Goalkeeping crisis

Published : Jan 10, 2009 00:00 IST

It is quite plain that no goalkeeping coach, at any of his clubs, has been able to coach the recklessness out of England ’keeper David James. Indeed, this is hardly a technical rather than a temperamental failing.

What is it with goalkeepers? English goalkeepers, especially. So many elementary blunders by supposedly expert, often international, ’keepers. So desperately hard for England, once a country where goalkeepers flourished and abounded, to find a single custodian worthy of wearing the national colours and immune from the most basic mistakes.

And all this, please note, in the day of the so-called goalkeeping coach. Every major English club seems to need one. The England team, Heaven help us, actually has two of them. When Fabio Capello was appointed as the England manager, he brought with him a regiment of Italian assistants, including a goalkeeping coach in Franco Tancredi. I won’t hear a word against Franco, a coolly effective ’keeper for Roma and Italy, whom I knew well, back in 1970s. A man of charm and modesty off the field. But surely some kind of a luxury when he is able to work with England’s ’keepers, such as they are, so seldom.

There was a good deal of criticism of his appointment, and Capello seemed to heed it when he reappointed Ray Clemence, former ’keeper for Liverpool and England, making him joint coach with Franco. Overkill? And to what effect? For all the presumed efforts of Clemence and Tancredi, England’s ’keepers still seem an alarmingly fragile and vulnerable lot.

Not least, in fact in some respects most of all, David “Calamity” James, the Portsmouth ’keeper and still alas the acknowledged number one. Yes, he is tall, strong, athletic and brave. Yes, he appears to have all the qualities to make a fine international ’keeper. He was even lauded to the skies very recently by his Portsmouth manager, Tony Adams, once the Arsenal and England centre-half, when a television interviewer dared to criticise James after he had made three shocking, ultimately costly, errors, playing against Arsenal at the Emirates. The last of which, when he came out for a high ball and missed it completely, enabled the Arsenal centre-back, William Gallas, to head the only goal of the game.

This was nothing new. James’ career, which began with Watford and included seasons with Liverpool, has been chequered with expensive blunders, even if, as Adams pointed out after the defeat at Arsenal, it has also included notable saves.

His England career should really twice, in the past, come to a sticky end. Once after a dismally chaotic performance against Austria in Vienna, when he let in a ludicrous goal and could carelessly have conceded another, had not a defender rushed back to clear from the goalmouth. Austria were thus able to draw a game which seemed previously to be dominated by England. Then there was a wretched evening in Copenhagen, when England were troubled by the Danes. Certainly James was by no means the only culprit in a pitifully shaky defence, but he was at fault with most of the four conceded goals.

James’ faults are arguably less technical than temperamental. Ever impulsive, he has been prone to sudden, quite superfluous forays out of his own penalty area. One, a wholly unnecessary dash from his charge in Port of Spain, playing against Trinidad, when his centre-back, Rio Ferdinand, was preparing to clear, was horribly expensive for the hapless Trinidad centre-forward, the accomplished Kenwyne Jones. James crashed into him, inflicting, however unintentionally, such serious damage to his knee ligaments that Jones would be out for many months, a costly absence indeed for Sunderland who badly needed him to score goals, as he often does, with foot or head.

It is quite plain that no goalkeeping coach, at any of his clubs, has been able to coach the recklessness out of James. Indeed, this is hardly a technical rather than a temperamental failing. And while we’re on the subject, who have goalkeeping coaches at all? Goalkeepers seemed to survive, even flourish, without them in England. Harry Hibbs, between the two World Wars, showed supreme positional sense in the England goal. After the War, the ’keeper he himself coached at Walsall and who later flourished with Wolves, Bert Williams, was a model of flexibility and athleticism. I shall never forget how, in the mists of Tottenham in November 1949, he superbly and continually defied an Italian attack which overwhelmed England; once even changing direction in mid air to save. What goalkeeping coach could have taught him that?

Or, for that matter, could have improved the commanding goalkeeping of his predecessor in the England goal, big Frank Swift, who had survived the 1934 Cup Final at Wembley, when he left in a soft goal with Manchester City in the first-half, and fainted shortly before the final whistle as the photographers behind his goal marked down the minutes. It was just too much for a 19-year-old, but he would flourish.

Today, you just never know what you are going to get from an England ’keeper. Paul Robinson, when playing a couple of seasons back for Spurs and England, had a crisis of confidence no coach was able to cure. He let through some alarming goals with England, not least in Zagreb, where he kicked at a back pass, missed and enabled the ball to roll into the net.

Scott Carson, who succeeded him, was no better. At Wembley, in the return game against Croatia, he let in a nearly fiasco of a goal which put the visitors on their way to success. And when Fabio Capello inexplicably put him on as a substitute in the recent game against Germany in Berlin, despite his bleak record, his confused dash out of goal gave Germany the most embarrassing of equalisers.

What coach could have coached him out of that?

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