As I’ve been watching the Confederations Cup I have, along with everyone else, been hugely impressed with the Spanish side. Aside from the obvious talent that they possess, what has really impressed me is the sheer strength in depth that they have – though given that the mercurial Mikel Arteta is yet to be capped by them that shouldn’t be such a surprise. Nothing sums up this strength in depth nor provides a starker contrast to the England national side that the position of goalkeeper.
The occupant of the number one jersey for England is one of a couple of undoubted weaknesses in the side, while Spain do not hesitate to give their goalkeeper spot of Iker Casillas, who is probably the best ‘keeper in the world at present. They also have Jose Reina as their backup ‘keeper, who despite some comedic errors in his time at Liverpool is undoubtedly a better stopper than David James, England’s current ‘number one’, and the up and coming Sergio Asenjo demonstrated his ability by saving James Milner’s penalty in the European U21 Championships recently.
But it comes as no great surprise to me that Spain are so much better off in the goalkeeping department, and here’s why.
The position of goalkeeper is perhaps unique in football in that they don’t really hit their peak until they are over 30 years of age. While most players peak around the age of 27 or 28 and it’s all downhill once they hit the big three-oh, the extreme importance of positioning and maturity for an effective goalkeeper means that they don’t achieve their full potential until they’re a little older. However, there’s a snag, because that development comes as a result of playing regular football up until that point, it takes years of experience to reach the top of your game if you’re a goalkeeper.
The problem for England is that in the modern era of the mega-rich Premier League, most clubs have lost any sense of patience. If a manager comes to a club and isn’t happy with some of the players, he simply buys some more. And so if a manager comes to a club where he feels the goalkeeper isn’t up to scratch, he will likely go out and buy a more experienced one, a ‘keeper that has been ‘broken in’ at another club. For the short term success of that club, that’s all very well, but it of course bodes ill for the young, up and coming ‘keepers at English clubs.
It is then, very much a case of foreign players coming into the Premier League and reducing the opportunities for the young English players. In the position of goalkeeper though it is particularly damaging, given that there is indeed only one goalkeeper on each team and that they rarely get injured. Which means that in the regular course of a season, the young reserve ‘keeper at any English club could consider themselves lucky to play even one Premier League match, whereas a young outfield player may get a handful of opportunities due to injuries and simply more abundant opportunity.
This means then that the young English ‘keepers at Premier League clubs struggle to gain any sort of experience during their early twenties and instead find themselves mostly just sitting on the bench and having a fifteen minute kick-about at half time, which doesn’t really count. And then suddenly, when they reach a riper, older age they are suddenly thrown into the side and expected to have matured sufficiently to have become the top class ‘keeper that they had the potential to be.
Of course, without the necessary consistent first team opportunities they have not progressed nearly as far as the manager would have hoped and expected and thus they are generally deemed a failure, another example of a promising young English ‘keeper who has failed to live up to their potential. Don’t believe me? Fine: Richard Wright, Steve Simonsen, Chris Kirkland, Scott Carson and Robert Green. All prime and recent examples of this sort of thing going on. All tipped for the top but not given enough opportunity to develop and so ultimately disappointed the hopes of a nation.
And the terrible thing is that it’s still happening. Ben Foster and Joe Hart, two youngsters who have been most recently tipped for the top are both now facing a struggle to gain regular football at the top level. Ben Foster has been sitting on the bench at Manchester United for some time now behind Edwin Van Der Saar while the Scotsman in charge refuses to let him go out on loan and thus does England’s prospects no good at all. Likewise, Joe Hart after a promising start to his Man City career saw Mark Hughes bring in the experienced Shay Given, reducing Hart to the bench and seeking a loan deal for next season.
Indeed, if you look back to the last time when an English ‘keeper could genuinely be considered to be international class you’ll find David Seaman. By the time he joined Arsenal at age 27 Seaman had already clocked up 307 senior appearances during spells with Peterbrough, Birmingham and QPR. He joined Arsenal in 1990, just before the arrival of the Premier League and the money and impatience that came with it and so he was the last of a generation of English ‘keepers to be properly blooded with first team football throughout his career and thus it is no wonder that he was the last to truly reach his full potential.
You could argue that the same could be said of David James, who spent seven years at Liverpool and clocked up 214 first team appearances there between the age of 22 and 29 and you’d be right. The difference I think though, is that James simply isn’t as good a ‘keeper as Seaman was, and so although he was given the opportunity to play and develop in the first team he was never really going to be good enough to play for England, and there should have been other English ‘keepers ahead of him in the queue. Unfortunately they weren’t given a chance at club level and so James ended up being the best we had after all.
Thus England fans must hope that Joe Hart can secure himself a loan deal away from Manchester City next season, indeed if he gets the proposed move to Birmingham he should be kept quite busy which would certainly help him develop. We must also hope that Ferguson is willing to give Ben Foster more chances than simply cameo roles in the Carling Cup, as he is already 26 years old and with only 76 first team appearances in the top couple of tiers of English football under his belt really needs regular football if he is to reach his undoubted potential.
Even so though, England and Fabio Capello are left with the problem of who to select as ‘keeper for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, as even if those two young players do get a full season in they will still probably not be ready to go into a World Cup campaign as their country’s first choice goalkeeper. Indeed, with Hart aged 22 and Foster 26 it will likely be another four years before either of them reach their prime, yet who can England call on to fill that spot between then and now?
David James is getting older all the time, which means that when he makes the inevitable blunders he is less agile and so less likely to be able to rectify them than he used to be, while the other ‘keepers who are in the frame (Robinson, Carson, Green and Kirkland) have all shown that they aren’t really of international quality either. It seems though, that Capello is going to have to make do with what he’s got for now though, and hope that in the future English goalkeepers are given more of a chance during their developing years.
There’s no doubt that at present the hope lies with Hart and Foster, but we need to ensure that the ‘keepers that follow in their footsteps are given a chance also. John Ruddy at my club Everton is yet to be given a chance and there are bound to be other goalkeepers with potential that need to be given a chance if England is to avoid suffering from such a lack of goalkeeping depth again in the future.
Contrast England’s current situation with Spain then, and you notice that Iker Casillas has been playing in Real Madrid’s first team since he was 18, notching up 366 appearances to go alongside 94 full caps for Spain. Likewise Reina was Villareal’s number one from the age of 22 and since then has played consistently for both the Yellow Submarine and Liverpool, racking up 253 appearances in total for those two clubs, while 19 year old Sergio Asenjo already has 47 appearances for Valladolid under his belt. It’s safe to say then that the Spanish number one jersey is in safe hands for the foreseeable future, and that’s because Spanish clubs were willing to play their native goalkeepers from a young age, unlike their English counterparts.
One thing is for sure then, that heading into next year’s World Cup England are not even half the side that Spain are, as epitomised by the comparative quality of the goalkeepers in each squad. And so if our dreams of ending forty-four years of hurt are to be realised, we will need to have a lot of luck on our side.