Jack Butland’s short career has so far been littered with superlatives, and the Premier League vultures are circling. He has been linked with Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Southampton and Everton, but it is the blue half of Merseyside where he would be given the time he needs.
In March of this year, Tim Howard signed a deal that will keep him at Everton until 2016. Goalkeepers traditionally have the longest careers of all footballers and Howard will be 37 when it expires, so he’ll likely see this out until the end.
So where would that leave Butland? Before this season, Butland had just 24 games as a No. 1 goalkeeper, with Cheltenham Town in League Two. At 19, surely there is an argument to be made that he needs to see regular first-team action in order to fulfill his potential?
His Olympic performances put him on display to the world, but Butland himself has spoken about his development, and recognises the need to play in order to improve. When he got the call-up to the senior England squad for Euro 2012, he remained level-headed and pragmatic about his incredible rise:
As fantastic an experience as it is to come away with the senior squad, there's no better way to learn than playing games. It's just like going to Cheltenham was something I had to do, and it's got me where I am. The pitches were bobblier, the strikers stronger and bigger.
The biggest crowd we played in front was around 9,000 against Bradford. But you need to play to learn and develop as a player if you want to get where you want to be, which is the top. (Via The Guardian)
Butland’s judgement of his own career path has been exceptional so far, which in itself is an encouraging sign. His performances for Birmingham City this season have regularly seen his name featured as the headline, and the club’s financial difficulties have led to reports that Butland will be sold out of necessity this year.
Birmingham boss Lee Clark insisted before the season that it would “have to be big numbers for us to even consider selling him,” but that initial statement of defiance was then countered with “as far as I’m concerned, he will start the season here.” (Via The Daily Telegraph)
The fact that Clark backtracked on his initial reply is telling. “As far as I’m concerned” illustrated that he doesn’t speak for the whole football club, while “start the season” indicated that he was unsure how long he would be able to keep Butland.
It was rumoured that Birmingham rejected an offer of £6 million from Southampton in June—then Everton in August—before Butland had ever started for the Midlands club. His good work between the sticks this year means that this price will only rise, with young English goalkeepers having a tendency to be overhyped and overpriced anyway.
The Daily Mirror quotes Clark as valuing Butland at £18 million, which is understandably hyperbolic in an attempt to keep him. The reality is that Birmingham will probably be forced to accept lower bids iin order to ease their financial worries; they’re not in any position to hold Premier League teams hostage and everyone knows it.
A move to Everton would give Butland a chance to develop under the tutelage of Chris Woods, himself an England goalkeeper—as well as the goalkeeping coach for the USA national team—while also offering a realistic timeline for supplanting Tim Howard as No. 1.
Howard has been a great servant for the club, but there is no denying that his presence is not as commanding as it once was. Butland could get a chance sooner than Howard’s contract would indicate.
Given his desire to remain playing first-team football, another scenario would be to acquire Butland on a cut-price deal and loan him back to Birmingham for an agreed period of time.
This causes the player little disruption and allows the Championship team the luxury of retaining their goalkeeper and collecting a transfer fee for him.
Describing Butland as “mature” is to do him a disservice. The Olympics showed that he isn’t fazed by the big occasion, has the reflexes to survive in the Premier League and the belief in his ability to handle the tumultuous life at the top level.
Watching him escort his fellow England Under-21 players off the field as everything disintegrated in Serbia was refreshing, and watching him placate Serbian players without demonstrating aggression was admirable. There’s no denying that Butland’s calmness is a credit to any team on which he plays, which in turn will calm his defence in front of him.
He’s not a complete player, though; that would simply be asking too much. His positioning on set pieces could use work, and he is sometimes reluctant to come for crosses where a more experienced ‘keeper would take charge and make an early decision.
These things will come with experience, which is why Butland seeks first-team football. He has an instinctive knowledge of his position that isn’t often seen with young goalkeepers, and his athleticism helps to gloss over any technical flaws.
Everyone’s searching for the next Joe Hart, and Manchester City’s £1.5 million payment to Shrewsbury Town now looks infinitesimal compared to what Hart has achieved in a City shirt.
Birmingham don’t have the money to keep fighting off the Premier League and they must know they will lose Butland soon. A deal that includes retaining him on loan may be the last bargaining chip they have.
As stated earlier, Everton’s goalkeeping timeline ensures that Butland is never far from the first-team, and his continuing involvement with Birmingham ensures that he works with familiar faces to allow his progress to develop unhindered.
At his current rate, don’t expect him to remain second-choice for long.