Robert Green’s error for England at this summer’s World Cup turned him into an overnight figure of fun in this country. The perception was that it was an accident waiting to happen, not least because he was the 3rd choice goalkeeper in the eyes of most pundits. And yet, who were these other options? A 39 year old with injury troubles and a 23 year old young buck who had spent the season loaned out by the club that owned him. In a week where one of those options, David James, has signed for Bristol City of the Championship, Ghostgoal asks: What is happening to England’s goalkeepers?
Increase in Foreign Players
It is a familiar lament of the 6-0-6 phone-in brigade – foreign players are taking the places of English players. However, in terms of outfield players, the influx of overseas talent has been tempered by the introduction of a squad-based system over the past decade. With six outfield substitutes now named in matchday squads and invariably three being introduced in each game, there are still opportunities for home-based players. On average, 82 English players started Premiership matches each weekend last season. Given squad rotation of outfield players, this is probably sufficient to provide the England coach with over 100 eligible players to work with. However, the goalkeeper position really needs to be looked at separately because here the paucity of options becomes clear…
Decline in Number of Top-Flight English Keepers
You don’t have to go back too far to see the dramatic decline of the English goalkeeper in the Premiership. In the 1994-95 season the Premiership was well under way. Notably, Juergen Klinsmann had arrived that summer and foreign stars were lighting up the English game. Even so, 25 English goalkeepers made 460 starts between them in the Premier league that season with 16 keepers getting into double figures, including 9 England internationals. Fast forward to 2009-10 and the number of English goalkeepers and the number of games played had both more than halved. Indeed, only 6 keepers got into double figures for appearances last season – Joe Hart (who finished 9th with Birmingham), Paul Robinson (10th), Chris Kirkland (16th), Robert Green (17th), Matt Duke (19th) and David James (20th).
The problem is perhaps highlighted best by the players not included in the 6 names listed above. Ben Foster managed to play 2 games for England last season despite making just 9 Premiership appearances for Manchester United in their campaign (less than Gary Walsh did for them 15 years ago) and finishing the season as their 3rd choice keeper. Scott Carson, who played for England as recently as November 2008, spent last season in the Championship with West Bromwich Albion.
A Stark Contrast
I willingly accept it has already become a little tired to wax lyrical about the malaise in the English game by contrasting the performance of the national team with that of their German counterparts this summer. However, it would be remiss not to draw attention to the relative standings of the two nations’ goalkeepers from last year’s European U21 Championships Final – Schalke’s Manuel Neuer and Scott Loach of Watford. Whilst Neuer has already amassed 122 appearances in the Bundesliga, Loach is yet to make a Premiership appearance. Indeed, the Watford keeper may consider himself fortunate to be operating in England’s second tier given that one of his recent predecessors as England U21 keeper, Joe Lewis of Peterborough, once again finds himself plying his trade in the third tier of English football.
One reaction to the situation outlined above is to take the view that this is all part of globalisation.. a testament to the strength of the game in England.. the cream will surely rise to the top if they are good enough won’t they?
Sadly, I am unconvinced it is that straightforward. A look at the previous generation of England goalkeepers – David Seaman, Nigel Martyn and Tim Flowers – reveals that they were able to gain many years of valuable top flight experience at the likes of QPR, Crystal Palace and Southampton respectively before they were to gain international recognition in their mid-20s. The chance to develop as a player and learn through coaching and experience is arguably more vital for a goalkeeper, where decision-making is a quality of such importance, than it is for outfield players – and yet this development is far less assured when the player is training and playing in the lower leagues…..
The Coaching Problem
It is fair to say the transfer of Adam Legzdins from Crewe Alexandra to Burton Albion is an unremarkable one in many ways. Although highly rated by Steve Bruce as a youngster at Birmingham City, Legzdins has since found himself in the lower divisions in search of game time. However, these quotes from the young goalkeeper really should raise an eyebrow or two:
“I felt, in the stage of my career that I am at, Crewe wasn’t the best place for me to progress. Not having a goalkeeper coach there was a factor in me wanting to move on because I know that I need to work hard and improve”.
To anyone in any doubt as to the significance of talented young English keepers being forced to develop their careers further and further down the pyramid then this is surely an eye-opener. Remarkably, Crewe Alexandra under Dario Gradi are actually regarded as one of the more progressive of ‘small’ professional clubs in this country and have Academy status.. but no goalkeeper coach? Indeed, they are far from an isolated case – it is common even among those lower league clubs that do employ a specific coach for goalkeepers, that this individual be shared between various clubs, thus working on a part-time only basis (Paul Gerrard has just announced he will be splitting his time between Oldham Athletic and Shrewsbury Town next season). Financial constraints can be tough in the lower leagues but it seems reasonable to conclude that young players who are only receiving coaching on a part-time basis are unlikely to reach their full potential.
Although attempts are being made to protect the development of home-based talent with the introduction of quota systems this season, all evidence would suggest that the increased globalisation of football will see even less English goalkeepers playing in the league in the future. This is a by-product of the success of the Premiership. What we must ensure, however, is that English goalkeepers are still given the opportunities to become the best players that they can be. This can only happen with the benefit of specialist coaching and, amidst the vast sums of money currently swilling round the game, it would be an ongoing tragedy if this coaching were to remain out of the reach of all but a handful of English goalkeepers.