Peter Shilton: Legendary keeper strives to be known for more than his mistakes

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Waiting for Peter Shilton in the lobby of the Forest of Arden Hotel, near Coventry, I while away the time by texting a friend, telling him where I am and who I'm waiting for. "Don't lend him any money," comes the reply. "He's even less reliable than me." I chuckle, yet at the same time it strikes me as inordinately unfair that a man who for 20 years kept goal for his country - which is also my country and my friend's country - should awaken such disrespect. With Sven Goran Eriksson still not sure who his best goalkeeper is - a dilemma hardly addressed by Saturday's World Cup qualifier against Wales, in which Paul Robinson had scarcely a save to make - we should be thinking back to Shilton's heyday with a sigh of longing. Paying homage, not poking fun.

After all, his 125 caps (and 66 clean sheets) is an England record by some distance, and all the more remarkable when you consider that Ray Clemence was picked ahead of him during Don Revie's tenure as England manager, while the two, preposterously, were alternated by Ron Greenwood. Shilton also played 1,005 league matches, another record. His first league appearance was in the 1965-66 season, for Leicester City; his last in 1996-97, for Leyton Orient. With Nottingham Forest he won two European Cup medals. For at least 10 years he was widely acknowledged as being the best goalkeeper in the world. And his longevity at international level is truly extraordinary.

Indeed, I hadn't appreciated quite how extraordinary until I read his highly engaging recently-published autobiography.

Shilton made his debut for England in November, 1970, for heaven's sake, and was still between the sticks in the summer of 1990. He played with Terry Cooper and Terry Butcher, with Paul Madeley and Paul Parker. His name is the one constant when you examine England's most memorable matches over the course of two decades. The fateful 1-1 draw with Poland in 1973 is famous for the performance of Jan Tomaszewski at one end, yet Shilton was at the other. The 1986 World Cup quarter-final defeat by Argentina is notorious for Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal; it was Shilton he jumped against. When German penalties put England out of the 1990 World Cup, Shilton was the man trying gallantly to save them.

And yet, for my friend and not a few others, the name Peter Shilton evokes financial recklessness. His gambling habit, compounded by some unwise investments in property and horseflesh, effectively ended his career in football management, not to mention some cherished relationships. The £7,000 he borrowed from John McGovern, when McGovern was his assistant manager at Plymouth Argyle, sealed the demise of a friendship that went back to the glory days at Nottingham Forest.

So, without telling him about the text message I received moments before he strode into the lobby, I ask Shilton the $64,000 or, if you prefer, £7,000 question: How upsetting is it for him, with his incomparable record as a footballer, that some people think of him foremost as a walking financial disaster area?

"Well, it was upsetting while it was happening," he replies, equably. "It's like being a goalkeeper. You leave yourself open to ridicule, and it's never nice to be ridiculed. It was very tough. I let myself and my family down.

"But I used my fighting instincts to get out of it, and fortunately I had the earning potential to do that. I made sure I recovered before I did this book, because I didn't want people to think I wrote it just because I was in a mess."

Shilton pulled himself back from the brink of ruin and, as he writes in the book's concluding paragraph: "I now own a lovely home and my business interests, football pension and corporate work have put me on the up again".

For which, three cheers. But he concedes that the damage done to his reputation, if not necessarily irreparable, is profound.

"The reason my managerial career ended was nothing to do with my ability to manage. That's something I still find hard to deal with. I always thought I could become a top manager, and I blew it."

Shilton's candour, in the book as well as on the terrace of the Forest of Arden Hotel, is admirable. He thinks that there remains "unfinished business" between him and football, he tells me. He wants to manage again.

"I'm very fit, and I think I've still got a lot to offer. I'm not talking about goalkeeping coaching. I did that for two years at Middlesbrough, on a part-time basis, and it didn't suit me. After 30 years as a goalkeeper myself I didn't see myself whacking balls at other goalkeepers for the next 10. But management appealed, and it still does."

Shilton's reluctance to be typecast as a goalkeeping coach - which is what happened to Clemence - perhaps explains why he looks uneasy, faintly irritated even, when I invite him to consider the relative claims of Robinson and David James.

On being pressed, he offers mainly platitudes. "In all honesty, we haven't got the goalkeeping depth we had in years gone by, which is not to say that we won't again. At the moment there are question marks against all of them - Paul Robinson, David James, Chris Kirkland, Robert Green - for varying reasons. I'd like to emphasise that James has had some excellent games for England, but he made too many errors, whether of technique or judgement I don't know."

I must look underwhelmed with this insight because he then adds: "David James made an unbelievable save against Turkey at Sunderland [in the Euro 2004 qualifier] and people forget these things. The fact is that he has had an opportunity to establish himself as the clear number one and he hasn't taken it, but at the same time, very few goalkeepers are ever lucky enough to be remembered for a particular save. We remember Gordon Banks for his save against Pele, and Jim Montgomery [for his saves in the 1973 FA Cup final] but can you remember a single save Dino Zoff ever made, yet he was a great goalkeeper. That's the nature of the position. It's mostly mistakes that get remembered. If it's saves, it's only the ones in big matches."

This principle applies similarly to Shilton's recollection of his own saves. "There was one that's pictured on the cover of the book, against Kenny Dalglish in an England-Scotland match [in 1973]. We were 1-0 up with 10 minutes to go, and I didn't know how I saved it. Another one I remember well was from [Mick] Ferguson, the Coventry centre-forward, on the day we won the championship for Nottingham Forest [in 1978]. I made a lot of other great saves but in more forgettable games."

Shilton, like the other men who were part of Forest's astonishing success a quarter-century ago, has been much in demand these past couple of weeks for his Brian Clough anecdotes. There are some doozies in the book, one of the best concerning Clough's preparations for the European Cup final against Hamburg in 1980.

The final was to be played at Real Madrid's Bernabeu stadium, and the Forest team stayed at a hotel in Arenas de San Pedro, north-west of Madrid.

When Shilton voiced his concern that there was no suitable grass on which to get in some shot-stopping practice, Clough told him he hadn't looked properly - "We know where there's a grassed area that's perfect for you, Peter me lad" - and then left it to his assistant, Peter Taylor, to take Shilton to a large traffic island on the edge of town, where his preparation for the biggest match in European club football was accompanied by a cacophony of passing cars tooting their horns, with two tracksuit tops as goalposts.

It was all part of Clough's determination not to pamper his players, although Shilton believes the great man went too far when a year or two later he ordered him to attend a press conference, not to field questions from journalists as he had been led to expect, but to serve them with drinks. "Come on, get on with it, Peter," Clough shouted. "You're not too big to serve drinks at this club." Even now Shilton winces at the memory. "I knew he had some totally bizarre methods of making us know that he was in charge, but I didn't like the way that was done," he tells me.

Shilton made 202 league appearances for Forest, although his home-town team, Leicester City, claimed the greatest chunk of his 1,005 league games: 286.

He then played 110 times for Stoke, and after his five seasons in Nottingham, 188 times for Southampton, 175 times for Derby County, 34 times for Plymouth Argyle, once for Bolton Wanderers and nine times for Orient. If you throw in Wimbledon, Coventry and West Ham, all of whom signed him and named him as a substitute at least once, it's a hell of a quiz question.

The duration of his playing career begs another interesting question: how did he have to evolve as a goalkeeper between 1965 and 1997? "A lot," he says. "The pitches changed dramatically in that time, the rules changed, even the ball changed. The best striker of a ball I ever had to deal with was Peter Lorimer, because those old leather footballs were heavy, and he could still score from 40 yards. And he could curl it, too. That was skill. We know Beckham bends it, but the ball is much lighter now. And the pitches are much better, of course. At Leicester the mud in the goalmouth was sometimes over my ankles."

Does he think that keepers get too much protection from referees these days? "Well, if he goes for the ball and is slightly impeded, he's liable not to get it, which will probably result in a goalscoring chance. So if a forward can't get it himself, he'll often just try to impede the goalkeeper. That's why I think it's right that referees lean a little bit towards the goalkeeper. There are certainly lots of tactics that wouldn't happen now.

"The old Leeds United side developed the near-post corner, where big Jack Charlton would flick it on for someone to come in at the far post. That was very hard to defend against. And I remember playing at Newcastle, where it always seemed to be wet and windy. They had this big centre-forward, Wyn Davies, and the first thing they did after kick-off was hit the ball 30 or 40 yards, into the penalty area as high as they could, with big Wyn Davies timing his run to knock seven bells out of me. I just had to learn to adapt to it."

This brings me to the most memorable one-on-one of his long career; against Maradona in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium. All football fans remember where they were when they saw that incident; only two men can say that they were directly involved. And one of them is liable to get nutmegged by the Grim Reaper if he keeps poisoning his system with drugs, which will leave only Shilton.

For nearly 20 years he has said very little about the "Hand of God" episode. "I was surprised," he says, "that nobody really asked me about it after the game." In the book, however, he deals with the episode in depth. "At the time people said I should have just gone through him," he tells me. "But I couldn't. I was going for the ball." He is as indignant about it now as he ever was, he says, and just as disappointed.

'Peter Shilton - The Autobiography' is published by Orion Books, priced £18.99.

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