“Artur Boruc, Artur Boruc, Artur Boruc, Ulster’s Number One!“
Years before “Will Grigg’s On Fire,” the Artur Boruc chant became the unofficial anthem of Northern Ireland. The Green and White Army sung this song loud and proud against the Polish goalkeeper, who loved to rile up opposition fans. Boruc was the Celtic keeper at the time and being a devout Catholic man, fit in particularly well at Parkhead. He infamously blessed himself in front of the Rangers fans in one Old Firm game, causing the police to caution him after the match.
Northern Ireland is a predominantly Protestant country, and as such the crowd was ready to give Boruc a rough ride. Their constant verbal pressure evidently had an effect on Boruc, whose criminal mistake ultimately cost his side the match and put a real dent in their chances of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. This mistake was one of many that the “Holy Goalie” made during his career. In spite of them, he was still a top goalkeeper over his career, with a series of titles for Celtic as well as several memorable moments. His career truly is a paradox; Artur Boruc, good, or bad?
On a windy Saturday evening in late March 2009, Northern Ireland and Poland went into battle in a bid to push for a play-off spot to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. With no traditional big team in the group, every game became a must win, or certainly, a mustn’t lose. With Northern Ireland 2-1 up approaching the hour mark, focus was key for both sides. Warren Feeney had opened the scoring for the Green and White Army, before Ireneusz Jelen levelled for Poland. A young Johnny Evans put Northern Ireland back in front, setting the scene for Boruc to blunder…
Under pressure over 30 yards from goal, Michal Zewlakow passed back to his trusted goalkeeper. The ball was chased down by Feeney, though he was at least 15 yards from
Boruc by the time the keeper met the ball. He had time to take a touch. He had time to hoof the ball out of Windsor Park. He had time to think, but thought alluded Boruc that evening. He calmly strutted out, his body language making it look like he was going to shellac the ball upfield, but to his horror, and the horror of his teammates, his coaches and the Polish fanbase, the ball hit a divot and bounced over his foot. It rolled into the back of the net, egged on by the already jubilant Green and White Army.
The Kop was bouncing. Northern Ireland were happy to win by any means necessary, but to seal the three points courtesy of an Artur Boruc howler? That was magical. The cheers soon turned to jeers; the jeers became targeted towards Boruc. He wasn’t in his Parkhead Paradise anymore, he was in Belfast. In Ulster. “Artur Boruc, Artur Boruc, Artur Boruc, Ulster’s Number One!” ran out all game long and deep into the night. It was so popular amongst the hardcore Northern Ireland support that it was even being sung through a megaphone by fan leader Jim Rainey late into the night in a hotel bar in Chorzów before the return fixture a few months later.
It would be easy to read this opening story of Artur Boruc and cast him off as a failure. This certainly isn’t the showing of a top goalkeeper. Sure, everyone makes mistakes, but mistakes are more easily forgiven by those that don’t bask in controversy. While the miss kick against Northern Ireland was the lowlight of several career errors (and that’s just errors on the pitch), he wasn’t all bad. Three years before his balls-up in Belfast, he was the star of the show for Celtic, ensuring victory over Manchester United.
In a tight Champions League group with the red side of Manchester, Copenhagen and Benfica, Celtic hosted United on the penultimate matchday. An early goal by set-piece specialist Shunsuke Nakamura put the Bhoys a goal up, but late drama saw Celtic concede a penalty. Shaun Maloney inadvertently touched the ball with his hand when attempting to block a Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick. The referee had no choice but to show Maloney a yellow card and point to the spot. The outcome of this was huge for both sides. Louis Saha was tasked with striking the penalty, naturally confident after scoring from the spot against Glasgow’s green side at Old Trafford a few weeks before. He knew that if he scored, United would win the group. Saha struck the ball, hard. Boruc leapt to his right, getting two strong hands to the ball to push it away from danger. This save ensured that Celtic would progress into the last-16 of Europe’s elite competition for the first time since it was rebranded as the
One of his most famous penalty exploits was against Spartak Moscow in the final round of qualification for the 2007-08 Champions League. Boruc psyched out Roman Pavlyuchenko following a soft penalty awarded in the first half, the tall Russian striker slamming his penalty off the frame of the goal. The game ended up finishing 1-1, 2-2 on aggregate, and a penalty shootout ensued.
Boruc saved not one but two penalties as the Bhoys edged out the Russians. His first save caught the ball with his arm outstretched, thwarting Titov as he dived to his left. The second save sealed the victory. Boruc used his whole body to deflect the ball, again diving to his left, much to the dismay of Maxim Kalinichenko. Celtic progressed to the groups and were drawn against AC Milan, Benfica and Shakhtar Donetsk, progressing to the last-16 once more, where Barcelona defeated them.
This penalty save against United was superb, but it was not a fluke. Artur Boruc has a very strong record against penalties, saving 26.8% of penalties he has faced (discounting those in penalty shootouts). His first came in 2003 for Legia Warsaw, in a 1-0 victory over Polonia Warsaw in a cup match. Over the next 15 years (and a couple of years prior to this), Boruc faced 56 penalties. His large 6″4 frame in the goal is an imposing figure, and unlike goalkeepers like Thibaut Courtois or Gianluigi Donnarumma, he is not spindling.
He fills his frame and bounces up and down, left and right, making the opponent feel they must hit the very corners to beat him. This is a great technique as it boosts the chances of his opponent hitting their penalty high or wide. Of these 56 penalties, Boruc has saved 15. In his first international start – his third ever appearance for Poland – he saved a penalty struck by USA forward Brian McBride.
He has saved a penalty for nearly every club he has played for, against oppositions of all levels. His penalty save against Inverness striker Craig Dargo in 2005 saved Celtic from an embarrassing pre-Christmas loss. His penalty save against Leicester around New Year’s Day stifled the Foxes party, earning his side Bournemouth a draw and ultimately making Leicester’s fairytale run to the title even more unlikely. His last penalty save (at the time of writing) was in March 2017, and against arguably the most reputable player he had faced – Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It’s not only saving penalties that Boruc excels at. He is rather adept at scoring them too, as he showed in a Scottish League Cup semi-final shootout against Dundee United at Hampden Park. After a fiercely-fought semi-final, the score remained 0-0 and a penalty shootout was the outcome. Deep into sudden death in an enthralling shoot-out, Lee Wilkie watched in horror as Artur Boruc dived low to his left to deny the Dundee United skipper the net.
The pressure got to Glenn Loovens, who saw his penalty saved by United’s Polish keeper, Lukasz Zaluska. Sudden death continued. In what was a duel between both Polish
goalkeepers, up came their time to shoot. Zaluska calmly rolled the ball beyond Boruc to put Dundee United in the driving seat. Boruc is a cocky man, and evidently did not like being outfoxed by his opposite number. He ran up, his body language portraying the look of someone who was going to rocket the football into the back of the net. Instead, he hit it high. Not high over the bar, but high into the roof of the net. By the time Willo Flood missed his penalty and Scott McDonald won it for Celtic, 24 penalties had been struck. Goalkeeper Artur Boruc had easily bagged the sweetest strike of the night.
Over the course of his career, Boruc played for several clubs, including Italian side Fiorentina, as well as in the English Premier League with Southampton and Bournemouth. While he has left a legacy with every side he has played with, Celtic was by far and away his true home. Despite the odd mistake, the fans adored him, primarily because of his obvious hatred for Celtic’s arch-rivals, Rangers.
The feeling was mutual. In the intense atmosphere of an Old Firm derby, Boruc would be berated all game long by Rangers fans, as so often is the way. Goalkeepers spend their entire games just yards away from a stand full of fans, and in a derby atmosphere like this, the heat is ramped out. Boruc was good, and he knew it. He would strut his stuff, he would pound his chest, he would pump his fist and he would run like a man possessed in celebration when his team scored.
If the blue half of Glasgow didn’t hate Boruc enough before the first Old Firm derby match of the 2006-07 season, they sure did loathe him afterwards. As touched on at the beginning of this article, the Old Firm rivalry goes beyond football. The rivalry stems from a foul religious dispute that still plagues the game today. Celtic are synonymous with Catholicism, while Rangers are traditionally a Protestant club.
Celtic fans christened Boruc (if you’ll pardon the pun), the Holy Goalie. He routinely blessed himself by touching the earth as he ran onto the pitch at the beginning of games, crossing his chest afterwards. On 25 August 2006, Boruc ran out of the tunnel at Ibrox and jogged over to his goalmouth. He removed his gloves and blessed himself, very obviously directed towards the Rangers crowd behind the goal, as well as an alleged “V” sign.
This was intended to rile up the crowd in an already fraught atmosphere. He was cautioned by the Strathclyde Police after the match. He also made a beckoning “come on” gesture towards the crowd, forcing the police and matchday stewards to get involved. Boruc stirred the pot a couple of years later by wearing a “God bless the Pope” t-shirt under his Celtic jersey. Naturally these actions, while infuriating the Rangers fans, endeared him further to the Celtic fan base.
While Boruc was adored by his fans, he wasn’t loved by all the Celtic family. A livewire goalkeeper, he lived the stereotype that goalkeepers are a little bit bonkers. The majority of his teammates got on fine with Artur. Whether you loved him or hated him, he was certainly an important cog in the Celtic team.
One player despised Boruc, however; Aiden McGeady. The Republic of Ireland winger hated the Polish shot-stopper, as Barry Robson recalled in a recent interview. He recounted one story of how Boruc would wind McGeady up by refusing to dive for his shots in training. It was petty, it was childish, and it frustrated wee Aiden to no end. Boruc would also occasionally punch McGeady in the back of the head around the training ground or at the canteen, with no rhyme nor reason.
One day, as Robson explained, McGeady couldn’t shake it off. He took the punch from Boruc, who wandered in the direction of the showers. McGeady sat there, fizzing with fury, before deciding enough was enough. He stormed out of the room and into the showers to confront Artur Boruc. He didn’t start a verbal war, nor did he throw a punch. He walked up to Boruc and aimed a roundhouse kick, causing several stitches to his own skull.
As he balanced on one leg to deliver the kick, he slipped on the wet floor and cracked his head off the tiles. Boruc at least did wee Aiden the favour of not head-punching the bloodied boy on the ground. Naturally, then-manager Gordon Strachan laughed at the pair, in lieu of a fine.
Artur Boruc still plays football today, though spent all of last season as a back-up. He has enjoyed a solid few seasons in Italy and England since his departure from Celtic in 2010, but his only trophy since his departure from Glasgow was the English Championship in 2015.
His confidence took a hit after his calamitous game against Northern Ireland in 2009. He lost his starting spot for the national team for a period, a sad state of affairs considering that he was the number one for his side at the 2006 World Cup and 2008 European Championships. His spell in Italy was mistake-laden and he was in and out of favour at his two English teams. He did the right thing in leaving Celtic in 2010. He wanted a new challenge and certainly got what he desired on that front, though the better part of his career certainly lies in Glasgow.
Mistakes were a large part of Artur Boruc’s career, yet to many, it isn’t these that stick in the memory. It was the penalty saves. The passion. The embodiment of the Old Firm. Boruc splits opinions. To some, he is the “Holy Goalie,” to others, he is Ulster’s number one. Whether you love Artur Boruc or hate him, it is hard to deny the legacy he has left, particularly on Scottish football. Football is all about characters, and it takes a foolish person to deny that Boruc is a just that.