Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Experience is vital for West Brom's Josh Griffiths – good and bad

Who will be the busiest footballer in the country today?

Manchester City open the scoring past Josh Griffiths of West Bromwich Albion. (AMA)
Manchester City open the scoring past Josh Griffiths of West Bromwich Albion. (AMA)

Well, there is every chance that a young West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper could find himself at the heart of the action from the first whistle to last.

Josh Griffiths has been on loan at Cheltenham Town since the start of the season. Today the 19-year old comes face to face with the best team in the country, on current form. Manchester City have won nine games on the spin in all competitions since that 1-1 draw with Albion back in mid-December, and will be overwhelming favourites to get past the League Two club in their FA Cup fourth-round tie at Whaddon Road this evening.

“It’s exciting, it’s massive for Cheltenham Town,” Griffiths said, when we met up in the Cotswolds this week, for an interview to be shown on Soccer Saturday today. “I think about the names you can potentially come up against, I’m sure I’ll be busy and hopefully I’ll have a big part to play on what could be a memorable night.”

Griffiths has been at Albion since the age of 10, when he was signed on schoolboy forms by Mark Naylor, who now works at neighbours Villa.

“I was probably quite late to it compared to most goalkeepers,” Griffiths continues. “I tried it when I was six or seven and didn’t really enjoy it that much.

“I went away for a few years and came back at under-9s and played at Hereford United, my local club, and after a season of Sunday League I went to West Brom and it just took off from there really.

“Initially I was just playing for fun, I probably didn’t realise I was decent in goal until I was 15 or when I signed my first full-time contract, so I could leave school and focus on training. That’s when I thought it was serious, but up until then I was just enjoying training and playing games.”

Griffiths now works closely with Albion’s under-23s coach, and former first-team star, Boaz Myhill.

“Boaz has played at the highest level and he’s got great little game tips and preparation tips,” adds Griffiths. “He’s someone I always call or speak to if I’m not sure about anything.

“We go through my games for Cheltenham as well. Someone who has been there and done it like that is really helpful for me.”

The teenager has shown some great form for Cheltenham since his move. At Bolton last Saturday he pulled off a string of fine saves to help his team to a 1-1 draw. In midweek, though, Griffiths was the centre of attention for a reason he would rather forget. When Newport County goalkeeper Tom King launched a goal-kick into the swirling storm gusting through the ground, nobody could have predicted what would happen next. One bounce later the ball was in the back of Griffiths’ net. It can be a cruel game. “I don’t need telling it was a mistake, their goalkeeper has scored,” he reflects. “It’s not a nice feeling. It was a long ball that got caught up, it was a horrible night, it just carried on travelling and hit the ground and picked up again. When it hit the ground I thought, ‘I’m in trouble here’ and I didn’t have enough time to get back.

“To be fair I was nowhere near it, it just bounced and looped up over me. It was just one of those things, you get the ball out of the net and when the ball is back in play you forget about it and play the rest of the 90 minutes.

“You’re going to make mistakes at 19, any goalkeeper makes mistakes, it’s just the way you react from it. It’s only going to make me stronger, I suppose.”

Griffiths speaks about the incident with real maturity. A level-headed character with a steely determination, he received the backing of the Cheltenham manager, Michael Duff, in the aftermath of the mistake.

“He’s at a Premier League club and the reason why they send him out on loan is so that he makes his mistakes with teams like us rather than in the Premier League,” Duff explained.

“He’s been top drawer for us, he kept us in the game on Saturday against Bolton, and he’s got a chance of going right to the top. He’s got a good presence and good demeanour and he’ll learn from it.”

“That’s really nice of the gaffer to say things like that, he’s been great for developing my self-belief and confidence,” Griffiths adds.

“He tells you what you’ve done well and where he wants you to improve so for him to say that after the game, it’s nice for a young goalkeeper to hear.”

The rest of the midweek 1-1 draw with Newport passed without incident. The young man between the sticks did not have another save to make, but that did not mean he was reduced to a bystander.

Cheltenham’s possession-based football starts at the back, and Griffiths played the role of sweeper on more than one occasion. Duff rates the goalkeeper’s decision-making and, watching on from the stand, it was clear that Griffiths is a vocal presence in defence and just as confident with the ball at his feet as in his hands.

He admits to watching the top keepers closely on television, constantly looking for ways to improve his own game.

“I think most goalkeepers are students of the game nowadays, especially the likes of Ederson, Allison and De Gea,” he says. “Everyone has got things to improve on, so I constantly watch them and look at how good they are on the ball and in their position. I want to learn from the best.”

The early signs are that Griffiths is taking everything on board. At 19 he is one of the youngest keepers playing first-team football and is certainly one to watch, with the potential to go to the very top of the English game.

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