Ray Clemence: 'Rob didn't let us down before that goal – and he can be our No 1 again'

The England goalkeeping coach is welcoming Rob Green back into the fold
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The Independent Online

It was surely the most excruciating moment of Ray Clemence's World Cup: what to say and how best to intrude on Robert Green's personal grief in the half-time England dressing room in Rustenburg, minutes after his great calamity against the United States when he let Clint Dempsey's tame shot slip under him and trickle into the net. As Green finally makes it back to the England fold, in the squad for Tuesday's Euro 2012 qualifier with Montenegro, Fabio Capello's goalkeeping coach described yesterday how selecting the right moment was a significant part of his strategy.

"I looked at him," Clemence recalled. "And what I didn't want to do was walk across to him in that dressing room of 23 players and make a big fuss of him. So I sat there and I looked at him. I could see there was disappointment on his face – but he wasn't a mess, for a better way of putting it. Basically, I just had a quiet word with him on his own, while he went to the loo. [I'm thinking] "negative actions [breed] negative thoughts" – all that sort of thing – and when somebody of his experience has made that sort of mistake it doesn't need me to tell him. I had a word and he just said: 'I'm fine. I know what I've got to do.' It was the response I expected from him and in the second half he did what he had to do. The save he made at the end [from Jozy Altidore] is the one nobody ever speaks about but without it we could have lost the game 2-1."

But is Green's mind a "mess" now, 117 days on? The evidence has been conflicting. The West Ham goalkeeper's conviction that he had conceded a goal when Ricardo Fuller's header looped over him and struck the bar at Stoke on 18 September – he stared implacably at the ground, though the ball had bounced out and was cleared for a throw-in – revealed a mindset which expects every twist of fate to be a negative one. Yet his angry salute to the press seats after his fine display against Tottenham last month suggested he is made of sterner stuff.

Scott Carson may have been buried alive by his error which helped cede Euro 2008 qualification to Croatia in November 2007 – he has not started a game since – but Green, aged 30, has the experience Carson, then 22, lacked. "I watched Scott a number of times after that Croatia game and every away ground he went to the fans absolutely slaughtered him," Clemence said. "You could see in his body language it was destroying him."

The international misery has not receded for Green. After being dropped for England's encounter with Algeria in Cape Town – Clemence says he was consulted by Capello on that one but will not disclose the contents of a "private" conversation, came the ignominy of seeing youngsters Scott Loach and Frank Fielding called up by Capello ahead of Green for the friendly with Hungary in August, after Paul Robinson's sudden retirement and injury to Ben Foster. The England senior management were convinced before selecting Green, now behind Joe Hart and Foster in the order, that he would not announce his own retirement. "It's not that long ago he had 'England's No 6' [stitched into] his gloves and he ended up playing the World Cup only two years later," Clemence, in reference to Green's self-deprecatory gesture which reflected his international expectations a couple of years ago. "He's not old where goalkeepers are concerned. Good goalkeepers play till they're 40, so a lot can happen."

Green may quite reasonably feel that he has had enough uncertainty about his international prospects. Though Clemence robustly defends Capello's decision to announce his goalkeeper hours before each game, there was an extraordinary degree of clarity about whether he or Peter Shilton would keep goal for Ron Greenwood's England, even though they alternated for close to two years.

"We knew about two years before," Clemence said, "because after I had been No 1 [under Don Revie] Ron told me he was looking at the situation and didn't want the situation we had in [the] 1970 [Mexico finals] where Gordon Banks played all the games and then Peter Bonetti had to come in for the quarter-final, had hardly played a game, was short of it, and we got knocked out. He asked me if I was happy to alternate. So it didn't matter what the game was. It would be me one week and Peter the next week. We knew when we turned up on the Sunday night whether we would play or not."

Clemence, who had the confidence of 25 caps and 10 clean sheets under Revie to draw upon, continued to perform. He conceded 29 goals in 29 games for Greenwood before Shilton became the established No 1 in 1982.

Green now finds a formidable obstacle in Hart. "He is the one in possession at this moment in time and, having been there myself, possession is nine-tenths of the law in England goalkeeping," the coach concedes. Clemence and Franco Tancredi, the goalkeeping coach Capello has always worked with, perceive the most marked change in Hart's decision making, over the past 12 months. "In the first two months of last year I could see decision-making errors because he hadn't been playing regularly," Clemence reflected.

But Hart also knows the fates can conspire against goalkeepers, as when his own error gifted Blackburn Rovers an equaliser last month. As Clemence put it: "It's in the job description of being a goalkeeper."

All he can do is bide his time again. "He's been there; got most of the T-shirts," said Clemence, which is why he doesn't rule out Green climbing back to the summit he occupied before Dempsey was given half a yard on the Rustenburg turf by Steven Gerrard on 12 June and fatefully fired in that Jabulani. "Rob didn't let England down at all in the games he played going up to the World Cup and that's obviously why Fabio thought that was the choice to make," Clemence concluded. "There's certainly no reason why he couldn't be England's No 1 again."