As things stand, and if I was 30 years younger, I would now be England’s outright number one, just as City fans always claimed I was and I believed myself to be.
Former Manchester City hero Joe Corrigan, in his autobiography published last year, wasn’t exactly glowing about the state of English goalkeeping.
So far this season, Fabio Capello has already used Robert Green, David James and Ben Foster. There might yet be chances for Joe Hart, Paul Robinson and Scott Carson before we get to next summer’s World Cup – maybe even for Chris Kirkland, if he can steer clear of injury. But would you want to bet on who will be England’s goalkeeper for their first group game in South Africa in June? I wouldn’t.
Maybe it all started when Robinson took an air shot at a Gary Neville back pass in Zagreb in 2006, a mistake so comical that it was mocked by the Chuckle Brothers on a local TV news bulletin.
Or maybe it all started when David James left in a couple of soft goals in Vienna in 2004. Or maybe when David Seaman allowed a Ronaldinho speculator to float over his head against Brazil in Shizuoka in 2002.
Start thinking like that, though, and you could soon convince yourself that England’s goalkeepers have always been rubbish. Remember Peter Shilton, ball at his feet, being robbed by Roberto Baggio to concede a soft goal against Italy in the third-place play-off at Italia 90? Or somehow being outjumped by Diego Maradona – Hand Of God and all – in Mexico four years earlier?
Remember Ray Clemence letting Kenny Dalglish’s shot through his legs at Hampden in 1976? Or Shilts failing to stop a Jan Domarski drive hit almost straight at him at Wembley in 1973? Or Peter Bonetti diving over the top of a tame Franz Beckenbauer shot in 1970?
You start to wonder if Gordon Banks was the only decent keeper England ever had. Heck, even Corrigan made a fair few blunders early on in his career.
I interviewed Corrigan about 12 months ago, when his autobiography had just come out. At the time, he was working with Scott Carson on a regular basis as the goalkeeping coach at West Bromwich Albion (he has since retired), and was actually a lot more optimistic about the state of English goalkeeping than his book suggested.
“I’m not concerned about the state of English goalkeeping,” he told me at the time. “There was a period a couple of years ago when English keepers were regularly being lambasted.
“But the Premier League is under so much scrutiny. If you look at the foreign goalkeepers in the Premier League, they are the best from their particular country.
“I can assure you that English goalkeepers are well above the rest. I was watching a video of Turkey versus Bosnia the other day, and I don’t know why the Bosnia goalkeeper was wearing a pair of gloves.
“Peter Schmeichel made a massive impact in England, and Petr Cech has done the same. But they are one-offs.
“Joe Hart, Ben Foster, Chris Kirkland, Scott Carson, David James and Robert Green are all good goalkeepers. I hope that they will get to push on when David James decides to stop or when the manager makes a change.”
James has made it clear that he has no intention of stopping just yet. Green appears to have lost Capello’s support following his sending off in Ukraine last month. Foster is not having a good season – and was himself lucky not to be sent off for conceding a penalty against Brazil last Saturday. Hart has the potential to be a world-class goalkeeper, but doesn’t boss his defenders around enough.
Of the other contenders, Kirkland has to prove he can stay fit. Carson would be a surprise choice given that he is no longer a Premier League goalkeeper. Robinson is actually in good form for Blackburn, but his complete loss of form during Steve McClaren’s England reign still lingers in people’s minds.
From that long list, James is probably the safest choice – and he has been by no means error-free this season. He has the experience, he has the ability (when he stops himself wandering 20 yards outside of his penalty area) and crucially, he has a big enough personality to deal with the intense scrutiny that any England goalkeeper now has to face.
Personality is a big part of being a top-class goalkeeper. For all Peter Schmeichel’s technical prowess, it was his ability to intimidate opposing forwards and bawl out his own defenders which lifted him from the realms of the good to the great.
That kind of personality is also useful for deflecting blame when you let in a soft one. I remember seeing Shilton playing for Derby County in a game on TV sometime in the late 1980s. With a few minutes to go, Shilts allowed a tame header from an opposing forward to trickle into the net, despite getting two hands to it. Immediately, the keeper got to his feet and cast his arms wide at his defenders, as if to ask what had happened to the marking in front of him. Blame successfully shifted.
Corrigan knew the score very early on in his career, when he went out on loan to Shrewsbury, managed then by goalkeeping legend Harry Gregg. During his spell at Gay Meadow, Corrigan received a valuable piece of advice from Gregg, which he recounted in his autobiography:
Joe, you’re a nice young kid, but when you cross that line, I want you to become a bastard. You hate being beaten and you hate defenders more than you hate forwards – defenders never listen to you – and you always have to make up for their mistakes but they never make up for yours.
“It is advice that every young keeper should heed,” Corrigan wrote. And whoever becomes England’s first choice keeper for the World Cup should be able to follow that advice without even having to think about it.