James works out how to win the battle of survival

Click to follow
The Independent Football

It was strange to hear those well-modulated Scottish tones of Adam Crozier addressing the radio news micro-phones this week. It took a moment to realise it was him, the man who bore prime responsibility for hiring Sven Goran Eriksson and who remained principal defender of the faith. Now in charge of the Post Office, Crozier's role is to address the wage demands of postmen, not the sensitivities of football club chairmen. But his prominence served to remind you that only a year ago he was the Football Association's chief executive, and England were about to play Slovakia and Macedonia in their first European qualifiers.

The former turned out to be an unconvincing victory. The latter, a 2-2 draw at St Mary's, Southampton, proved to be possibly England's most unsatisfactory performance under the Swede.

As the England coach was to observe after the next game, a friendly defeat by Australia: "This disturbs me in a lot of ways. But not as half as much as when we drew against Macedonia at home. That was important."

Those Macedonia and Australia fixtures were to prove a transitional period not only in Eriksson's fortunes - his teams have embarked on a six-match winning run since - but also in terms of ownership of the England goalkeeping gloves. The Macedonia game was also to prove David Seaman's last for England as possession was handed down to David James. Or, to put it another way in this battle of the eye-catching hairstyles, one England career was cur-tailed while another was up-braided. Seaman accepted the inevitable yesterday when he said: "I've not been in the last two squads, so in my heart I know it's time for one of the younger players. But if needed, I'll always be there."

Many were unconvinced by the recipient. "Why David James - when a recent review of England's goalkeepers would have convinced most judges that Paul Robinson should have started?" was this observer's opinion then.

So, presumably this is an opportunity to recant? Not yet. Judgement should be postponed until the end of the qualifying campaign. But, for the moment, James, by dint of his experience and form, merits selection, although one suspects that in time Robinson or perhaps Chris Kirkland will usurp the 33-year-old.

Certainly there is evidence, as James prepares for England's return fixture against Macedonia in Skopje on Saturday evening, that his more "calamitous" days are over. His stature makes him a commanding figure, his clearances are positive and his aberrations are now relatively rare. He was outstanding for West Ham last season, even if his rearguard offered him every opportunity to demonstrate that fact. Indeed, in that context, one can only compare James's situation with that of the former Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings, whose somewhat ambiguous reaction having been named Footballer of the Year in 1973 was: "How could I avoid it, playing behind our defence?"

Neither does James, about whom Eriksson has issued a protection order despite his club's decline in status, have to worry about sliding into anonymity with West Ham in the Nationwide.

Yet it has been a frustrating process, James having secured his first cap in 1997 when with Liverpool. Seaman was always going to be a fixture hard to dislodge from the England framework, although his display for Manchester City at Ewood Park on Monday night suggested that the conclusion of his England career was none too premature.

James, whose progress has also been punctuated by injury, had decided some time ago that he was not prepared to merely let fate take its course. With the aid of a sports psychologist, Keith Power, the 6ft 5in goalkeeper scrutinised his lifestyle, fitness, diet and mental approach. He lost weight, worked on his fitness and strength and he employed a yoga expert to improve his suppleness. "I was interested in anything that might make even the most marginal improvement to my game," says James, who concedes that David Beckham's approach has also been a model for him. "David changed the way I viewed practice. It wasn't just about doing enough to remain good, it was about getting better."

Now he has secured that England position he craved, claiming his 17th cap against Croatia 11 days ago and performing with distinction, James does not intend to loosen his grip, although Robinson, Kirkland, Leicester's Ian Walker, Everton's Rich-ard Wright and Wolves' Matt Murray will have other ideas. "My first target is 20 caps," says James. "After everything that's happened, it's a good target to set."

His installation, however, will not convince those who insist that James is no more than the best of an average bunch, and that England may rue their failure to source greater talent once the stage of a European Championships or World Cup finals is attained. It was George Best, in one of his more lucid moments in recent months, who observed: "We have such a pathetic shortage of English goalkeepers in the Premiership." It is significant that the Premiership's best five clubs have an American, a German, an Italian, a Pole and an Irishman as their first-choice goalkeepers. And this in a league that accommodates no fewer than three American goalkeepers - Tim Howard, Brad Freidel and Kasey Keller - all highly regarded.

So desperate are some critics of home-grown goalkeeping talent that they would willingly endorse the proposition of an Italian, Chelsea's Carlo Cudicini, representing England. In a year's time, he is entitled to claim UK citizenship under the five-year residency rule. That would mean that Cudicini could play for England, although he has displayed no great desire to do so.

For the moment, though, it is James, a one-time face of Armani, in whom Eriksson has placed his belief after a year in which fortunes have turned decisively his way. He is probably the first name on the England team-sheet after his captain; the pair of them, in both senses of the word, model professionals.