Goalkeeping in modern English football should surely be the greatest gig in the world. Astronomical wages, your own personal one-on-one coach and no big ugly centre-forward legally able to dig you in the ribs, barge you into the back of the net and generally bully you about. Yet Fabio Capello still struggled to find three keepers to fill his England squad to face Switzerland in a Euro 2012 qualifier last Saturday.
With Ben Foster and Paul Robinson refusing to play for their country, Rob Green considering his own future and even the Fulham reserve goalkeeper David Stockdale pulling out of the England squad because he is getting married next week, Capello was struggling for manpower. He’ll need a job-lot of cotton wool at Manchester City next season because if Joe Hart gets injured, the options are severely limited.
And to think that Britain always used to rule the world in goalkeeping. I played with two of the genuine all-time world greats in Gordon Banks and Pat Jennings – and after my playing days, you could add Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence, David Seaman and Neville Southall in that category too. Now the cupboard is looking pretty bare and it is as if the changes in the interpretation of the laws have turned our keepers soft. They seem over-protected as a species and most of them are clearly too tired to turn up for international duty.
It was always said that you had to start worrying about your goalkeeper when you found him looking at himself in the mirror too much, because then he’d no longer be willing to dive at a forward’s feet. You could never accuse Jennings of that, even though he was a good-looking man. By approximately the width of a fag paper, Big Pat was the best keeper I ever played with – he was simply the complete package.
As well as being a fine shot-stopper, he even scored in the Charity Shield once – I was the man his huge goal-kick flew over on its way into the net. And when it came to dealing with crosses, you didn’t want to mess with him. A huge man with hands the size of buckets, he would always charge out of goal with both fists flying, one for the ball and another to cuff an opponent around the ear.
The first great foreign keeper in English football was Manchester City’s Bert Trautmann, whose bravery was famously proved in the 1956 FA Cup Final when he played on despite the most horrific of injuries, in those days before subs. Apparently the physio treating Bert told him: “There’s good news and bad news – the bad news is you’ve broken your neck, the good news is there’s only 75 minutes left to play.” Goalkeeping is a very different game now, of course – modern balls swerve about, especially the old World Cup Jabulani – while the back-pass rule means modern keepers need to be able to kick with both feet as well as any defender.
That particular rule change would not have pleased our old Chelsea keeper Reg Matthews, a fine shot-stopper but a man who could barely kick beyond his own 18-yard box and was also a chain-smoking nervous wreck! But you simply don’t win major trophies without a great goalkeeper – the likes of Jennings, Banks, Seaman, Shilton, Peter Schmeichel, Edwin van der Sar and Petr Cech. Name me an iffy keeper who has won the English title or the European Cup?
And as sorry as we felt for Rob Green when he slipped up against the USA at last summer’s World Cup, that sort of thing simply doesn’t seem to happen to the best keepers on the biggest occasions. So send a lorry load of the white fluffy stuff up to Eastlands, for the attention of young Mr Hart – because without him, we’re surely doomed