There was a tragicomic element to Robert Green's most memorable moment in an England shirt. Playing for an England B team against Belarus in May 2006 he collapsed with a ruptured thigh muscle as he struck a goal-kick and had to watch, prostrate, as the ball was dribbled back past him for a goal.
In that moment Green's hopes of participating in the 2006 World Cup finals disappeared and, sad though it was, there were senior England players watching in the stand at the Madejski Stadium that night who later admitted that they found it hard not to laugh. Most of all they were relieved that it was not them, lying helpless on the turf watching their World Cup dreams disappear.
Three years on and Green is England's No 1 at last for Saturday's World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan. He is the first England goalkeeper in a long time to get his chance through injury – David James and Ben Foster are both unavailable – rather than form. Over the last seven years it has been mistakes by England keepers that have ushered in a change in the No 1 status and surely, Green was asked, every understudy secretly craves a cock-up from the first choice.
"It's something you wouldn't wish on anyone," Green said. "The guys who play in goal for England have responded tremendously well, hence they are still in the squad or back now. David James is a prime example of that, because he has been lambasted from all quarters at various points of his career. He has come back stronger and better and that is something all the younger guys can take stock from and learn from and use him as a tremendous example."
Fair enough, but James got his chance after Scott Carson's aberration against Croatia in November 2007. And Carson had got his chance because of Paul Robinson's mistake against Russia one month earlier. Robinson was in because James had messed up against Austria in September 2004. Prior to that David Seaman had been dumped in favour of James after the former Arsenal goalkeeper misjudged a Macedonia corner in October 2002. Every hopeful has benefited from a balls-up.
The man who wore "England's No 6" on his gloves in a deliberate act of self-parody, Green stands out among England footballers. An occasional columnist for The Independent and a man who has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for the health charity AMREF, he is a thoughtful type who even said this week that he would have no problem with the Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia claiming a British passport and making himself available to Fabio Capello for selection.
At West Ham he has proved again to be one of the club's outstanding performers this season, but he is 29 now with just two full caps to his name, against Colombia in 2005 and Spain in February. Both were second-half substitute's appearances. So what has changed since he pulled on those "England's No 6" gloves against Birmingham City last year?
"About three numbers at the moment," said Green, who is one of three goalkeepers in the squad to face Kazakhstan and Andorra, along with Robinson and Carson. "It was 18 months ago, a joke with the West Ham fans at the time and one that was a bit of self-deprecation, nothing meant towards anyone. It was taken in good heart by everyone involved and something my glove manufacturer has thanked me for numerous times since. The picture has been used over and over again. I didn't think that 18 months down the line it would be brought up in a press conference.
"It's life," Green added. "It's part of being a goalkeeper. You feel like you can play in part of a team and do a job. It's the same as an understudy at a club side. You've done everything you can to be ready and you want a chance. As a footballer, all you want to do is play football. In that respect, it's a laugh-or-cry moment. If you've done everything you can and it doesn't happen, there is not a lot you can do about it. The best thing you can do is have a good laugh."
There is the possibility that Almunia could make himself available to England next season should he apply for a British passport this summer, which would naturally spark enormous debate on the sanctity of international football. "It would be a challenge and I'm here for challenges," Green said. "You can either sit and sulk about it or say, 'OK I want to have a chance', and deal with it."
Green also pointed out that the premium fee paid for English goalkeepers often precluded them from joining top clubs, who tend to spend most of their money on strikers and midfielders. There was also praise for his manager at West Ham, Gianfranco Zola, whose emphasis on passing the ball at the club, Green said, has meant that his right leg hurts a lot less in comparison to the days when he was simply invited to blast the ball down the pitch rather than roll it out.
Saturday would be Green's competitive debut for England and when Carson made his in a vital European Championship qualifier against Croatia in 2007 it was an unmitigated disaster. "I've already made my debut so I'm OK, but I know what you are saying," Green said. "It's a massive game for the country. I don't think any one of us would give it a second thought, it wouldn't cross our minds about the previous experience because between the three of us we have more than enough ability to do a job. The confidence you have in yourself doesn't take history into account. It's something that has happened, it's done, we'll move on."
Pitch imperfect: And you thought Wembley was bad...
Paul Robinson knows more than most keepers that dodgy foreign grounds can be graveyards for England goalkeepers. It's getting on for three years since that back pass from Gary Neville across a stodgy surface in Zagreb confounded him and left him wanting the whole muddy quagmire to swallow him up as Steve McClaren and his new 3-5-2 formation were beaten 2-0.
Back in the England reckoning Robinson might be, but a cursory glance at the pitch in the 50-year-old Almaty Central Stadium last night would have told him that he might be safer in the confines of the away dugout. As the local police and army undertook anti-riot exercises in the early evening sunshine, ground staff were digging at a small section of surface which looked decent Sunday League quality at best. The thick clover will be cut before kick-off but there is nothing the Kazakh federation can do to deal with the ruts on the pitch, which means England will need to be on their guard when it comes to passes back to the keeper.
The groundsman here is certainly put through his paces, since the pitch is used by three local clubs – FC Almaty, FC Megasport and FC Kairat – as well as serving as the stadium for the national side.
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