Quick learner judged ready for biggest stage despite O'Neill's doubts

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The Independent Football

Scott Carson's selection as England's first-choice goalkeeper will, naturally, be welcomed by his club manager – even if Martin O'Neill has added an honest, if worrying, rider. "I couldn't tell you if he was chosen in a really important game how he would react to it all," the Aston Villa manager said. "But he's capable of doing very well. He's far from the finished article but the great thing about Scott is that he has a great appetite for work."

Nevertheless, O'Neill's faith in the 22-year-old is unwavering. It is why after Carson has made just 10 appearances for Villa he has negotiated with Liverpool to sign the keeper permanently in the forthcoming January transfer window for £8.25m, to add to the £1.75m already agreed for his season-long loan.

However, Carson is also, as O'Neill points out, not the "finished article" and it should be remembered that as recently as September he joked that Ray Clemence, the 59-year-old England goalkeeping coach, who last played for his country in 1983, had more chance of a call-up than he did.

That followed a clean sheet against Chelsea – one of five he has achieved for Villa so far this season – which also drew a more pertinent quote from Petr Cech, his Chelsea counterpart, who said that Carson was a "great goalkeeper with a great future". The Czech international himself is still just 25, belying the adage that keepers need to be older to succeed, having made his full international debut five years ago.

When Cech made that appearance against Cyprus, Carson was turning out for non-league Workington Town in the FA Youth Cup. Just three years ago he was Paul Robinson's understudy at Leeds United – now he has claimed the England No 1 jersey from him. Someone who is uniquely placed to comment on the merits of both Carson and Robinson is Nigel Martyn, who played and trained with the pair at Elland Road.

A former England international himself, Martyn said he had hoped that Robinson would be selected to "lay the ghost of Zagreb [the first game against Croatia when Robinson was beaten by a Gary Neville backpass] once and for all" but is aware of Carson's qualities.

"He was only a young lad when the three of us trained together at Leeds but had all the attributes, including a very safe pair of hands," Martyn said.

"Whether it was coming for a cross or dealing with a shot, he seldom made a mistake and I've always been impressed with his ability to read situations and decide whether to take charge or leave it to his defenders. It tends to improve with experience, too, so he really does have the makings of a top keeper.

"He's got a touch of David Seaman about the way he never seems to get flustered. He's a cool customer but needs sterner test than Austria posed last week to prove he is ready for an occasion like this."

That friendly match, in which he was rarely called into action, marked Carson's debut. Now he replaces Robinson, who has played every minute of every Euro 2008 qualifier but who has gradually lost the support of Steve McClaren. Carson, in the meantime, has been bursting with confidence ever since his season-long loan spell at Charlton Athletic which may have ended with relegation but saw the keeper named as their player of the season. Manager Alan Pardew said his departure left a "big hole" in his squad.

Liverpool's Rafael Benitez, who signed Carson for £750,000 in 2005 does not quite feel the same and prefers the more experienced Jose Reina. "Scott is a good professional and a nice boy. This is a crucial time in his career and he needs to play," Benitez said last week in admitting that he's willing to strike a permanent deal with Villa. Carson will now be getting his chance for country as well as club.

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