Bob Wilson is a worried man. Following the euphoria of the last few days, it may seem churlish to be highlighting a chink in the England armour. But consider this: had David Seaman been declared unfit to play against Albania, then the England goalkeeper would have come from the Premiership reserves.
Both Richard Wright and Ian Walker are currently second choice at their respective clubs, the former behind Seaman at Arsenal and the latter behind Tim Flowers at Leicester City. Neither had played a single minute of competitive football this season, and yet one of them might have held England's World Cup qualification hopes in their hands.
Not that the England manager had much choice. Of the 20 Premiership clubs, only five employ an Englishman as their first-choice keeper. On Wednesday, once Leeds' Nigel Martyn and West Ham's David James had been removed from the equation due to injury, Sven Goran Eriksson could pick only the ageing Flowers or the internationally inexperienced Paul Gerrard of Everton. In the end, the Swede felt compelled to dip into the reserves.
"We may well have a new generation of talented English goalies like Richard Wright, Paul Robinson, Nicky Weaver and Chris Kirkland coming through," says Wilson, who started coaching the Arsenal keepers four years after having hung up his gloves in 1974, "but it is very worrying to see that they're all sitting on the sidelines. They need to play. In my day, the young keepers weren't necessarily any better than the ones around today, but they were given a chance. The stakes are so high now that managers won't take any risks. They feel that they can go abroad to find an experienced keeper for a modest price, so they ignore the English talent at their disposal."
To his credit, the Arsenal manager has done quite the opposite. Arsène Wenger is often accused of buying too many foreigners, but his three top goalkeepers are all England internationals. Seaman, Wright and Stuart Taylor (who played for the Under-21s on Tuesday), represent the long- and short-term futures of Arsenal and England. According to Wilson, there is also a fourth musketeer, 19-year-old Graham Stack, a member of the FA youth Cup winning team of 1999-2000. Judging by their long line of succession, it could be some time before there is a non-Arsenal keeper in the England goal.
"There is not much more to say about David," Wilson explains. "He's been magnificent in recent games and answered his critics. As for Richard, he is an incredible talent. And I'm sure he will be David's successor before too long. But he has to wait for his chance. In fairness, he has done that since he came to Arsenal in the summer and I have nothing but praise for his attitude. On Thursday, he was the first one out at practice even though he only got back from Newcastle at 2.30am. The goalmouth we were training in was completely water-logged but he didn't care."
Wilson adds: "You can already see the effect he's having on David, and it is no coincidence that the big fella is right back on top form and looking really sharp. David likes nothing more than being challenged and Richard is doing just that on a daily basis. They'll definitely push each other this season and I'm sure they'll both get games as the campaign wears on. Richard is ready."
He points to the popular myth whereby a goalkeeper is not mature enough for international duty until he reaches his thirties. One of the major concerns for England fans is that once Seaman has retired there will be nobody who fits the textbook profile to take over in goal. Martyn is said to be too old, while Wright, Robinson and Kirkland are deemed too young.
Wilson accepts that most keepers reach the peak of their powers between 27 and 35, but he also feels that there are exceptions to the rules. The former Scotland keeper, who turns 60 next month, is a great believer in the adage that if you're good enough, you're old enough. "I have no doubts whatsoever that a keeper can play at the highest level at an early age," he says. "Age should not be a factor. Arsène and I do not argue very often, but I disagree with his view that there is a dearth of good, young English keepers at the moment. There's plenty of talent out there, just that they're not being given a chance."
He adds: "It even happened at Arsenal last season, when David and Alex Manninger were injured for the Champions' League match at Lazio and Arsène decided to play the 40-year-old John Lukic instead of the up-and-coming Stuart [Taylor]. OK, so it was a difficult place to make your European debut and Arsène felt that a bad result might break the lad, but I was still disappointed he wasn't picked because I feel that age and experience alone do not guarantee a good performance. Just look at Oliver Kahn against England last Saturday: he'd spent the week before the game mouthing off and then went to pieces in the game."
There has been no word from the current England keeper as to when he might retire. "David's not stupid," Wilson says of his 37-year-old pony-tailed friend. "He knows his life-expectancy can't go on forever, and he won't be afraid to call it quits." At least Seaman can make his decision safe in the knowledge that he leaves the England jersey in the capable hands of no fewer than three club colleagues.Reuse content