Wojciech Szczesny agrees. You don’t have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper but it helps and it is not difficult to see where he gets it from. His father, Maciej, was a Poland goalkeeper who won the domestic title with four different clubs and Szczesny, the coming star at Arsenal, has a favourite story from his playing days.
“My dad got sent off for punching Roberto Mancini in the face,” he says. “It was in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup quarter-final in 1991 and if you look on YouTube you will have confirmation. It’s a very clear punch. He just went straight through him. I can’t wait to play against Mancini now. Maybe he will remember.”
Sampdoria had just scored an 89th-minute goal through Gianluca Vialli in the second leg against Legia Warsaw but needed more to avoid elimination. Szczesny Sr grabbed the ball and Mancini, now the Manchester City manager, wanted it back. “The question for my dad was: ‘Do you want to play in the final?'” Szczesny says. “But obviously being a nutter … it was: ‘No.’ Bang, he punched him. It was the last minute and he was suspended for the semi-final, which Legia lost to Manchester United. He wasn’t very happy. I just hope that Mancini still remembers it.”
Szczesny’s focus is trained on making a different kind of impression at the business end of the season, having completed a whirlwind rise to prominence. This time last year he was playing in front of 6,000 fans at Brentford, during a loan spell at the League One club, and by the end of September he had grown utterly exasperated at his lack of opportunity at Arsenal. But now, Lukasz Fabianski’s season-ending shoulder surgery coupled with Manuel Almunia’s problems with form and fitness have seen Arsène Wenger install him as the No1.
Szczesny is 20. He has played in 11 first-team matches for the club (conceding five goals) and yet, rather abruptly, the quest for the Premier League title has come to rest, in part, on his 6ft 5in frame. He is also looking towards the Champions League last-16 tie against Barcelona plus the Carling Cup final with Birmingham City, which he hopes to start despite Wenger’s policy of fielding the back-up goalkeeper in the latter competition. Szczesny has played in all bar one of the ties thus far.
Then, there is his country. Poland co-host the European Championship next year and Szczesny wants his No1 status at Arsenal to be reflected at international level. Although he has only one cap, he stands to win another against Norway next week, having been called up for the first time this season by the coach, Franciszek Smuda .
There is something about Poland and goalkeepers. The name of Jan Tomaszewski will always resonate with England fans but it is the depth and quality of the modern vintage that is remarkable. It was said that Poland’s best three players in their Euro 2008 squad were goalkeepers – Artur Boruc, Tomasz Kuszczak and Fabianski – while the lesser-known but well-regarded Przemyslaw Tyton and Grzegorz Sandomierski have emerged more recently. “Don’t forget we have Jerzy Dudek at Real Madrid as well,” Szczesny says.
Eccentricity runs through them in varying degrees. “Boruc is nuts,” Szczesny says, with a smile. “He is a very good friend of mine and so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying he’s a nutter. He really is crazy. And he’s brave. I mean, some of the stuff he did when he played for Celtic, blessing himself in front of the Rangers fans … how brave is that?”
Boruc is currently out of the Poland reckoning on disciplinary grounds, having got drunk on the team flight back from the USA friendly in October. With Kuszczak struggling for regular football at Manchester United so not in Smuda’s plans and Fabianski injured, Szczesny senses an opportunity. “It looked like Fabianski was going to be the No1 but he has got injured,” he says. “I like to believe that whoever wins the competition for Arsenal will be the No1 in the national team.
“It’s unbelievable that the Euros are in Poland. The national stadium that has just been built in Warsaw is five minutes from my house. I live on the 10th floor so I can see the stadium from my window. For every player, the national team is a priority and it would be a dream to play at the Euros. My debut against Canada was one of the proudest moments of my life.”
Szczesny oozes confidence. When he was thrust into his Premier League debut at Manchester United in December, his assurance was startling. He jokes on his must-follow Twitter page, 53szczesny53, that he is a “big head” but it is not true. He is far too ready to laugh at himself for that. Take the saga of the pink shirt. For reasons that are unknown to him, Arsenal’s kit suppliers have included a particularly garish goalkeeping number, which Szczesny has been forced to wear. He said that he was disappointed that the Leeds United fans did not give him more stick over it during the FA Cup tie last month. His elevation has come at a sartorial cost.
“It’s embarrassing,” he says. “I mean, you just wouldn’t see David Seaman or Jens Lehmann wearing a pink shirt, would you? I think Lehmann would have burned it. I consider myself a very confident person but I don’t actually think I am big-headed because my confidence doesn’t affect me … just yet. Obviously, though, because of some of the things that I’ve said about myself recently, the boys try to take the mickey.”
Chief among those things was his outburst to a Polish newspaper after he was not included in the squad for the Carling Cup tie at Tottenham Hotspur in September. He poured out his frustrations, saying that Wenger “seems to forget he has a goalkeeper named Wojciech Szczesny” and muttering darkly about his need to play or else. “It was a big blow, I am not going to lie to you and I was very disappointed,” he says. “I am ambitious and I want to be No1. I came out with a few things that I shouldn’t have said but I have learned from that. Maybe I was too honest. Funnily enough, I have been in the squad for every game since, although I know it’s a coincidence because Manu [Almunia] got injured.”
If Brentford to Barcelona feels like an improbable journey, then consider the fact that football was not even Szczesny’s first sport. “I’m a little embarrassed to talk about it now but the very first sport that I did, if you can call it sport, was ballroom dancing,” he says. “I was aged seven to nine or 10. I was tall and so I think I was a little bit stiff but I was getting the movements and everything.”
Szczesny was also an athlete – he excelled at the javelin – but football gradually took over. He was spotted by Legia and he blossomed under the tutelage of the legendary goalkeeping coach Krzysztof Dowhan, who had worked with his father. Szczesny made his Legia debut at 15.
His path to the top at Arsenal was interrupted by a grisly accident in November 2008 when, working with a heavy weight at the club’s gym, he lost his balance and felt the bar crash down on to his forearms. They were both fractured. “You could see my initials … W here and S there,” he says. “Put it this way, my arms weren’t straight.”
Metal plates were inserted into each arm and he was ruled out for five months. The scars offer a permanent reminder. “I say that one is from the war and the other is from a shark bite,” he says. Physical discomfort is the goalkeeper’s default setting. “I have always said that to be diving around for two hours every day and to get hit and to be in pain every day, you have to be a little bit mad,” Szczesny says. “That is what we do, so we are crazy.”
Yet the rewards make it worthwhile. “The Premier League is the priority and we fancy our chances of catching Man United,” Szczesny says. “Then, there is the Barcelona game, which is a bit surreal for me. They are probably the best side in Europe but we believe that we can get something out of it. We are a much better team than we were last year. Every single player is a year older and a year better. We are a bunch of confident guys and this year, there is no psychological barrier.”
Szczesny’s name is virtually impossible for an Englishman to pronounce. He does not care, as long as it is on everyone’s lips.
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