Friday, 22 May 2009

Battle to fill James’ gloves underway

This summer, England face both Kazakhstan and Andorra with Fabio Capello looking to cement England’s place in next year’s World Cup Finals. The Italian’s task is, on paper at least, a straightforward one; however, he will have to do it without his number one goalkeeper, Portsmouth’s David James. In addition, it was revealed yesterday that Manchester United’s Ben Foster will also be out for the next few months, undergoing an operation on a troublesome thumb. Capello will now have to shuffle his goalkeeping pack, but who will win the race to fill James’ gloves?

Despite England having a plethora of outfield talent, the nation is not exactly beset by goalkeeping excellence, and the current crop is hardly setting the world alight. Yes, James has served the nation admirably since the retirement of Arsenal legend David Seaman, but he will hardly go down in the history books as a world-class stopper. And the rest? Paul Robinson has arguably set the best case for selection this summer, with a string of impressive performances since the New Year. Tipped to be England’s number one for many years, the Blackburn stopper suffered a sever fall from grace following an indifferent World Cup in Germany. The Yorkshire lad has got himself into good shape, and seems to be flourishing under the recent guidance of Sam Allardyce. His critics will point to the fact he was given a good crack at the jersey, and cannot hack it on the big stage. However, if there is one position on the park that benefits from experience it is goalkeeping, and for that reason alone Robinson cannot be ruled out for return from the international wilderness.

The next name Capello will certainly consider is West Ham’s Robert Green. Since joining the Hammers from Norwich in the summer of 2006, Green has more than held his own in the Premiership, and has put in some impressive performances. Earning a reputation as an excellent penalty stopper, the one thing counting against him is consistency and this has perhaps cost him usurping James in recent years. West Ham have had a relatively successful campaign by their standards, missing out on the Europa League in the final weeks of the season, and Green has played a pivotal role in their resurgence under Gianfranco Zola. Whether Capello sees Green as the long-term option between the sticks remains open to question, but ‘England’s number four’ (a reference to Green’s own self-deprecation) certainly merits a chance this summer.

Then there are the unlikely lads. Manchester City’s Joe Hart, Wigan’s Chris Kirkland and the recently deposed Scott Carson at West Brom. Hart arguably has the biggest credentials to be England’s number one for many years, but the challenge for the former Shrewsbury trainee is to get himself back into the City line up. Following the arrival of Shay Given in January, Hart has not kicked a ball in anger, and he will have to decide whether Eastlands is the right place for him to continue his footballing education before he even considers adding to his solitary cap.

Kirkland is an interesting case. Despite bursting onto the scene some eleven years ago at Coventry City, I for one still regard the Wigan keeper as a relative novice. With over ten years of top-flight experience, including five years at Anfield, one may have expected Kirkland to have developed more. There is no doubting his ability, but while others shine at so-called lesser clubs, Jussi Jääskeläinen at Bolton and Given when he was at Newcastle are two that spring to mind, Kirkland fails to produce match winning performances at the JJB.

Carson, like Kirkland, is another failed Liverpool acquisition. Signed from Leeds in the January of 2005 for a reported £750,000, the current West Brom player has endured a torrid start to international football. Despite keeping a clean sheet on his England debut against Austria in November 2007; his next two appearances have been shocking by his own admission. Although he cannot be held solely accountable for the failure of qualifying for the Euros last summer, he certainly contributed more than most on that infamous night when Croatia ended Steve McClaren’s short reign as the national coach. In addition, he seems more affected by the big stage than any of the aforementioned options, and he will need to beat this mental barrier if he is indeed to stake a claim for a regular shot at the number one jersey.

Finally, there is the wildcard: Arsenal’s Manuel Almunia. Spanish by birth, growing up in Navarra’s mountainous valley of Pamplona, he has been one of the success stories in an otherwise disappointing season at the Emirates. Expressing on more than one occasion a desire to represent England, Almunia will qualify for British citizenship in July 2009 having spent five years residence in the United Kingdom, purists would not entertain such a notion. His quality would ensue that he would command a place in the England squad and, on current form, he would walk into the team. For me, it is a no go. Imagine the scenario of a Spain-England Final come the tournament in South Africa, and the furor that would surround his involvement for the mother nation of the game. It would place unprecedented pressure on his shoulders, and no sportsman should be subjected to such scrutiny, let alone be able to perform under it.

Ultimately, Capello’s selection should have no bearing on the overall outcome of this qualifying phase. England should qualify for football’s premier national tournament and with the amount of quality in front of England’s goalkeeper, results against the Kazaks and Andorra should boarder on a rugby scoreline. Who the Italian goes for is open to interpretation, but Paul Robinson should count himself an unfortunate man if the number one spot evades him once more come June 6.

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