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England goalkeepers no longer the best

March 03, 2004 10:47 IST
The days when former England striker Jimmy Greaves could build a television career out of making jokes about Scottish goalkeeping are well and truly over.

For while standards north of the border have not improved greatly, the thin pool of goalkeeping talent in the birthplace of the game leaves little room for such schadenfreude on the part of Englishmen.

Once it was almost guaranteed that England would have a world-class goalkeeper between the posts -- and often one on the bench as well.

From Frank Swift in the 1930s, through Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence and David Seaman, England seemed to have a never-ending supply of top-quality goalkeepers.

But the retirement of Seaman in January after a 14-year, 75-cap international career left England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson with the shortest of short-lists to replace the Yorkshireman.

The Swede has placed his trust in Manchester City's David James, a goalkeeper who at 33 still has much to do to completely rid himself of the "Calamity James" tag he earned earlier in his career.

JUDGMENT QUESTIONED

James is an imposing physical presence and an excellent shot-stopper, but his kicking can be poor and a question-mark still hangs over his concentration and his judgment in coming to collect crosses.

All goalkeepers make mistakes -- Shilton letting a Polish shot go through his legs in 1973 and Ronaldinho's freekick flying over Seaman's head at the last World Cup spring to mind -- but a great number one must dominate his area.

Aspiring internationals must also have regular exposure to top-flight football, something few of England's best young goalkeepers are getting.

Of 18 premier league clubs in action last weekend, only five used goalkeepers qualified to play for England -- James (Manchester City), Ian Walker (Leicester City), Paul Robinson (Leeds United), Chris Kirkland (Liverpool) and Nigel Martyn (Everton).

All have featured in the England squad and, with the injured Richard Wright (Everton), pretty much make up the pool available to Eriksson as he prepares for the European championship in Portugal in June.

At 37, Martyn has probably played his final match for England, while the 32-year-old Walker was left out of the last squad, for a friendly against Portugal last month, after a couple of schoolboy mistakes in premier league matches.

RELEGATION DOGFIGHT

Robinson is alone among the younger goalkeepers in playing regularly as first choice for his club, while Kirkland and Wright have had their young careers blighted by injury.

Also significant is that only Kirkland plays for a team currently in the top half of the premier league table and James, Walker and Robinson are all going to be involved in the relegation dogfight.

Contrast that with the situation in Germany, where Arsenal's Jens Lehmann has made it clear he thinks he should replace Bayern Munich's Oliver Khan, or in Italy, where the national side can call on Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus, Inter Milan's Francesco Toldo or Chelsea's Carlo Cudicini.

One consolation for Eriksson as he considers his options ahead of the next friendly, against his native Sweden in Gothenburg on March 31, is that the golden age of English goalkeeping did not coincide with great success on the pitch.

In the 1970s, when Shilton battled it out for the number one shirt with Clemence, and keepers such as Joe Corrigan and Jimmy Rimmer were also available, England failed to qualify for two World Cups in a row.

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