Robinson out as Foster given chance to be England's No 1

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The Independent Online

Steve McClaren was at pains to deny it yesterday, but he is fast gaining a reputation for being the England manager who dares to cast out the big names. First it was David Beckham, David James and Sol Campbell, and yesterday Paul Robinson found himself unceremoniously dumped outside the England first XI.

Was he dropped or just rested? McClaren put together a convincing case yesterday that his decision to replace Robinson for tonight's friendly against Spain was a means of giving the uncapped Ben Foster some vital first-team experience. But an indifferent season for the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper has undoubtedly focused McClaren's mind on his alternatives and their need to play international football soon.

In naming a starting XI without Robinson that also included Kieron Dyer, Jonathan Woodgate, Phil Neville and Shaun Wright-Phillips, McClaren inadvertently launched the inquest on what this meant for the long-term future of the Tottenham man. Only when he was pushed on the issue did McClaren finally say: "He [Robinson] is England's first-choice goalkeeper."

Despite that, McClaren brushed off any attempt to clarify whether Robinson would be restored to the No 1 position for the Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel on 24 March and was clearly sensitive as to how the decision would be portrayed. He seemed to be attempting to pull off one of the trickiest feats known to a football manager: dropping a player while arguing at the same time that really he had not been dropped at all.

Why McClaren worries about the perception of these decisions is still baffling. Being the England manager who is not afraid to change his team is no bad reputation to have, when you consider the stasis that gripped the Sven Goran Eriksson years, especially when McClaren talks enthusiastically about the need for competition for places.

Robinson may have been one match from equalling Gordon Banks' England record of seven consecutive clean sheets last year but it was his misfortune that the one game in question was the defeat to Croatia in which he swung and missed at Gary Neville's back-pass. It did not require his manager to soften the blow if he decided to leave him out.

Nevertheless, McClaren refused any suggestion that his decision marked a serious break from the Eriksson years when the England team seemed not so much untouchable as carved in granite, so loyal was the manager. "That's talking about the past; we're talking about now," McClaren said. "It's my decision, it's not reflecting on Paul Robinson or his form or anything. It's purely on Ben Foster getting experience."

The goalkeeping coach, Ray Clemence, has, it is understood, long been an advocate of Foster's readiness for an international start. McClaren argued on Robinson's side that "he has been at no fault for any of the goals that have been conceded in my six games [as manager]". But despite his defence of the player, he agreed that a good performance from Foster could change his mind.

"His priority is to do that, like everybody within the squad," McClaren said. "You talk about Jonathan Woodgate putting pressure on John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, you look at Micah Richards and could he be in instead of Gary Neville? I want everybody outside our core players creating competition. If Ben Foster comes in and proves himself, that will benefit the team."

The Robinson decision was the most interesting aspect of a team who have been thrown together in the light of six withdrawals from the squad, including Wayne Rooney yesterday. The Manchester United man hurt his back against Tottenham on Sunday and his absence, with Aaron Lennon's illness and Andy Johnson's withdrawal, means that McClaren has been deprived of his original front line to face Spain.

The replacements, however, look promising, with Peter Crouch in the kind of centre-forward role he favours. Wright-Phillips on the right and Dyer on the opposite flank will serve him in a 4-3-3 formation.

McClaren increasingly seems to be leaning towards 4-3-3 as his first choice because it accommodates Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in midfield. They will play in front of Michael Carrick, who assumes the role of the rested Owen Hargreaves, while the Neville brothers play at full-back - Gary on the right, Phil on the left - the first time they have started for England together since Euro 2000. In the middle of defence will be Woodgate alongside Rio Ferdinand, reprising their Leeds United partnership.

Along with Dyer, Woodgate may not have many more chances to rescue his international career, although his promotion ahead of Jamie Carragher and Michael Dawson showed just how highly McClaren rates him.

"He's been a big loss to English football," McClaren said. "Jonathan's got a great opportunity now. He's been playing for the last six months on a regular basis and as he's been showing in training he's a very good player. He's had to have a strong mentality. Anybody who goes through that kind of injury, it either makes or breaks you. It makes you stronger and tougher and a better character."

At 28, Dyer has suffered a similarly bleak career path of late. "When I was injured, there were naturally days when I wondered if I'd ever get back to this level, but I was confident that I would if I was fit," Dyer said. "When I was fit Kevin Keegan picked me, when I was fit, Sven Goran Eriksson picked me and now Steve McClaren has."

Not a "shake-up" but "competition internally" was how McClaren described his squad and team choices. If his noble intention was, in Joey Barton parlance, to "rattle a few cages", then he has certainly achieved that.

From dishwasher to England's guardian of the onion bag

As the dishwasher in the kitchens at the Leamington Spa branch of Café Rouge, Ben Foster learned from the age of 16 that he could not afford to drop anything at work if he wanted to get on in life.

It is a lesson that will serve him well tonight when he lines up for his England debut, the proof that not every international footballer has to be a child prodigy. Alternatively, his place in the team will be all the evidence some need that England's dearth of goalkeepers has reached a worrying state when the Premiership's bottom club provides the No 1.

Whatever England's head coach Steve McClaren may have said publicly yesterday, Foster, 23, has a great chance against Spain to dislodge Paul Robinson from the first-choice spot. The Manchester United reserve, on loan at Watford, has had an impressive season regardless of his club's difficult position and he is highly rated by Sir Alex Ferguson.

The popular myth is that Ferguson first spotted Foster when, on loan from Stoke City, he played for Wrexham in the LDV Vans final in 2005 on the same side as the United manager's son, Darren.

In reality, United had been scouting the young goalkeeper for a few weeks before that, on Darren's recommendation, and signed him soon afterwards for £1m.

Foster has never played for either of the professional sides that have owned him, Stoke and United, although he has turned out for quite an array of sides including Racing Club Warwick, Bristol City, Tiverton Town, Stafford Rangers and Kidderminster Harriers.

Foster is well known in the game as a confident, assured character who has never made any secret of his ambitions. Although even he might be surprised at how quickly they have been realised.

Those Paul Robinson gaffes (though not in full)

Bolton 2 Tottenham 0 19 August 2006

Bolton's Ivan Campo hits a low, speculative shot from about 35 yards. The ball swerves in the air and nestles into the bottom corner. Robinson seems to react slowly.

Croatia 2 England 0 11 October 2006

Gary Neville plays a simple backpass to Robinson. The ball takes a bobble and as the keeper takes a mighty swing it bounces over his foot and rolls into the goal.

Manchester United 1 Tottenham 0 9 September 2006

Cristiano Ronaldo hits a free-kick straight at Robinson who parries it into the path of Ryan Giggs who heads in off the bar.

Newcastle United 3 Tottenham 1 23 December 2006

James Milner hits in a deep free-kick which Robinson comes out to gather. Robinson spills the ball and it falls to Scott Parker who scores.

Tottenham 2 Arsenal 2 24 January 2007

Justin Hoyte receives the ball on the right wing. He runs down the flank and, noticing Robinson out of position, has the easy task of passing the ball across the goal for Julio Baptista to tap in.

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