England goalkeepers are in danger of being filed alongside West Indian cricketers and Australian tennis players as a sporting species whose days of glory have past.
A nation, which once boasted a long tradition of goalkeeping excellence, from Gordon Banks to Ray Clemence, and then latterly from Peter Shilton and David Seaman, now finds itself entering what could potentially be one of the biggest tournaments in its history without a recognised No. 1 goalkeeper.
The importance of a goalkeeper to a team has been discussed at length, and it is no mere coincidence that both Spain and Brazil have, in Iker Casillas and Julio Cesar, goalkeepers of the highest class.
But while the two favourites boast formidable last lines of defense, little can be said for that of Fabio Capello’s Three Lions.
It would be worth stating that England is not alone in this regard. England need only look at the likes of Argentina and Portugal to see that goalkeeper is a position which is not solely an English concern.
The problem for England is that not only is there no real outstanding first choice for the position, the calibre of candidates in contention is fairly weak.
In theory, at the beginning of the season there were a number of candidates for the position, but as the season edges further towards its conclusion, the cases for each contender falters with every passing week.
For instance, take the case of Ben Foster. Despite being Capello’s No. 1 in the previous match against Brazil, his club form is such that he now finds himself a mere bystander at United, relegated behind not only Tomasz Kuszczak and Edwin Van der Sar, but also Ben Amos.
While Sir Alex Ferguson insists, “Without a doubt, he is England’s best goalkeeper,” as Fabio Capello said, “For Ben Foster, it is very difficult because he is not playing.”
When pressed on England’s goalkeeping situation, the Italian said, “I am not concerned yet with the goalkeeping situation. David James has some shoulder problems. But I have Robert Green, Joe Hart, and Paul Robinson.”
It is negligible whether this admission would be a source of comfort for England fans, especially when you consider that both James and Robinson have hardly distinguished themselves in their previous incarnations as international goalkeepers.
Then when you consider that all three currently play for clubs fighting in the bottom half of the table, it is hardly a reason to be optimistic.
Similarly, when you take into account their current form, the picture darkens further. As Dean Kiely, himself a keeper of some standing, said, "Nobody has stuck their head above the parapet and said 'the jersey is mine.'
David James has struggled with fitness this season, understandable at the age of 40, and is unable to train day-in, day-out anymore.
While neither Paul Robinson nor Robert Green have distinguished themselves for either Blackburn or West Ham, others have been touted, most notably Chris Kirkland—whose manager Roberto Martinez said, "I keep looking at the Premier League goalkeepers and I don't see anyone better.”
However, even Martinez admitted his poor injury record worked against him.
While the likes of Stephen Bywater and Lee Camp from Derby and Nottingham Forest have also been championed by their managers, calls for them are surely optimistic at best.
Given the current situation, the standout candidate surely must be Joe Hart, who at 22 could conceivably be England’s No. 1 for the long term pending on fitness and form.
Capello has certainly been impressed with the young keeper who has played a key part in Birmingham City’s wonderful season and was effusive in his praise of Hart.
“You have seen what has happened to Joe Hart now he is playing at Birmingham,” he said. “Before he made mistakes, but now after playing regularly, he makes less mistakes because he has more confidence.”
While Capello insisted that “Hart is having a fantastic season, but it is too early to choose,” others believe Hart should be installed as England’s No. 1 choice sooner rather than later.
Alex McLeish, his club manager, said, “Joe can probably look around at other England keepers and think he's got as good a chance as anybody."
"He's come on in leaps and bounds and has improved his game. He's ironed out some rough edges, which have made him even better."
Given Capello’s history of selecting players based on fitness and form, Hart represents the best choice of all of England’s goalkeepers, and recent reports state he will be handed a chance in the upcoming friendly against Egypt.
Certainly, England fans will be hoping that he takes his opportunity with both hands. For in this most crucial of years, Joe Hart could give England the safe pair of hands they so badly need.