Football: Twists in the tale of two goalkeepers: Problems are mounting for Shilton

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The Independent Online
Their paths have followed parallel courses for more than two decades. For years, Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence were rivals for the England goalkeeper's jersey until Shilton finally claimed it as his own.

When they moved into management it was Clemence who appeared to take the upper hand. While he made his name assisting Terry Venables at Tottenham, Shilton played into his forties before taking a management job in the lower divisions with Plymouth Argyle. Yet by the end of last season, Shilton's prospects appeared the brighter. His enterprising Plymouth team had narrowly missed out on promotion to the First Division, while Clemence, having left Tottenham in the wake of Venables' acrimonious departure, had stepped down several rungs to take over as general manager at impoverished Barnet, who were promptly relegated. Now their fortunes are again changing: Shilton has had a miserable start to the season, whereas Barnet, with Clemence as team manager, are riding high in the Third Division

PETER SHILTON today is confronted by the spectre of failure virtually for the first time in his long, and hitherto much-celebrated, career.

Plymouth Argyle's parlous position - they lie third from bottom in the Second Division and their last home gate was their lowest for nine years - is evidence of a once-burgeoning managerial success story which has suddenly swung into reverse.

The former England goalkeeper took up his appointment - his first foray into management - two and a half seasons ago, arriving at Home Park with a much-trumpeted brief to replace the derided long-ball tactics of his predecessor, David Kemp, with a more sophisticated style.

The switch could not prevent relegation, and it took the whole of his first full season of team rebuilding to fashion a formula which, in his second, was both pleasing on the eye and successful.

Indeed, it would have swept Plymouth into the First Division, for which their long-suffering supporters so earnestly yearn, had not Shilton failed to address a weakness in central defence. Argyle scored 88 goals - more than any other team in the country - and had the purists purring with their slick pass-and-move style. But their soft centre was exposed by Burnley's John Francis in the play-offs and Plymouth stayed down.

A clause in Shilton's contract gave Argyle the right to sack him should he not secure promotion within two years, and he arrived at Home Park the day after the Burnley set- back half-expecting the bullet, so troubled had his relationship been earlier with his chairman. Instead, Dan McCauley, a millionaire from Exeter, offered him a new contract, which was signed at the end of last month.

The much-publicised rift between two strong-minded characters went back to the early days of public carping by McCauley when the accessibility of his cheque book - Shilton was given nigh on pounds 1m to spend - failed to produce quick success. Yet this summer, peace seemed to have broken out. Shilton once more was given the wherewithal to return to the transfer market.

At which point Shilton decided to put his eggs in one basket by investing a club record pounds 300,000 in one player - Port Vale's Peter Swan - in an attempt to shore up the centre of his defence. The transfer, however, has had calamitous results and Swan's form in the opening games was so poor that rival strikers have begun viewing a trip to Devon with longing. Thirteen goals were frittered away in the opening three home matches and four more at Third Division Walsall in the Coca-Cola Cup.

If Shilton does not survive so dispiriting a start, the acquisition of Swan will be perceived, by many, to have been his bete noire. Significantly, Argyle have kept two successive clean sheets, when Swan, whose wife has just given birth, has been missing.

Shilton said: 'We have not been able to field a settled side all season because of injuries and it has been a difficult time for Peter, but you don't become a bad player overnight and in the long run he will be a good acquisition for the club.'

McCauley may have added to the strife by informing the press that John McGovern's decision to quit as assistant manager was apparently because Shilton owed him a substantial sum of money. The chairman insists he spoke out for the benefit of the club, reckoning that the truth was better divulged from the outset rather than re-surfacing to more damaging effect later.

Fortune has not favoured Shilton. A succession of injuries have taken a heavy toll, with Steve McCall, the midfield playmaker once of Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday, the most notable absentee.

It has had the effect of mocking Plymouth's status as pre-season promotion favourites, but there have been indications, also, of a lack of dressing-room harmony. The former captain, Steve Castle appeared to symbolise discontent at having a transfer request denied by traipsing out on to the pitch last at a home match.

A series of hell-raising off- the-field incidents from Alan Nicholls, Argyle's precocious England Under-21 goalkeeper, must also have been a source of embarrassment for a manager who places a high value on discipline.

Shilton's dealings with the media are unusual. No player is allowed to voice an opinion of his own - on threat of being fined - and not even the local paper is immune from the ban. His argument - that his charges should do their talking on the pitch - has an old-fashioned ring.

He has, however, himself largely overcome the instinctive reticence which checked his early relationship with reporters and admits also to having lightened up in the dressing room.

Whether there is light yet at the end of the darkest tunnel of a tracksuit career which could yet lead to a top-flight appointment is of pressing concern to Plymothians made weary by long years of under- achievement. A first win, at Cardiff on Saturday, was welcome and, with the injury toll easing, better days may yet be on the West Country horizon.

'It was a very pleasing performance at Ninian Park and good to get that first win, which is always the hardest,' Shilton said. 'Maybe now we have turned the corner.'

(Photograph omitted)