England’s shaky ’keepers

AP

No one has ever questioned the big Portsmouth goalkeeper David James’ bravery, his talent, his agility; it is simply that his various fiascos across the years have earned him the nickname of Calamity James.

The sheer, pitiful ineptitude of England ’keeper Paul Robinson, when he recently gave away that goal to Germany at Wembley, defied belief. Over from the right came a cross which, far too close to the goal to benefit any attacker, seemed to present no problems. But poor Robinson turned it ineptly against his own crossbar, whence it bounced down right to the feet of the lurking German centre-forward Kuranyi, who simply tapped it into the net. That was the equaliser, an d the much weakened German team, playing, it is true, against a much weakened England, went on to win the friendly 2-1. Their winning goal, struck from well outside the penalty box, itself looked hardly irresistible.

You tended to wonder why Robinson had been picked at all; behind him was a catalogue of mistakes. Not least when the Spurs goalkeeper played in the 2006 German World Cup, against Sweden, when — admittedly poorly served by his central defence — he and they looked horribly vulnerable to any kind of high cross or throw, especially from the left, condemning England to a 2-2 draw in a match they seemed likely to win. But worst and most embarrassing of all, surely, was the vital goal which Robinson gave away in Zagreb against Croatia, last season, in a European qualifier. When Phil Neville, his right-back, tapped the ball back to him, he seemed to have infinite time to deal with it. Alas, it struck a divot and to his and England’s horror, bounced over his foot and rolled into the goal. England lost and arguably have been trying to make up the leeway, ever since.

So if Robinson was seriously at fault at Wembley, what of the hapless England manager, Steve McClaren, who persisted with picking him? Our theme is the failings of England goalkeepers; and goodness knows David James, the big Portsmouth goalkeeper, who replaced Robinson in the second-half against Germany at Wembley, has been guilty of enough disasters in his time. No one has ever questioned his bravery, his talent, his agility; it is simply that his various fiascos across the years, and he is a veteran now, have earned him the nickname of Calamity James.

In a World Cup qualifying game in Vienna against Austria in September 2004, James arguably reached his nadir. The Austrians were hardly in peak form, having recently lost 5-1 to Denmark, and when England took a 2-0 lead, all seemed done and dusted. Enter James; alas. He had actually shown his vulnerability five minutes before England’s second goal, when he rashly and superfluously dashed out of his goal to challenge the advancing Mario Haas, on his left. Haas eluded him and would have scored had John Terry not providentially dashed back into the goalmouth to clear. But substantially worse — and more costly — was to come. The free kick Roland Kollmann curled past him might have been forgivable. But as his defence retreated before a burst by Andreas Ivanschitz, James let the eventual 20-yard shot, slightly deflected by Terry, run under his body giving the Austrians, a 2-2 draw. He was dropped; in favour of Robinson.

A year later, however, in a friendly against Denmark in Copenhagen, James was back in the England goal, for another disaster. England were thrashed 4-1, and though he was by no means the only English culprit on the night, James could legitimately be blamed for three of those goals.

Three days after playing against Germany, one saw him in action for Portsmouth, his latest club, at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. Give a dog a bad name. He was blamed in some quarters for the only goal of the game, which was scored when Frank Lampard, his England colleague at Wembley, ran on to a flick by the big striker Drogba, and shot past James, who could only touch the ball with his left hand. Was he at fault? He seemed half convinced of it himself, declaring that all ’keepers made mistakes, but Lampard was clean through and the shot had taken a slight deflection. I was inclined in my report to give him the benefit of the doubt, but, overall, it must be said that he tends to inspire admiration rather than confidence.

But what of poor Peter Bonetti, widely seen as the villain of the piece when England under Alf Ramsey threw away a 2-0 quarterfinal lead in hot, high Leon, to lose 3-2 to West Germany? Peter, of course, should not have been playing at all.

The majestic incumbent was Gordon Banks who previously in Guadalajara in the World Cup eliminators had made one of the finest saves of all time from Pele. When Jairzino crossed from the right, Pele made contact with a bouncing header, when Banks, with amazing athleticism, hurled himself across the goal to divert the ball one handed over the crossbar.

Never shall I forget that morning in Leon, when I emerged from a night on a colleague’s chalet floor to see Banks, pale and shaky, walking slowly and uneasily across the grass in front of England’s motel, supported by the arm of the team’s doctor, Neil Phillips. He was suffering from food poisoning and we shall never know why. As he insisted to me himself, a few years ago, he had eaten and drunk the previous evening exactly the same as every other player.

So Bonetti, alias “The Cat,” short of match practice, was put into his place. Also, he’d dive far too late and clumsily for a far from irresistible low shot by Franz Beckenbauer which made it 2-l. Whether he could or should have stopped the almost freakish back header with which Uwe Seeler equalised may be debatable. Gerd Muller would volley the winner. But if Peter was beyond doubt culpable, so surely was Alf Ramsey himself for not substituting his attacking full-backs Keith Newton and Terry Copper, when they so plainly wilted in the heat.

Interviewed a few years back on television and asked about James, Gordon Banks said somewhat sternly that England goalkeepers had to be reliable. Yet, on his Wembley debut in 1963 versus Brazil, he was furiously rebuked by Alf Ramsey for failing to deal with a long, low, left-footed free kick by the winger Pepe, of which Alf had warned him. And I was in Belgrade two years later, when he incensed Ramsey by standing behind the England wall at a Yugoslavian free kick. “I have just been up to Banks’ room,” said Alf later, in England’s hotel. “I said to him, ‘One of these days I shall lift up a dagger, and blanking well kill you!’”