ve started to see some of our young outfield players coming through now and some of which I’m sure will go on and do well for the First Team. Of course, I would love to see one of our young keepers do the same and with a few talented boys coming through we have some that could give it a real go.”
As one of the Club’s biggest personalities, Bettinelli is a popular figure around Motspur Park. Not too long ago he trained to be a black cab driver, and while he can no doubt navigate his way around the capital, it is his knowledge of the penalty box that has proved more beneficial.
“The position of a goalkeeper is a difficult one to master,” assessed Vic. “In that area of the pitch there really is nowhere to hide. At times it’s a very lonely place, and often extremely unforgiving. But for me, there’s no better place to play.
“You can go from hero to zero very quickly and the frustration, ambiguity and pressure are all part and parcel. But you have to keep strong and believe in your ability at all times. You have to be prepared for the rough as well as the smooth.
“It’s a position that has evolved so much in the past 20 years. In my day, goalkeepers were always showmen, but now it’s a lot more serious and scientific. Of course, goals win games, so it tends to be all about the players that put them away. But there should be a lot said for those that keep them out too.”