Old head James relishes a return to No 1

The 'keeper's new-found sangfroid during and after Saturday's game contrasted with Green's mad moment, says Ian Herbert

Don't imagine there will be any kind of sentimentality from David James for the sent off Robert Green because you don't achieve the kind of international longevity that James has enjoyed with feelings like that. When his former Portsmouth team-mate Matt Taylor missed a golden opportunity to put the ball past him for Bolton Wanderers last season, James was asked if he felt for him. "When you leave my team, mate, I want you to get beat," he said. "That's the way it is, so I'm happy."

James knows for sure now that he will not have to wait beyond Wednesday, against Belarus, for his 50th England cap, which is the just reward for his perseverance and considerable improvement. He will have offered consolation to Green, suspended for that game, when he finally placed an arm on his shoulder on the team bus to Dnipropetrovsk airport on Saturday night – James had not seen him in the dressing room – but he made no use of the mitigating factors at his disposal. "What's the problem?" James asked, as he reflected on the flares which flew an inch past his head and had set Green's penalty area on fire 12 minutes before Rio Ferdinand's aerial misjudgement relit it. "I noticed the ones in front of me. When I was on the bench I saw it and I have been told I was also hit by a flare. It might be utter tosh but one of the lads on the bench said it might have been a ploy to [make us] swap ends. We went down the other end and there were 20 flares on the pitch. Greeny had more than I did. But it was fine."

Neither was Fabio Capello willing to contemplate the suggestion that the flares which spat sparks in Green's area might have been at the back of the goalkeeper's mind as he raced into his lumpen challenge on Artem Milevskiy. "No, no," Capello interrupted. "The flares or the penalty are no excuse." John Terry confirmed first impressions that Green, like Ferdinand, was at fault. "At times you just mistime things and he's seen he could get there and couldn't. He will probably look at it and think he could have got there, but he was just a second too late."

So James returns to the ascendancy, his prospects of emulating Dino Zoff – the goalkeeper who was 40 and playing in the 1982 World Cup – highly probable. The cool and fatalistic way James talks about the game reveals he has the measure of it now and that a fair share of his own terrible moments has equipped him with a sangfroid England can use.

"There was the 'Deal or No Deal' moment when the team went up and I was not in it so I just thought let's crack on and win the game anyway," he reflected of Saturday evening's events. "I did not expect to get on [the pitch] but I was prepared." Compare that with Green, who marched out of the Dnipro Stadium without a word or a glance. Not impressive.

James wasn't having Ferdinand ruining his night, either. When the defender had allowed Yaroslav Rakytskyy to slide a ball through for substitute Andriy Yarmolenko in the second half, James blocked well. That he should be back out there again is a measure, though, of the way goalkeeping, as surely as carmaking and coalmining, is a lost English tradition. Across the course of nearly 40 years, just about four keepers – Gordon Banks, Ray Clemence, Peter Shilton and David Seaman – served the nation. Across the course of Capello's 23-month tenure, double that number have popped up in squad lists: James, Green, Paul Robinson, Joe Hart, Ben Foster, Chris Kirkland, Scott Carson and even Peterborough United's Joe Lewis. Capello has grubbed around for one everywhere.

You feel he still hasn't found what he's looking for, either. While Foster is struggling to arrive in the game, Carson, you think, will always be saddled with the horrors of Croatia, Wembley, November 2007. Robinson was so traumatised by memories of Zagreb and Moscow with England when he arrived at Blackburn Rovers that he is still unwilling to talk about that time.

Green, meanwhile, has glided up the rankings, by default and not without fault. There has been an element of doom about his international career. He missed most of his last chance to play Belarus when rupturing a groin taking a goal kick against them in an England B game in 2006, which also put him out of that year's World Cup, and his previous five starts for his country included a nervy first half in Kazakhstan. England's rampant wins over Croatia and Andorra have dimmed memories of his bad flap at a cross which almost had England behind after 19 seconds in Almaty.

This means a goalkeeper nearing his 40th birthday will probably carry England's hopes into South Africa, though the years are surely inconsequential. James radiates more of a lustre turning 40 than he did at 30 and, besides, Shilton was three months off 41 when he went to Italia '90. It was only when the tournament was effectively over that he dithered fatally over a backpass and allowed Italy's Roberto Baggio in during the third-place play-off. Seaman was 38 at the 2002 tournament – and another error, from Ronaldinho's free-kick – proved to be the beginning of the end for him.

Back then, England managers didn't preoccupy themselves with goalkeepers in World Cup seasons, but Capello will still be looking around. Perhaps he can take succour from the thought both James and Green will be busy at the wrong end of the Premier League for the next eight months. Or maybe not. The old Banks of England are long gone and there are some serious safecrackers just around the corner.