The number one No.1
Over the international break, we’re bringing you the countdown on Albion’s 10 greatest post-war goalkeepers. To qualify, they’ve kept 25 clean sheets in the league and from there, we’ve worked out their clean sheets to games percentage. Eyes down for a full house…
1. Russell Hoult
189 games, 63 clean sheets, 33.33%
It was probably inevitable that the man in large part responsible for the chant of the Noughties – “1-0 to the Albion” – should end up being our clean sheet king, for across that season of all seasons, 2001/02, the season we made it to the Premier League, Russell Hoult was all but unbeatable.
Across 45 league games that season – he missed just one, at home to Millwall – Hoult posted 24 shut outs, better than one in two. But there was more to it than that. For not only did he not concede goals, he never looked like he was going to concede goals.
Opposition teams looked at the Albion and, even if they could see beyond the intimidating presence of Phil Gilchrist, Larus Sigurdsson and Darren Moore, once they saw Hoult filling the goal, apparently leaving barely a square inch of available space into which to squeeze the ball, they pretty much chucked in the towel.
Many players have a season that defines them, one when they are at the peak of their powers and for Hoult, that was the one. Which is not to say that he wasn’t a fine goalkeeper for the Throstles throughout the rest of his time here, because he was, but in that season, Russell was simply unbeatable.
He was at his physical peak too. Built like a shed with a couple of substantial outbuildings thrown in as arms just for good measure, his hulking physique had plusses and minuses. It meant that he was supremely equipped to stand up to the rough and tumble of penalty box life and still come out on his feet and with the ball in his bucket like hands.
But at the same time, his frame put extreme strain on his back – that was the reason he missed that Millwall game – which meant that later on, even when he was still performing superbly, he was always a fraction more fragile.
Even then, he posted six clean sheets as we were relegated by a country mile in our first season back at the top, 19 in 44 games as we came straight back up and then another half a dozen in that Great Escape. These are startling statistics when you think of the nature of our team, the opposition we faced and that, quite often, Hoult was playing in some quite serious pain.
It’s for that reason that the first promotion winning season was the absolute zenith of his career, in his prime. It’s not hard to lift a string of moments from that season that illuminate just what a magnificent goalkeeper he was at that point, but for me, two sum up his contribution perfectly.
The first came on a Sunday night at the start of February at Turf Moor, Albion on the TV at Burnley. Manchester City were top with 61 from 31, Wolves in second with 58 from 31. We were in third spot, 31 games played, 54 points. Burnley were fourth, three points behind us, with three games in hand. Defeat, against a very good side, and on their patch, might have finished any lingering hopes of automatic promotion.
I don’t know about the players, but the rest of us were nervous as we travelled up. Half a dozen minutes in, and those nerves were gone. Burnley started quickly and as part of a smothering attack, a cross was slung in from their left, towards the edge of our box.
And there, 15 yards off his line, was Russell Hoult to meet it. He’d shouted, his defenders had sagely got out of the way and he’d caught the ball. In that instant, you just knew that Hoult was not going to be beaten that evening. Nor was he. 2-0 to the Albion this time.
You’ll probably all share the second memory. Last day of the season, Crystal Palace at The Hawthorns, a win and we’re up, anything else and Wolves might still beat us to it. Again, early in the game, 0-0, a Palace attack and the ball destined for the top corner of the Birmingham Road End goal.
And then Hoult hurls himself to his right and claws the ball away for a corner before laying into his defenders for letting such a thing nearly happen. Had that gone in, who knows? As it was, he wasn’t getting beaten that day either.
That was the case once out of every three times he pulled on an Albion shirt. That is some achievement for the indisputable clean sheet king.
1. Russell Hoult
2. John Osborne
3. Peter Latchford
4. Tony Godden
5. Stuart Naylor
6. Ben Foster
7. Alan Miller
8. Jim Sanders
9. Ray Potter
10. Norman Heath