Gareth Southgate must solve age-old goalkeeper issue to enhance England’s World Cup hopes
From Gordon Banks, through to Peter Shilton and David Seaman, the great England sides of yesteryear all had top goalkeepers to build upon. In 1966, Banks was the bedrock for the Three Lions’ last and only genuine success, the World Cup win their own backyard; Shilton kept goal in at Italia ‘90, as well as Mexico ‘86, where Sir Bobby Robson led his side to semi final and quarter final appearances respectively, and holds the record for most caps won with 125.
Seaman was the last line of defence in Terry Venables’ defence during Euro ’96, the tournament that once again brought football home and yielded another appearance in the last four. England have struggled in almost every sense since, with Glenn Hoddle, Howard Wilkinson, Kevin Keegan, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson all failing to do any better in ensuing competitions. It is no coincidence, though, that the majority of those managers have not had a consistently world class goalkeeper in their ranks. Hoddle, Wilkinson and Keegan could call on Seaman, but it all went downhill after he retired, embarrassed, when Eriksson’s team were knocked out of the 2002 World Cup by Brazil in the quarter finals. Ronaldinho’s stunning freekick from distance bamboozled the Arsenal stopper, but he was coming to the end of his long career anyway.
The best way to describe the England number one shirt since then until, arguably, 2010 after another World Cup, this time in South Africa, was like a game of musical chairs. David James, Rob Green and Paul Robinson were the main contenders over that eight-year period, but they were all undermined by various mistakes on the biggest stage for their country. While it may be harsh to hold a goalkeeper to account for their errors much more vigorously than, say, strikers, that is the world they live in. Neither James, nor Green, nor Robinson had sufficient confidence from fans, press and managers to become the undisputed first choice, but the issue was any other options, Scott Carson, by way of example, befell the same fate.
This specific issue hit Eriksson and McClaren hardest but after the South Africa World Cup, which saw Capello’s men humiliated by Germany at the last 16 stage, it was clear change was needed. Green’s mistake in the first game, against the United States, defined his entire international career, and though James came in immediately, he was set to retire himself. Fortunately, Joe Hart had appeared after a fantastic season on-loan from Manchester City at Birmingham. He was heading back to the Etihad Stadium ready to take over from Shay Given as the main man under Roberto Mancini. Finally, Capello, and later Hodgson, seemed to have found a reliable man to once again build from.
Everything was looking up
To make matters even better, while Hart kept up impressive performances for club and country, helping City to Premier League title wins in 2012 and 2014, other young English goalkeepers were developing. Fraser Forster, of Celtic and now Southampton, Jack Butland, who played alongside Hart at Birmingham before joining Stoke, and most recently Jordan Pickford, who joined Everton from Sunderland last summer, appeared to turn the long-standing problem on its head. Suddenly, there was real competition for Hart’s spot, as his own career began to suffer; Pep Guardiola made it clear he had no future at Manchester City and he has never been the same since, first struggling on loan at Torino in Serie A, and now finding game time tough to come by in a temporary spell at West Ham.
Back to square one
But as current England boss Gareth Southgate prepares for his first tournament in charge, this summer’s World Cup in Russia, he could be back to square one. The former Aston Villa defender, who stepped into Hodgson’s shoes after another poor tournament display at Euro 2016, with Sam Allardyce’s reign shrouded in controversy and lasting just one game, had banked on Hart being his number one, but his situation at West Ham, and unconvincing displays when he does play, has resulted in a backlash from almost everyone who has an opinion on the matter.
Most worryingly, though, the likes of Forster, Butland and Pickford are hardly making their own cases to replace him. A struggling Southampton side has dropped Forster, Pickford has only senior cap to his name so starting in a major tournament would certainly be a risk, and Butland’s Stoke side have conceded the most goals in the Premier League this season, 54. Although the 24-year-old has been culpable this season, he was the man most people put forward as an alternative to Hart until a mistake cost the Potters at Leicester on Saturday, sacrificing two crucial points; now the debate is open again, with no obvious solution for Southgate.
Just as in the cases of James, Green, Robinson and Hart, judging Butland after one mistake is incredibly harsh. But that, again, is the world he lives in and with less than four months to go until the big kick off against Tunisia in Volgograd, the stakes are high for England and for Southgate. Any move, positive or negative, for any potential squad member could have a huge impact on the managers’ thinking.
When he took over from Roy Hodgson, via Allardyce’s one-game stint, Gareth Southgate will have looked at his options and hoped that some areas on the pitch would need very little deliberation. Joe Hart appeared ready to take on the goalkeeping responsibilities for a long time, just like Banks, Shilton and Seaman did, but that is now in severe doubt. Southgate has a decision to make, but his alternate options are making his life far from easy.