A lost breed?

Published : Nov 21, 2009 00:00 IST

Ever since David Seaman, in the last stages of a supreme international career, conceded a simple goal against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup in Japan, and followed that up by letting in one straight from a corner at Southampton, things just haven’t been the same for English keepers. Over to Brain Glanville.

What is it about goalkeepers? Or come to that, about goalkeeping coaches. Once upon a time and not so very long ago at that, England were blessed with a long succession of gifted keepers. But ever since poor David Seaman, in the last stages of a supreme international career, gave that goal away to Brazil in the 2002 World Cup in Japan, and followed that up by letting in one straight from a corner at Southampton, things just haven’t been the same. And that very much i ncludes Seaman’s former, and last, club, Arsenal. Unable to find a reliable keeper among the four they have on their books. None of them British, by the way.

When England recently met Brazil in a friendly in Qatar of all places, they took along three keepers, none of whom really looked the answer. The 39-year-old David James was not available, yet there is no doubt in my mind that for all his eccentricities, he’s still the best of the lot. Call him if you will Calamity James, on the back of such awful blunders as he has made for his country in Vienna and Copenhagen, blame him for at times quite reckless impetuosity. Yet as one who has several times this season seen him play and excel behind a shaky Portsmouth defence, I have to say that he has looked remarkable. In particular, I recall a glorious flying save he made for Pompey at Wolverhampton; a ferocious right footed drive after a tapped free kick. Few keepers could have reached it but James did, flying across his goal to his left, to turn the ball for a corner and to ensure an all too rare win for his side.

Ben Foster, Robert Green and Joe Hart were the three keepers Capello took to Qatar. For a long time, Foster, who made his name on loan from Manchester United to Watford, would have been my ideal choice, though he spent long weary months out with injury. He would even look wonderfully agile and good in games where for long stretches he has had nothing to do. But this season at Wembley with United and England he has looked strangely shaky and unsure. Only, in his last appearance there for England, when he seemed lucky to be given another chance, to make a remarkable, very late, save. Which one hoped would have restored the old confidence which was so obviously lacking. Robert Green of West Ham has largely been the preferred incumbent, but he himself has made costly and embarrassing error both with club and country.

What baffles me is the fact that every major club side and every national team has a goalkeeping coach. But why: after so many decades in which such a figure was unknown in English football, yet England always seemed to have a keeper of genuine renown? England at this moment in fact have not one but two goal-keeping coaches. One is Ray Clemence, for long the rival to Peter Shilton for the England role, the other my old friend Franco Tancredi, long the reliable keeper for Roma and Italy: insisted upon by Fabio Capello when he assumed the England managership.

With all respect to Franco, why was he needed when Clemence was already installed, and when Franco was still domiciled in Italy and could come over only briefly for an international game?

Just how much, you wonder, can a goalkeeping coach help, no matter how good a goalkeeper he once was himself? And how did England survive so long and so successfully without one? Not till November 1953 at Wembley did they lose at home to any foreign team, and that was when the Hungarians thrashed them 3-6. Helped by a truly dismal display by goalkeeper Gill Merrick. But the selectors kept him there and he went on to let in another seven goals against Hungary in Hungary the following May and, still in charge, conceded embarrassing goals when England lost the World Cup quarter-finals in Switzerland against Uruguay. Nobody talked about goalkeeping coaches in those remote days but quite obviously Merrick had reached a stage where he badly needed one. Or should simply have been dropped by the confused selection committee, which then picked the team.

What does need stressing is that the change in the law prohibiting keepers from handling back passes — though not throw-ins — has radically changed the lot of a goalkeepers. As Gary Lineker observed around the time the change was made, this speeded up the game just as it needed slowing down. Certainly it is an extra hazard for goalkeepers in more ways than one. Under pressure or even without it they can badly kick and thus give away a goal. Worse still, they are in danger from an onrushing challenging attacker who will try to beat them to the ball before they can kick it away. There are alas an infinity of examples of what can go wrong then a keeper kicks the ball. Very vivid still in my mind is the crucial error made by a powerful but unpredictable goalkeeper, Jens Lehman of Germany, playing for Arsenal at Chelsea in a recent European Cup semi-final at Stamford Bridge. Running out of his area to his right he carelessly kicked the ball against the Chelsea striker Eidur Gudjohnsen who gracefully followed up the rebound into the Arsenal net. The Gunners would in due course be eliminated.

It seems to me that one essential aspect of a keeper’s armoury is his ability to deal with high crosses. Ideally not to punch them, when the ball can go anywhere, but to soar above the opposition and catch them. For many a long year the British used to deride foreign keepers who would either stay rooted to their line when the cross came over, or try to punch the ball away. Yet even Harry Hibbs, recognised as one of the greatest England goalkeepers between the wars, was later criticised by a star of the period, Cliff Bastin, for his tendency to punch the ball away. Though goodness knows, between the wars and for sometime later, British keepers were anything but a protected species and had a far harder time of it against challenging strikers.

Looking at today’s club football we see Arsenal still in pursuit of another Pat Jennings or Bob Wilson; who in fact for some years became their goalkeeping coach. And even Bob in the 1971 FA Cup final against Liverpool let in Steve Heighway’s shot at his near right post. Arsenal, today have four keepers on their books and none gives full satisfaction. Even the Spaniard, Manuel Almunia, who recently was talking about playing for England. There are two young Poles, Wojaiach Szczesny, and Lukas Fabianaki, an Italian, in unpredictable Vito Mannons. None of them a Wilson or a Jennings.

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