England's future in safe hands with bright, articulate Jack Butland
Birmingham custodian goes from playing in front of 5,000 at Cheltenham to facing Euro finalists Italy tomorrow
At a time when England's leading footballers are being asked to live up to the standards set by the athletes, cyclists, rowers and boxers of Team GB, who have captured the nation's imagination, the case of Jack Butland, just 19 years old, is an instructive story.
The Birmingham City goalkeeper could become the youngest ever England goalkeeper against Italy tomorrow, a record that has stood for 124 years since one Billy Moon made his debut against Wales in 1888, 64 days older than Butland is now. Butland has never played above League One, where he was on loan at Cheltenham Town last season, and only made his Birmingham first-team debut in a friendly on Saturday.
He played, and impressed, for Great Britain in the Olympics and yesterday he announced, in the politest possible way, that his intention is one day to supplant Joe Hart as the nation's first-choice goalkeeper. It is no mean task but then this is a young man whose development – through the Under-20s, Under-21s, a late call-up for the Euro 2012 squad and Great Britain – has been nothing short of extraordinary to the point that now, with Hart injured, he is one of only two goalkeepers, with Norwich's John Ruddy, in Roy Hodgson's squad.
Had Hart been fit, Butland would have been released to play in the Capital One Cup against Barnet tonight. As it is he will fly to Berne today. "I want to challenge him [Hart] as soon as I possibly can," Butland said. "Being the No 1 for England is something I have always dreamed of and Joe is there at the minute. Only one can play, so my target for the coming years is to be as big a challenge as I can.
"He knows eventually there will be competition whether that's from me or someone else. He's not the only goalkeeper in England. For me it's the target to test him at first and make him a little bit worried but eventually to try to take his place. I'm good friends with Joe but when it comes down to it only one person can wear the shirt and hopefully I'll get that chance."
If it comes across as arrogant then it certainly was not projected that way. Butland is an engaging character who spoke with warmth about his Olympics experience that took him outside of football's bubble: "The Olympics wasn't just a football thing, it was so much more than that.
Butland said: "It wasn't us. It was Team GB and we were just a small part of that. We were on a level playing field with the swimmers, the athletes and the divers. We were just another part of it. I think that was a massive thing in not getting ahead of ourselves. We're not special here. We're not better than anyone else."
For all the stories of toil and hard work that have emerged from Team GB, Butland has one to match them himself. Born into a rugby-playing family in Bristol – he was a decent No 8 himself – he spent most of his teenage years travelling to and from Birmingham from the south-west to train and play at the academy.
He would make the five-hour round trip on the train three times a week because he felt it was not right to ask his parents to drive him. Schoolwork was done on the train and, for the three days a week he was back at school in Bristol, he would often catch up with extra tutoring at lunchtimes. He left school with two As, six Bs and a C grade at GCSE, as well as the basis of a football career.
His biggest concern outside of football? He said he would never wish to be perceived as "big time", the perception that, rightly or wrongly, follows many of his football brethren around. "I just think it's the borderline between confidence and arrogance really," Butland said.
"Any professional needs to be confident in your own ability and what you can achieve, but there's a line between that and arrogance, which not a lot of people step over.
"But it's a very delicate line because it can taint people's views of you and once you've lost that, it can be very difficult to get it back."
It helped playing at Cheltenham, where the biggest crowd he performed in front of was just 5,288 against Bristol Rovers, and an experience in League Two that Butland said he would not change for the world. His rise to prominence may highlight the dearth of good top-level English goalkeepers but Butland does stand out as one mature and thoughtful for his age, as well as for his performances on the pitch.
He was called up late for Euro 2012 after Ruddy's injury and got the news just as he landed in Mexico for a holiday with his girlfriend – "She was pretty gutted... we're still together." Hodgson decided to allow him to stay for five days before coming back
"I have to pinch myself almost every week," he said. "I'm thinking, 'Wow, I've just gone to the Euros or I've just played at Old Trafford or I've represented Team GB'. If you don't enjoy it, if you don't get nervous, then I don't know why you'd be involved in it. I've been lucky to have these opportunities and I hope a lot more to come."
Jack's world in goal
Jack Butland is set to keep goal for England in Berne tomorrow, despite making his professional debut less than a year ago.
The 19-year-old goalkeeper signed with Birmingham in 2010 but has yet to feature for them. He was loaned out to Cheltenham ahead of last season and made his debut in September, going on to play 24 games.
He has since impressed in winning six caps with the England Under-21s, and also shone for Great Britain at the Olympic Games, playing five times as they reached the last eight.
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