An interview with Vince Bartram, by Callum McFadden for WFi.
You joined Wolves from non-League as a teenager in 1986. How much did you learn from your time at Molineaux?
“I signed for Wolves on my 17th birthday from non-League. I was studying for my A-Levels at school so I was only going in to train once per week so that I could focus on my studies.
“I was playing for the reserves when Tommy Docherty was the manager of the club and gradually as time went on I was in and around the first team.
”It was a rough time for Wolves as they were in the Third Division when I joined before being relegated to the Fourth Division which was the lowest level that the club ever reached.
“In my second season, I played for the reserve team in the Midland Intermediate League alongside senior pros such as Andy King and Danny Crainie who were returning from injury or were not in the team on a Saturday. It was a good level.
“Brian Little then gave me my first team debut at the club in Division Four which was an incredible feeling. Wolves were patient with me which I needed having arrived from Non-League.”
You had loan spells at Blackpool, Cheltenham and West Brom while you were at Wolves. How crucial were those loans for your development?
“They were important without doubt. Blackpool gave me an opportunity to play games which was ideal for me as a young goalkeeper. Cheltenham was a loan for only one month but I enjoyed that experience too.
”West Brom was later on in my Wolves career and I went in there as a number two goalkeeper to compete for a place in their team.
“As much as the loans helped, Wolves employed Eric Steele who later worked at Manchester United with Sir Alex Ferguson as a goalkeeping coach.
“Not every club had a goalkeeper coach in that era so Eric was a key part of my development even though he was working on a part-time basis with the club.”
Harry Redknapp signed you for Bournemouth in 1991. He made you his number one goalkeeper and you went on to play over 100 times for the club. How important were your years at Bournemouth in terms of establishing yourself in the game?
“They were crucial. Harry told me that I would be his number one goalkeeper when I met him.
“Gerry Peyton was moving on from the club so Harry wanted me to come in and be the established number one goalkeeper and be backed up by the club’s apprentice goalkeepers such was the low budget he had.
“Sal Bibbo and Neil Moss were the apprentices and I enjoyed working with them.
“In my first season at the club, I did not miss a game and over the course of my time at the club that pattern was repeated. I rarely missed games and I was selected regularly which every goalkeeper wants.
“Jimmy Case and Kevin Bond were among the senior players at the club who knew the lower leagues and we combined them with promising youngsters like Keith Rowland and Neil Masters.
“We just missed out on the playoffs in my first season at the club which was a disappointment.
“That led to Harry moving on and being replaced by Tony Pulis who was in his first managerial role. He was tasked with rebuilding the club with young players as the budget was cut and he did that.
“I still live in Bournemouth now so the move was one that had a lasting impact on me as a player and on my live as a whole.”
Arsenal signed you from Bournemouth in 1994. What was your reaction to interest from such a massive club?
“(Laughs) I could not believe it to be honest because I was all set to sign for Leicester City under Brian Little. He gave me my debut at Wolves and he asked me to join him at Leicester which I was all set to do.
“I was leaving Bournemouth to travel up to Leicester when I was stopped by the green keeper of my local golf club who spotted me going towards my car.
”He asked where I was going and I explained that I was going to sign for Leicester. He told me to hold off because he was friends with Steve Birkenshaw – Arsenal’s chief scout – who had been watching me play and wanted to take me to Arsenal to back up David Seaman.
“Literally, as I was driving, Arsenal called me to explain their intention to sign me and I left Leicester to go and sign for Arsenal the next day.
”The opportunity to sign for a club such as Arsenal does not come around often and that was an opportunity that I could not turn down.
“I knew I would be working with the England goalkeeper David Seaman and I wanted to learn from him and train with him.
”I dreamed of pulling on the Arsenal jersey once and thankfully I was able to do so on almost a dozen occasions during my four years at the club.”
Just how good was David Seaman, in your opinion, having worked closely with him for a number of years?
”David was the best. Simple as that. There are some goalkeepers that you watch on TV and think, I wonder how good they really are.
”Ian Walker was one of those for me. I was not sure how he was based on watching him on TV but once I saw him live, I realised how good a goalkeeper he was.
”However, David was not like that. He was one who looked superb on TV games and was even better in the flesh.
“He could catch the ball from crosses or from shots with ease. He was a commanding presence in the dressing room and on the pitch.
“He was a massive part of Arsenal’s success and I do not think he gets the credit that he deserves from some quarters. He was a world-class goalkeeper and by far the best that I worked with.”
You trained alongside the likes of Paul Merson, Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal. What were they like to work with as a goalkeeper? Did they try and wind you up?
“Merse was a great character and he was one that loves trying to chip the goalkeepers with the outside of his foot. He was such a confident player and could do things like that in an instant.
“Ian Wright was the best finisher that I have ever seen. He could score from any angle and he was dedicated to bettering his game.
“Dennis Bergkamp was the same. For someone so gifted, he loved to stay back after training and practice shots, free kicks and penalties.
“He would regularly ask me to stay back and work on extra practice with him which I was more than happy to do.
“Marc Overmars was the same in that regard. We all shared great banter together and trained hard together too.”
What was it like to play at Highbury?
“Highbury was a truly special place. Reserve games were played there so I played a lot there without a crowd and even then, you could feel the aura of the stadium.
“Walking through the marble halls was a privilege and an honour.
”I was lucky enough to play in the Premier League for Arsenal at Highbury too. Those are memories that I will cherish and never forget.
“From the heated dressing room floors to the old baths, I can picture it all like it was yesterday. Great times.
“I actually took my son to see Highbury recently. Obviously, it is flats now but the old entrance is still kept as it was and it was great for him to see the old exterior of the place. It took me down memory lane while being able to tell him all about the magic of the ground.”
You finished your career at Gillingham where you played in play-off finals. One filled with heartbreak against Manchester City, and the other filled with jubilation to reach the Championship for the first time in the club’s history. How would you reflect on both of those finals and the contrasting emotions now with hindsight?
”How long have you got? (Laughs).
“I had been to Wembley with Wolves and Arsenal a few times without having the chance to play there.
“I never played there until I went with Gillingham so it was an incredible moment to reach Wembley as a player.
“The City game is an iconic one that is always talked about because it was a full house and because of the madness of the game.
“We were 2-0 up within thirty minutes and living a dream or so we thought. City then pegged us back through Paul Dickov before we suffered the agony of losing on penalties.
”Walking away knowing that we had played so well and lost was hard to take.
“Thankfully, we could return within twelve months to win promotion at Wembley against Wigan Athletic to reach the second tier.
“That was a wonderful feeling because we should have gone up automatically. Winning promotion no matter what way you do it is fantastic and my time at Gillingham will live long in the memory.”
You went into goalkeeping coaching following your retirement from the game. Was that always what you wanted to do and what does the role of a goalkeeper coach look like on a daily basis?
“I did not necessarily plan on going into coaching but I did my UEFA B licence when I was a player so I had the qualifications if I wanted to go into coaching in future.
“Immediately after my retirement, I needed a break from football after playing from a young age and having to retire through injury at 36.
“I actually worked in a betting shop after I retired then I worked in a Vauxhall dealership before I returned to football with Southampton.
“I was given a full-time role with the club working within the academy set up for over a decade before becoming their goalkeeping scout for the last two years.
“A goalkeeping coach is a full-time and full-on role. Your job is to develop a goalkeeper technically, tactically, mentally, psychologically and physically.
“Each of those aspects are crucial for a goalkeeper at any level of football and you work as hard as you can with your goalkeepers to give them each of those skills and the confidence to succeed.
“I have just left Southampton but I hope to return to football soon because it is what I know and I enjoy coaching the next generation of goalkeepers.
“That being said, I am aware that there are only 92 goalkeeping coaching roles within the football league and that I need to be fully prepared and ready to return to the game should the right opportunity arise.”