England has a rich history of quality goalkeepers and some have even been considered as the best in the world. Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence, David Seaman have all graced football pitches around the world and been lauded and admired from afar. But there is a crisis in the position where English football has traditionally had a wealth of options.
In any football team there are four positions which are crucial to its success and they are generally regarded as the spine of the team, goalkeeper, central defence, central midfield and striker. As I discussed in my article ‘Why International Football Matters’, the prevalence of foreign players in the Premier League is reducing the choice available to the England manager, but what is even more alarming is Premier League clubs desire to choose foreign players in these key positions. None is more evident or more pronounced than in goal. There is only room for 1 per side, so the national manager will only have a maximum 20 to choose from of players playing top level football. Football is particularly unusual in this regard in that it’s unlikely another player within the first 11 will swap places with the goalkeeper, meaning you can’t just train a player into a new position like you can for other parts of the pitch.
This dearth of English goalkeeping talent has been steadily getting worse over the past 25 years. Back in 1986-87 of the 22 first choice keepers only 4 were unavailable for the England team. Bruce Grobbelaar (Zimbabwe), Neville Southall (Wales), Martin Thomas (Wales), Bryan Gunn (Scotland). When the Premier League began there were 7 first team goalkeepers who were unavailable for the national side. Southall (Wales), Gunn (Scotland), Neil Sullivan (Scotland), Mark Crossley (Wales), Tony Roberts (Wales), Alan Kelly (Ireland) and Peter Schmeichel (Denmark). Fast forward to this season and of the Premier League club’s first choice goalkeeper so far, just 3 are qualified to play for England.
If that was the case this would leave us with just John Ruddy at Norwich and David Stockdale at Fulham. With all respect to both clubs they are unlikely to be competing in Europe next season and may even find a decent cup run beyond their reach, which begs the question of the quality of competition these two promising keepers are experiencing. There is also the fact that of those two only Ruddy has seen any on-field action for the national side when he came on to replace JackButland in a friendly against Italy in August 2012.
When you think back to 1986 and 1992 and consider the competition which Peter Shilton had to fight in staying England’s number 1 you get an impression of how little there is for Hart to worry about in being England’s main choice for many years to come. In 1986 Shilton was up against Nigel Spink, who won a European Cup winners medal with Aston Villa, Phil Parkes, who won the FA Cup with West Ham and was one of the best keepers QPR have ever had, John Lukic (Arsenal), Tony Godden (Chelsea and formerly West Brom), Chris Turner (Man Utd, formerly Sunderland), Tony Coton (Watford and Birmingham), Steve Ogrizovic (Coventry). These were all fine goalkeepers and you could argue if Shilton or Clemence hadn’t been around they would’ve had more opportunities at international level than they got. Add to that list the names of Martin Hodge (Sheffield Wednesday), Dave Beasant (Wimbledon), Bob Bolder (Charlton) and David Seaman (QPR), you realise the talent pool for English goalkeepers was pretty full.
When we look at 1992, Spink and Ogrizovic are still there for the same clubs and Lukic (Leeds), Seaman (Arsenal), Beasant (Chelsea) and Coton (Man City) are still playing but with different clubs in the top division. But these names were then joined by players such as Ian Walker (Tottenham), Kevin Pressman (Sheffield Wednesday), Tim Flowers (Southampton), David James (Liverpool), Nigel Martyn (Crystal Palace). Only Pressman out of that list never made it to the full national team although he won an U21 cap and England ‘B’ honours.
Now it is not uncommon for other countries to choose their goalkeepers from a list of players who play in other leagues. However, with so few English players playing outside their own country this is not something England can easily boast. Celtic’s Fraser Forster would seem to be the only option currently playing outside the English league, but at least he is getting Champions League experience and his performance against Barcelona last November would suggest he should give Hart a decent run for his money. Outside of Hart, Ruddy and Forster you are now looking at the likes of Jack Butland who has played at every level for his country and was signed by Stoke City in January but has yet to play for the club and is currently playing Championship football on loan at Barnsley. Robert Green, who may always be remembered for his mistake during the fateful World Cup campaign in 2010, is also currently saving Championship strikers’ shots with QPR after a move to the club which has probably put paid to his international career.
Of the other candidates for the job, Scott Carson is playing for Wigan in the Championship and Ben Foster is struggling to get into the first team at West Brom. Now don’t misunderstand me I am not saying that playing Championship level football should preclude you from representing your country but there cannot be many countries who have reached the latter stages of a world competition with their first choice goalkeeper not playing top division football anywhere in the world. As the goalkeeping position is considered to be so crucial, can you risk such an inexperienced player, where you may be able to dispense such a player elsewhere on the pitch?
Is it time to give Ruddy and Stockdale more of a run in the national side? What if Manchester City decide they need to upgrade Hart in order to win the trophies they desire? Where else would he go? It would be a further nail in the coffin of the remarkable English goalkeeping heritage if the first choice for the national side was playing reserve team football, and surely English football would’ve reached a new low if their number one choice played in front of more people in places such as Moldova, Albania and Bosnia than he did at club level.
In many other sports, teams have often been guilty of hanging onto stars too long and neglecting the importance of planning for their eventual retirement, but in English football can this accusation really be labelled at its treatment of the goalkeeper? After Clemence retired in 1984 Peter Shilton was the number one choice, almost unopposed, up to his own retirement after Italia ’90. His replacement was Chris Woods, who first came to prominence when as an 18-year old he was Man of the Match in the 1978 League Cup Final standing in for Shilton at Nottingham Forest. By 1990 he was winning trophies with Rangers. Soon he was under pressure from David Seaman although it was Nigel Martyn who got the reserve goalkeeper place at Euro ’92. By 1996 Seaman was England’s first choice and remained so up to World Cup 2002. But he was accompanied by players such as Martyn, David James, Ian Walker, Richard Wright and Tim Flowers. Seaman played his last game for England in 2002 and then it was the turn of David James, who himself had waited 10 years for his time in the spotlight. James was then succeeded by Paul Robinson who was now at Tottenham after making an impact at Leeds United. It was at this point things started to unravel for the English keeper.
At the time the cupboard seemed just as well stocked as before with emerging talents such as Chris Kirkland and Scott Carson coming to the fore. It was Carson who replaced Kirkland at Liverpool in January 2005 but the arrival of Pepe Reina in July 2005 signalled the end for him at Anfield. This is where English keepers needed to negotiate loan deals to try and maintain first team football and still be in the reckoning for England selection. During the fateful Euro 2008 qualifying campaign England’s keepers made the headlines for howlers during crucial matches against Croatia, Paul Robinson in Maksimir and Carson at Wembley. By the time Fabio Capello took over he reverted to David James with Robert Green emerging as a possible successor. Green’s own mistake in the opening game of World Cup 2010 lead to Capello losing confidence in him and James was again called upon. Hart has taken over ever since and looks as accomplished as many keepers down the years but mistakes for goalkeepers these days tend to be focussed on like never before. Ben Foster emerged as another good candidate but he has taken ‘indefinite leave’ of being available for selection by his country and as he is struggling to force a first team spot at West Brom, would seem unwilling to fulfil his international potential.
As I have just said, mistakes by goalkeepers seem to be highlighted so much more these days. The recent focus on Hart ignores mistakes made by other players on the pitch. In stark contrast to the riches bestowed upon strikers, goalkeepers only need to make one mistake for their whole presence to come under scrutiny. If performance-related pay was the norm for footballers there seems little doubt goalkeepers could be amongst the highest earners in the team. What gets forgotten when a keeper doesn’t quite save a shot in the way the beer-swilling, pie-eating, armchair fan thinks he should, is that further back during the move a defender was out of position or a midfielder pulled out of a challenge he should’ve made. But it is the keeper who gets it in the neck. Go back through the archives and you’ll find mistakes made by Clemence, Shilton and Seaman, but I guess that was back in a time when the pursuit of perfection in football was less prevalent.
So where are the opportunities for English goalkeepers? In the most recent Euro U21 tournament, Jack Butland was joined in the squad by Declan Rudd (Preston) and Jason Steele (Middlesbro’). Whether any of these go on to become the number one for their country remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain is both Rudd and Steele may need to up the standard of the football they’re playing. Norwich would seem to hold the key to the England keeper as Ruddy is pushing to replace Hart at international level and Declan Rudd is on contract at Norwich, but currently loaned out at Preston. Ironically, Rudd’s first appearance for Norwich came when he replaced Fraser Forster, who himself was on loan at the club, in 2009. But that could have something to do with the fact the Norwich manager at the time was Bryan Gunn, who was Norwich’s first choice keeper in both 1986 and 1992.