Once a Manchester United goalkeeper – now England's best striker coach

Ipswich Town Football Club coach, Lee Grant at the training ground in Rushmere St Andrew - Jason Bye
Ipswich Town Football Club coach, Lee Grant at the training ground in Rushmere St Andrew - Jason Bye

Little is known about the goalkeeper’s union, a shadowy lobbying group which operates on the margins of football, protecting its members, firing back at critics and collectively shouting “away!” every time a corner is delivered into the box.

Lee Grant was a card-carrying member in his 22-year playing career but now, coaching at Ipswich Town, he fears his time is up. “I reckon anybody who would watch one of my sessions or hear the way I communicate with our strikers, the amount of love I give them, they will say my membership to the union would be revoked,” he says. “I think I'm hanging on by a thread at the moment.”

Grant has taken the unique step of turning a career in goal into a coaching position with a focus on helping forwards. “I’ve had a bit of stick from [Ipswich goalkeeper coach] Rene Gilmartin saying I’ve crossed to the dark side.”

The longer we speak the more his career path makes sense. Who better to give strikers a crucial edge than someone whose career has been spent trying to stop them? “Across 20 odd years of being in goal and conceding so many goals, I can remember so many so vividly. They are etched into my mind and psyche.

"I use that to help guide the forward players occasionally, for the sorts of outcomes that no goalkeeper would like." And it works, too: this season, Burnley are the only side in England to have scored more goals than Ipswich.

Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Lee Grant - PA/Anthony Devlin
Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Lee Grant - PA/Anthony Devlin

When coaching finishing he tells his players what he would least like to face in specific moments. These are closely-guarded trade secrets, like how goalkeepers on the move when a player has a shooting chance fear nothing more than a hard, early shot towards their far post. “We talk about foot patterns, how quickly we can get shots off, arriving onto the ball as quickly as possible, shortening steps.

“I like it when our strikers are dictating to the goalkeepers. I enjoy it when we’re the ones leading the dance. If I think back to myself between the sticks, that was probably where I felt most vulnerable, when a striker had that real clarity about what they were trying to achieve and were able to do it with speed and precision.

Grant spent most of his playing career in the Championship, starting with Derby County before time at Sheffield Wednesday and Burnley. In his second spell at Derby, then-manager Nigel Pearson told Grant he was taking away his squad number (1), and status as the club’s first-choice keeper. That season concluded with a player of the year award at Stoke in the Premier League, before an unlikely four-year coda as third-choice with his boyhood club Manchester United.

His modest aim was to make an appearance and his debut came at Old Trafford against boyhood club Derby in the League Cup, replacing an injured Sergio Romero. “The Derby fans were singing my name as I came on and the Man Utd fans were probably thinking ‘who’s this?!’” A Europa League appearance followed and Grant still holds the record as the oldest ever player to make a European debut for United.

Jose Mourinho signed him and Grant has only happy memories. “I found him really warm. I went to him with something, a private moment in his office and we had a really good conversation. I was really humbled by how he dealt with that scenario.

“Many of the players had a great relationship with Jose, it wasn’t everything the media wanted it to be.” This makes me consider how frequently the notion of a manager ‘losing the dressing room’ is cited as a reason for their departure. It must be quite unusual, though, for an entire playing staff to turn collectively on their coach?

Ipswich Town Football Club coach, Lee Grant - Jason Bye
Ipswich Town Football Club coach, Lee Grant - Jason Bye

“That just doesn’t really happen,” says Grant, and it certainly did not seem to be the case when Mourinho’s successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was coming to the end of his spell. But what about Ralf Rangnick? The perception from not just the media but the public was that a caretaker with a finite end date could not thrive at such a big club. “That is a fair assessment. It would have been difficult for anybody in that scenario.

“Especially when you have a squad that's really demanding and really want to do well. They're hungry for security and everything that goes with it.”

Grant feels his spell as a backup keeper has made him a better coach and believes more in his position should be following his lead. “I’d love nothing more than for more goalkeepers to really see that they've got lots to offer the game. The traits that you have in that position, you tend to be a good leader and vocal. You spend a lot of time really thinking about the game, I know I thought about it incessantly.

“I remember Guardiola talking about Arteta when he was working alongside him at City and saying that 'Mikel will be a wonderful coach and an excellent manager because he's played in the centre of the pitch.'

“I actually thought to myself I think our position on the pitch is slightly better. I think we've got as good as if not a better view.”