SAMUEL Johnstone, of Manchester United, is one of England’s more promising young players. Last summer, he was part of the national Under-17 squad who won the European Championships in Liechtenstein, alongside such talents as Ipswich striker Connor Wickham and Chelsea midfielder Josh McEachran.
But for all his ability, the 17-year-old is unlikely to be given a chance in the Premier League any time soon. And that is because Samuel Johnstone is a goalkeeper.
Former England keeper Joe Corrigan has coached Johnstone as part of the Under-17 set-up, and has no doubts about his potential. He has grave doubts, however, as to whether that potential will be given an opportunity.
“We had two of the best keepers in the tournament in Liechtenstein last summer, in Sam at United and Jack Butland, who is at Birmingham City,” Corrigan said. “But their avenues are blocked.
“Sam was telling me at that tournament that he was United’s seventh-choice goalkeeper. He couldn’t even get a place in their youth team. And he’s a very, very good goalkeeper.
“People say we’ve not got a lot of youngsters coming through in the English game. They are there, but clubs want the short-term solution.
“The finances in the Premier League are so important now – you can make a significant amount in prize money just by finishing a couple of places higher. And that means most clubs would rather spend money on an aging experienced keeper than bring through a youngster.”
Much has been made, rightly, of Manchester United’s terrific youth policy over the last two decades. Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and the just-retired Gary Neville all played a major part through the most successful period in the club’s history.
The club’s youth products continue to get their chance in the first team at Old Trafford, as Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea, Jonny Evans have proved, and Tom Cleverley may be about to. But when it comes to goalkeepers, Sir Alex Ferguson prefers experience. Edwin van der Sar may be 40, and about to retire, but for now he remains Ferguson’s undisputed first choice.
Homegrown keepers have been given the odd first-team chance at United, as Kevin Pilkington, Paul Rachubka and Ben Amos can testify. But the last one who could make any serious claim to being first choice was Gary Walsh – and that was in another era. (Australian Mark Bosnich did become a United regular having been part of the youth set-up, but only after spending seven years at Aston Villa in between.)
Amos, perhaps, has a chance. Corrigan has identified him and Huddersfield’s Alex Smithies as the two young English keepers with the biggest chance of breaking into the big time over the next few years.
Loan spells at Peterborough and Oldham have helped toughen up 20-year-old Amos. During his loan stint at Boundary Park, the young keeper suffered the trauma of conceding six goals in a home game against Southampton, letting one through his legs. “You have to take the downs with the ups,” said Corrigan, who watched that game. Amos may have to wait a while for a Premier League run yet.
It’s not just Ferguson who prefers experienced overseas international experience in goal. Of the 20 keepers on duty in the Premier League last weekend, just six are English, while two are Welsh (including, confusingly, West Brom’s California-born Boaz Myhill, who represented England at youth level) and one Scottish.
Just three have come through their club’s youth system – Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny, Newcastle’s Steve Harper and Wolves’ Wayne Hennessey. Only two have never played for their country – Harper and Blackpool’s Rachubka, while just six had no senior international experience when they signed for their current club.
And only four of the 20 are aged under 27. Hennessey, Manchester City’s Joe Hart and Stoke’s Asmir Begovic are all 23, while Szczesny is 20.
Those stats will give little encouragement to Johnstone and Birmingham youngster Butland as they attempt to make their own way in the game. When it comes to goalkeepers, age and experience count.
Corrigan, one of the greatest keepers of his generation, started out in an era when the stakes were lower. He still reckons he would have made it in today’s game, but acknowledges it would have been much more difficult.
“I made mistakes early on in my career at Manchester City,” he said. “I remember a game against West Ham in the late 1960s, when I kicked a clearance straight to Ronnie Boyce, and he lofted it straight back over my head from 40 yards. And unfortunately for me, it was on TV too!
“The great Bert Trautmann was in the stand at that game, and I was fortunate that he was able to offer me advice, and tell me about the mistakes that he had made.”
Young English keepers can still turn to former greats today. Corrigan, a former Liverpool and West Brom goalkeeping coach, continues to pass on his know-how as part of the England scouting set-up. And Ray Clemence, the FA’s head of development, often provides a sounding board for Hart, who has established himself as England’s No. 1 this season.
Finding good advice isn’t the problem. It’s getting an opportunity – and then maintaining your sanity amid heavy scrutiny from media pundits, many of whom haven’t the first clue about goalkeeping.
While there seem to be no shortage of ex-centre forwards and former Liverpool defenders queuing up to offer analysis on TV, radio and in print, the goalkeepers’ union is chronically under-represented. Tim Flowers sometimes pops up on Radio Five Live’s commentary rota, but there aren’t many others.
As a result, when some expert or other decides to declare that all of England’s goalkeepers are useless, there isn’t always anyone around to offer the opposing view. Hart, for instance, has come in for a mountain of criticism over the last month or so for making one or two errors. Even his club manager Roberto Mancini and England boss Fabio Capello have chipped in.
It suggests that one of the most important characteristics for a young keeper is a thick skin. “You do make mistakes as a young goalkeeper,” Corrigan said. “It’s how you cope with those mistakes that make you a better player and a better person.”
At Old Trafford, young Samuel Johnstone would probably be glad just for the chance to make a mistake.