GOALKEEPER Eric Steele was involved in an incredible six promotions as a player before becoming one of the country’s top goalkeeping coaches.
Two of those promotions came in his three years with Brighton & Hove Albion and another during a five-year spell at Watford.
His penchant for coaching began during his time at Brighton who he joined in February 1977 for £20,000 from Peterborough United.
As a replacement for the injured Peter Grummitt, Steele made his debut in a 3-1 defeat away to Crystal Palace but the season was to end in triumph. With Peter Ward making the headlines at one end, Steele kept the ‘keeper’s jersey to the end of the season as Albion won promotion to the old Second Division in runners up spot behind Mansfield Town.
As Albion chased a second successive promotion in 1977-78, Steele’s terrific form meant new signing Graham Moseley had to wait five months to make his debut. Steele played 38 matches but Moseley took over for the final four games of the season, as Albion just missed out.
The following season, manager Alan Mullery opted for Moseley as his first choice but the accident-prone former Derby ‘keeper twice caused himself damage – once with a hedge trimmer and then by falling through a plate glass window – which opened the door for Steele, who, by the season’s end, played 27 times compared to Moseley’s 20.
Steele was between the posts as the Seagulls won 3-1 at St James’ Park to win promotion to the elite for the first time in their history, a particularly sweet moment considering Newcastle had discarded him early on in his career.
In Spencer Vignes’ excellent book A Few Good Men, it’s interesting to hear Moseley’s view about his rival for the shirt. “He was very dedicated, much more so than I ever was. He would train every day after everybody else had finished.”
Nevertheless, at the higher level, it was not long before Mullery decided to dispense with Steele’s services, and it came within a matter of days of an amazing incident at Old Trafford when Steele exchanged punches with his own defender, Gary Williams, in a 2-0 defeat.
Argus reporter John Vinicombe produced a book (Super Seagulls) to document the history of Albion’s memorable first season in the first tier and covered in detail Steele’s somewhat acrimonious departure.
“Mullery knew from the beginning that one day he would have to choose between the lightning-on-the-line reflexes of Steele and the aerial domination of his great rival, Moseley,” said Vinicombe.
Mullery told the reporter: “Eric is an exceptionally good goalkeeper on the line, there’s no doubting that. But I feel he is not as commanding in the air as Graham, especially on crosses.”
Steele’s departure was felt quite keenly by the fans who, as much as his contribution on the pitch, had applauded his coaching in local schools and support for Sussex charities, in particular Chailey Heritage.
Regardless of that, in October 1979, Mullery turned a sizeable profit on his original investment and sold Steele to Second Division Watford for £100,000.
The articulate Steele shared his thoughts with the readers of Shoot! magazine.
“I didn’t want to leave Brighton,” he said. “That’s the first and most important point. It wasn’t my decision, it was Alan Mullery’s. I think he was wrong and I’ll be proved right in time. Once he’d made up his mind, I had to resolve myself to leaving.
“But it hurt. It took me a long time to get to the First Division and I think that in the ten games I played, I proved I was good enough to keep my place at that level. But once I knew I was on the move, I wanted to get away as quickly as I could.
“I went on the list on a Thursday and Watford came straight in for me the next day. I’d signed for them within a week. I was very happy to join such a progressive club. I would never have come here if I didn’t believe we would be a First Division side in a couple of years.”
Steele maintained he was taking one step back to take two forward and must have remembered those thoughts when Watford won promotion to the top division for the first time in their history in 1981-82.
However, vying for the no.1 jersey with Steve Sherwood, he made just 65 appearances in five years and said it was when watching from the stands as Watford played in the 1984 FA Cup Final that he realised he needed to move on.
Born on 15 May 1954, Steele’s path to professional football was the one taken by many talented Geordies – via Wallsend Boys Club to Newcastle United.
He never made it to the first team at St James’ Park but put that right when he joined Peterborough, setting a record of 124 consecutive appearances, including being part of the side that won the Fourth Division championship in 1974.
After those spells with Brighton and Watford, he linked up with former Newcastle United boss Arthur Cox at Derby County, and was part of their promotions from the third tier through to the first.
When he retired in 1988, it was to run a pub, but he also set up Eric Steele Coaching Services and began an illustrious career in which he has been instrumental in the development of some of the country’s top goalkeepers, working with ‘keepers at Manchester City, Aston Villa, Leeds United, Derby County, and Barnsley, as well as overseas in Australia, Switzerland, Norway, Germany and the United States.
When another former Watford ‘keeper, Tony Coton, was forced to retire as Manchester United’s goalkeeping coach because of injury, he recommended Steele as his successor.
Coton told the Republik of Mancunia website: “Eric Steele was my goalkeeping coach when I was a player at Manchester City, and it soon became evident after just a couple of training sessions that Eric was a unique and talented coach.
“Eric was different due to his innovative teaching style. Every session was challenging and interesting, and his breadth and depth of knowledge was second to none. Because of this I decided to call Eric ‘The Guru’, a name that he is now known by throughout the Premier League.”
As well as former Brighton ‘keeper Wayne Henderson at Villa, Steele also coached Kaspar Schmeichel at Manchester City. And at Man Utd, he famously played a part in Ben Foster successfully saving a penalty in the 2009 League Cup Final penalty shoot-out after the game ended 0-0.
Foster explained: “We went into the shootout as well prepared as possible. We have had things to look at over the last couple of days and before the shootout you can see me looking at an iPad with Eric Steele.
“It had actual video on it and showed where players put things. It is a new innovation for us. Eric brought it when he came to the club. I have never seen anything like it. It is a fantastic tool for us.”
At United, he was part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team and helped to recruit current no. 1 David de Gea.
When Ferguson stood down at Old Trafford, Steele returned to Derby – where he’d previously worked as a coach for four years – under Steve McLaren and then went on to coach young goalkeepers for the English FA.
Scrapbook photos from the Albion matchday programme, the Argus, and the republikofmancunia.com.
- Top one shows Steele in action in one of his early Albion matches, a top-of-the-table clash against Mansfield Town in front of a packed Goldstone. I am one of those supporters crammed into that south west corner terrace!
- Peter O’Sullivan (left) looks on as Steele claims a cross in a home game against Crystal Palace.
- Steele and ref Pat Partridge see the funny side of it as spongeman Glen Wilson fixes a facial injury to Steve Piper.
- A thumbs up to the crowd as Steele says his farewell at the Goldstone.
- Steele working at Man Utd with David de Gea.