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.
The furore surrounding Joe Hart’s performance in the recent Champions League defeat for Manchester City has even seen calls from some quarters for him to be replaced at the club. 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 Jack Butland 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 have 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.