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Safe hands: Heurelho Gomes shows off the tools of his trade. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Fulham supporters revelled in taunting Heurelho Gomes with shouts of “dodgy keeper” as their side raced into a 4-0 half-time lead against Tottenham on Sunday.

Those chants were unfair, given that the whole Spurs team deserved to take the blame for their capitulation in the FA Cup tie at Craven Cottage.

But, as a goalkeeper, the 29-year-old is used to being singled out when things go wrong, and when he first moved to White Hart Lane things went wrong quite a lot.

It was July 2008 when Gomes arrived from PSV Eindhoven in a £7.8million deal and with his reputation high having helped the Dutch club to four consecutive titles.

But a series of high-profile mistakes saw him become the subject of ridicule and Alan Hansen, on Match of the Day, suggested he might be the worst ever goalkeeper in the Premier League.

Gomes showed tremendous character to put that poor start and the barrage of criticism behind him to become one of the best No1s now operating in the top flight.

“When I arrived, everybody was talking as if it was just my problem but it wasn’t,” he says. “The team were not doing so well. I wanted to keep playing, even though I was injured, because I thought I needed to prove something, given Tottenham paid so much for me.

“I never felt it was the wrong decision to come. I was very comfortable at PSV, winning all the titles, all the fans perceived me as a hero. But I wanted new challenges, to show my style.”

His style, he admits, is very different. “I don’t stay on my line and wait for the ball to come. I cannot wait for a guy to come within five metres of me and score with his head. No, I go to get the ball before he tries that on me.

“That’s why sometimes you make mistakes. Goalkeepers who stay on their line may get more balls but they don’t get the balls that I get because I go after them.”

England’s CP squad - including goalkeepers Leon Taylor and Jordan Raynes (pictured with Gomes) - will get access to elite level training session at the Spurs Lodge. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Gomes says when he first moved to England he didn’t know what the expression ‘dodgy keeper’ meant but was aware “it was something bad”.

He smiles when he recalls how a former Arsenal captain, who had been working in Holland, played a part in banishing his Tottenham blues.

“Tony Adams told Harry Redknapp about my time with PSV and my qualities. Harry told me, ‘Don’t worry. Just continue to work hard as you do. We are not going to put a time limit for you to improve or overcome these initial problems. I know you’re a quality player and you’re going to get it right.’

“I kept working hard, that is my style. Now I’ve adapted, I’m feeling at home and I have no more problems.”

But even now the Brazilian cannot forget how shocked he was by one aspect of the English game.

“I thought it would be easy coming to England because I’d been in Europe for four years at PSV. But it wasn’t easy. This is the hardest league in the world in terms of physical contact. Here, the goalkeepers can face physical contact that we don’t face in other countries. What, in other countries, would be a foul against the keeper is not in this country.”

This has meant that even now, every night before going to sleep, Gomes has the same thought: next time he keeps goal he could get badly hurt.

Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech still has to wear a scrum cap during games after fracturing his skill while colliding with Reading’s Stephen Hunt five years ago. Gomes himself still bears the scars of a clash which knocked him out during a match with Liverpool in his first season here.

He says: “I don’t think about that during games but I confess, when I’m at home after a hard day’s work and I put my head on the pillow, I do think about that for some while.

“My situation was not as serious as Petr Cech’s but, against Liverpool, I passed out and left the pitch on a stretcher. I’m sure Petr Cech feels the same thing may happen again to him.

“It is a worry for all the goalkeepers in this country, because of the physical nature of the game here. I have a family to bring up, so it is very worrying.”

And, with that, he opens his mouth to show me the injury he suffered to his teeth in the Carling Cup quarter-final victory in 2008 as he went down to stop Philipp Degen. The injury concussed him, requiring six minutes of treatment on the field before he was carried off on a stretcher. He had to have root canal surgery for his lost front tooth.

The bravery Gomes shows is mirrored in the way Spurs have been playing this season.

Fuelled by the club’s first appearance in the Champions League, the goalkeeper says there is a new belief among the squad. “We are playing without fear of suffering a goal,” he says.

“Before, we used too many long balls. We were afraid that we are going to concede a goal, so let’s play safe.

“Now we try to attack, confident we are going to get ahead and not get into trouble at the back. We try to pass the ball better, work the ball. We are showing the quality that we’ve been working at for so long.”

Gomes seeks to initiate such attacks, preferring to throw the ball out rather than kick it.

“When I throw it I try to find first Gareth Bale, or any other player who will keep the ball like Luka Modric or Rafael van der Vaart or Aaron Lennon, who is very fast. I know, when I throw the ball to them, they will keep it and straightaway move the ball forward.”

This strategy has meant that Spurs have been involved in some of the most open games in Europe, going down 4-3 to Inter Milan and 3-2 to Young Boys, conceding all their goals in the first 45 minutes of those matches.

Two weeks today, Spurs will be back in the San Siro for the opening leg of their last-16 tie with AC Milan.

Gomes was part of the PSV team beaten by Milan in the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2005.

Not only does he think Spurs will get the better of the Italians but he also believes his team could be celebrating come the final at Wembley in May.

“In England, all the teams know each other, everybody is trying to avoid defeat; everybody is more defensive. In the Champions League, everybody is playing more open. If we have the space to play, and you get that in the Champions League, we can play against anybody. That PSV team that reached the semi-final did not have the quality Tottenham have got.

“We are playing our best football in the Champions League. The club with the most desire to win it can get there. We at Tottenham have it. I do believe we can win the Champions League.”

Then, with a laugh, he recalls that October night when Bale scored an amazing hat-trick in the San Siro, vanquishing two illustrious Brazilians in the process.

“Before the game Maicon [Inter’s right-back] asked me about Bale. He said, ‘We’ve seen him in a few games and he’s very fast. So tell me what to do with him?’ I told him ‘Yes, he’s a great player.’ After the game, Maicon told me, ‘Wow, he’s not fast, he’s like a flash, a thunder, he’s so, so quick.’

“Even though I’m friends with Maicon and Lucio [Inter’s other Brazilian defender], I was happy they were taken for a ride by Bale. In the Champions League we can go more forward, and that’s what I think made it more difficult for Maicon and Lucio to deal with Bale. Because of his speed, he has real quality in attacking the ball.”

The riches of the Champions League are a world away from Gomes’s early life. Growing up on a farm in Minas Gerais, a south-eastern state in Brazil, he had 10 other siblings, used an outside toilet and had to heat water in a pan for a bath. He had to travel to the city of Sete Lagoas to become a footballer.

He came to the game late, at 14, and even later to goalkeeping. Having started as a striker, he found he could only get into the Sete Lagoas beach team as a keeper. He was 17 and did not turn professional until 19, “I wasn’t good as an outfielder, not a Kaka or Ronaldo, but now I’m very passionate in what I do.”

Yet he harbours a dream that one day, like Pat Jennings, he could score a goal for Tottenham. Jennings did it with a kick from his own penalty area, Gomes’s vision is different: “We are already winning 2-0. At the last minute there is a penalty, I’ll take the penalty and score. Since I started as a striker, it will be a dream come true.”

Gomes must hope the rest of his team can put their game together after the disaster at Fulham if the Champions League dream is to come true.

Heurelho Gomes has just helped launch England Ready, a Tottenham Hotspur Foundation initiative which will see players from the England Cerebral Palsy football team prepare for 2012 Paralympics at the club’s training ground. England’s CP squad – including goalkeepers Leon Taylor and Jordan Raynes (pictured with Gomes) – will get access to elite level training session at the Spurs Lodge as they get ready to represent the country in 2012

      

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