Paul Robinson: The loneliest job... but being No 1 is the best feeling ever

After the suffering of David James, England's new keeper is taking nothing for granted. He tells Nick Townsend about his hunger to succeed
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The act of succession, in goalkeeping as in politics, is invariably an ugly, sometimes a bloody, business. Rarely is the process smooth and harmonious. Other than injuries, it tends to be aberrations, or clangers or howlers (that curious terminology specifically used to castigate custodians) that precede it.

Just about everyone with England's interests at heart - their followers, the media, and the non-playing personnel - knew that night at the Ernst Happel stadium in Vienna four weeks ago that David James's England career had reached a critical fallout level when Andreas Ivanschitz's daisy-cutter eluded his clutches.

Everyone except Paul Robinson. Ask Tottenham Hotspur's new goalkeeper about his cerebral processes when that equalising goal in England's first World Cup qualifier produced a Viennese whirl of delight, and he puts it succinctly. " 'Shit, that's two-all', that's all I thought," he declares. Not the merest hint of an instinctive secondary reaction, you ask him, to the effect of: "Hmm, this could be my chance'? "

He insists not. "I really didn't see what happened," he says. "Only later, I got to find out it was a mistake [by James]. I saw it on TV afterwards, and then heard Sven [Goran Eriksson] saying that David would be playing in the next game. So, that was it." As we all assumed, erroneously, until the day of the Poland game.

In the intervening period, Robinson was only vaguely aware of the ridicule that had been heaped upon James in some quarters. "I wasn't aware of the media circus apart from phone calls from friends and family calling me and saying, 'Do you realise what's happening back home?' I didn't read or hear anything, and it was probably the best thing that could have happened."

It was two o'clock in the afternoon, and Robinson was resting, after lunch, at the England team hotel in Katowice. "Sven called my room and said, 'Can I come up and see you?' " No doubt, words which these days would be regarded with circumspection by most young women. For Robinson, though, they held a special significance. The audience with the England coach was brief. "He just told me, 'You'll be starting this evening'. That was about it, really," he says.

And so, Robinson, in receipt of his sixth cap - but the first in a competitive game - became England's No 1, a position that, by all rights following an assured exhibition in the subsequent 2-1 triumph, he should retain against Wales on Saturday.

"There was a mixture of emotions," he says, recalling his reaction to being asked to start. "Nerves. Excitement. A buzz. The idea is that you have a sleep during the afternoon before an evening game. But I couldn't. I was bouncing around the room. I was taking showers, having a shave, anything, just desperate for the game to start.

"I was nervous, but so looking forward to it. I'd played in friendlies before, but to be actually given a chance, when all the goalkeepers are fit, to be told, 'Yeah, there you go. You're No 1 for tonight. It's your job. You do it', it's just the best feeling ever."

But what of James's reaction? According to Robinson, it was exemplary. "When something like that happens, you never really know how the other keeper's going to react, but in the dressing room, he came over and said, 'Do you want me to come out for the warm-up with you?' Then he gave me a hug and said, 'Good luck. Really enjoy it. Take your chance'. He was absolutely fantastic, which made the situation so much easier for me."

Possession of the first-team jersey, as Robinson knows only too well, is nine- tenths of the law of goalkeeping. For the moment, the England knitwear appears to be his. Robinson is more cautious, though. "I wouldn't say I was England No 1," he retorts. "I wouldn't take it for granted. But I'd love to be given another chance." And if it was James who was reinstated by Eriksson? "I'd respect that decision and I'd get my head down and work even harder to get back in the team."

His experiences at Elland Road have clearly been as educative as they have been illuminating. It was as a 13-year-old that the grammar-school boy from Beverley joined the Leeds academy, and prospered in a youth set-up that included Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate and Harry Kewell. His debut, as a 19-year-old, as cover for an injured Nigel Martyn, corresponded with Leeds's most auspicious season under David O'Leary, in which they finished fourth in the Premiership and were Champions' League semi-finalists.

"Nobody can take memories like that away from you. At home, I've still got all my jerseys from those Champions' League games, ones I've swapped, like [Angelo] Peruzzi's of Lazio, [Iker] Casillas's of Madrid and [Jose] Cañizares's of Valencia."

Robinson, belying his years, was swiftly lauded as a future England contender. But Martyn eventually returned, and the young goalkeeper reverted to No 2. As Robinson now concedes, it was not a scenario he accepted stoically. "I had that run of League and Champions' League games and I was on the crest of a wave. Leeds were doing well, and I was part of it," he says. "Then I was taken out of the team by David O'Leary and left on the bench for two years. It was horrible."

He adds: "At the time, it seemed that there was no way back. I was just a kid. It was the easier option to leave me out, because I wouldn't kick up a stink. I just sulked, and I shouldn't have done. But I've learnt from that. I'm a stronger character for it."

Within the club, though, decline had begun to set in. Leeds were dying the dream. The players handled it with their own particular black humour. "The manager or chairman at some point - I'm not sure who; there've been so many - whoever it was had come in and tried to steady the ship. He came out and said some of the players would have to be sold. After that, we'd keep saying to each other, 'Are you still here?' It was one of those kind of situations."

By last season, Martyn had departed. Robinson was first choice again. But also by last season Leeds's financial woes had become well publicised, and began to have a destabilising effect on what remained of the squad. "We were getting written off by everyone," says Robinson. "Everyone expected us to lose. So, when we lost on a Saturday afternoon, it didn't seem to matter too much. Once you get the losing mentality it's very difficult to get out of it.

"If you're in goal, you have to try and remain focused and concentrate on your own game. But that can be difficult in those circumstances. It's very mentally tough. A goalkeeper thrives on clean sheets, and when you're getting two, three, four goals stuffed past you every week, it kills you."

From early this year, it was evident that he would become part of the exodus. The £1.5m move to White Hart Lane actually occurred in May. "When the opportunity came to join Spurs, it was one I couldn't turn down. They made me feel wanted. The chairman explained to me their plans, the way the club wanted to go forward. It just all seemed right at the time."

He had already signed when the former France coach Jacques Santini was appointed. "He's very relaxed and has got a presence about him," says Robinson of the Frenchman. "He doesn't scream, doesn't shout. He respects the players. The players respect him in return. We've made a decent start. It's probably helped that we've had a pretty settled back five - including myself."

Most significantly, the Moroccan defender Noureddine Naybet has forged a healthy alliance with England's Ledley King. "Noureddine is a very experienced player who reads the game very well," says Robinson. "Ledley appreciates having an older head next to him."

Robinson finds himself the latest in a distinguished line of Tottenham goalkeepers, including Pat Jennings, who still comes in to help out at the club one day a week, and Ray Clemence, a member of England's coaching staff. One aspect of goalkeeping the new Spur, 25 next week, has had to come to terms with is the denunciation it can provoke. This truly is the loneliest job. Some of the media condemnation of James was, Robinson concedes, "horrible to see". "I can't understand how they can do that to a human being. He didn't mean it. It's not like he intentionally went out there to hurt anyone. But it gives you a reality check. One day that could be you."

Not if he maintains his England form thus far, one based on a simple premise. "A lot of goalkeepers make good saves," he says. "The better goalkeepers are the ones that make fewer mistakes." Which explains why the England coach is likely to have already inscribed the name of Robinson, not James, on his starting teamsheet to face Wales on Saturday. If not, he should.


Paul William Robinson

Born: 15 October 1979 in Beverley, East Yorkshire.

Height: 6ft 4in. Weight: 14st 8lb.

Club career: Leeds academy graduate. First senior game against Chelsea in Oct 1998; 119 appearances before joining Tottenham for £1.5m in May this year.

International career: Senior England debut in Feb 2003 as substitute against Australia in friendly at Upton Park. Four more appearances as sub before starting against Poland last month in World Cup qualifier. Total goals conceded: 5.

Other honours: England U21 (13 caps); FA Youth Cup winner with Leeds, 1997.

Also: Scored last-minute equaliser in Carling Cup tie against Swindon in Sept 2003. Leeds went on to win on penalties.