Jack Butland takes the loan route to success
England's level-headed Under-21 goalkeeper is in the vanguard of future stars learning the game outside the Premier League
Goalkeepers are crazy, supposedly, but here is another one as grounded and intelligent as England's Joe Hart, whom he will follow into the Premier League next season with Stoke City and hopes to succeed eventually as the country's No 1.
Jack Butland of Birmingham City only left his teens a fortnight ago but Stuart Pearce, who made him first-choice for the Under-20 World Cup, the Under-21s and the Great Britain Olympic side, says: "You'd think he was about 28." Pearce is particularly impressed with how level-headed Butland remained after a promotion to the senior squad brought a first cap as England's youngest ever goalkeeper, against Italy, and a place on the bench against Brazil last month. "Has not affected him one iota," Pearce said after the Somerset boy returned to the Under-21s last week. In Thursday's friendly against Romania at Wycombe he kept the team's eighth successive clean sheet and he wants a ninth at Brighton against Austria tomorrow in the team's final public outing before the European Championship in Israel this summer.
Playing regularly is the key for England wannabes, which is why almost half the current Under-21 squad are on loan in the Championship from Premier League clubs. It also explains why Butland shunned interest from Chelsea and Manchester City, knowing that the chances of deposing Petr Cech or Hart were slim. "Chelsea is a fantastic club and attracted me," he said after the game at Wycombe. "They are the European champions. But Stoke is a fantastic club for different reasons. I feel I can better develop my game at Stoke than I can at Chelsea at the minute. It is as simple as that. Chelsea didn't do anything wrong, I just didn't think it suited me right now. It was a very important decision to make in terms of when and where. I have been at Birmingham a long time and had my spells in the Championship and League Two [with Cheltenham] and I feel if I really want to push Joe Hart and the other senior keepers for an England spot, I need to be playing Premier League football. I feel I am capable of doing it and Stoke have a very good set-up with a very good goalkeeping coach. I'm really at ease with the decision and looking forward to it."
For that decision he consulted long and hard with the usual cadre of family and advisors: "Every decision I've made has been helped out by a lot of other people and I feel that they've all been the right decisions. At the end of the day it's led me to where I am and I really can't complain."
Butland, 6ft 4in and a fine shot-stopper, does not appear to be the complaining sort. As one of those infuriating students who mop up GCSEs (nine of them) while excelling at every sport he takes part in, he could easily have developed a high opinion of himself, but insists: "I've seen a lot of people get carried away and my mum and dad would be the first people to take me down if that ever happened. I know myself that's not going to get me anywhere. It's not good for my career or fair to teams if you're arrogant, or different to everyone else. To be the best you've got to act like the best, very professional and humble."
He regards Hart as a particularly good mentor: "I've been fortunate to train with Joe Hart at Birmingham and England and I can only look up to what he's doing because he's a fantastic role model to all young players, not just keepers. He speaks very well and is careful what he says."
Hart, with almost 30 caps already at the age of 25, seems destined to keep the jersey for some time to come, yet injury or a sudden loss of form – as Robert Green found at the last World Cup – can suddenly change the rankings. Ben Foster is back in favour, with Newcastle's Fraser Forster another player forced to take a loan (in his case to Celtic before signing permanently in the summer) to ensure game-time.
But Butland, who has worked with the England goalkeeping coach Dave Watson at Birmingham and went to the European Championship last year as No 3 when Norwich's John Ruddy pulled out, is clearly the coming man. He speaks of his 45 minutes against Italy last August as "the best feeling I've ever had – I was almost pinching myself during the game thinking 'what's going on here?'"
Another win tomorrow night would set up the Under-21s for this summer's finals, hoping that players such as Wilfried Zaha, Raheem Sterling and Jonjo Shelvey, all outstanding on Thursday, can stay fit until June. Having such a composed and capable goalkeeper in what Butland calls "a very good defensive unit" can only help.
Under-21 loan stars
Jack Butland: Stoke to Birmingham
Nat Chalobah: Chelsea to Watford
Craig Dawson: West Bromwich Albion to Bolton
Nathan Delfouneso: Aston Villa to Blackpool
Josh McEachran: Chelsea to Middlesbrough
Jack Robinson: Liverpool to Wolves
Danny Rose: Tottenham to Sunderland
Declan Rudd: Norwich to Preston
Adam Smith: Tottenham to Millwall
Andros Townsend: Tottenham to Queens Park Rangers
Connor Wickham: Sunderland to Sheffield Wednesday
Wilfried Zaha: Manchester United to Crystal Palace
England Under-21s v Austria at Brighton is live on ESPN tomorrow, kick-off 7.45pm
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