David James described his appearance against Germany as a "catch-22 situation" in the aftermath of Wednesday's 2-1 defeat. The reason being that he was pleased, he said, to play for England but balanced that with the reality that his opportunity was another man's misfortune. Or, in this case, another man flapping helplessly at a cross under his own crossbar to gift the Germans an equaliser.
James is comfortably one of the most articulate in the England squad – an amateur painter, a campaigner for healthy eating among children – but he really seems to have hit upon something here. Catch-22 was, of course, the old trick the US Army Air Force played on its pilots in Joseph Heller's novel. The double bind was that, if you objected to flying absurdly dangerous, life-threatening missions, then you must be sane and therefore of a stable enough mind to fly those very missions you objected to. The only way to prove you were mad was to fly the missions.
It is certainly a more eloquent variation on the lame old football cliché that goalkeepers are different. The way things are going, any English goalkeeper of international pedigree and of a sane and stable mind would object to playing for his national team on the grounds of likely damage to his own reputation. And it would be that very same logic that would make them ideal candidates to play nonetheless.
Among the many sad and damaging aspects of life with the England national team – fans booing their own players, kowtowing to clubs over player availability, character assassination of managers – the victimisation of goalkeepers is one of the worst. Go back to September 2004 and The Sun was lobbying for James to be replaced by a donkey after his mistake against Austria. That he is back in form to challenge for the position is not as incredible as the fact that James actually wants to be England's No 1 again, considering the hassle it caused him.
"If the opportunity arises, I'm up for it, of course," James said on Wednesday night. "I didn't want to be here just to warm the bench." It looks like he is ready to accept the mission and no one knows better than him just how dangerous that could be. It would be too easy to explain away the pressure on England goalkeepers as media-generated: there also seems to be an impact on their form that cannot be ignored.
In a more reflective moment, Paul Robinson once said that before he had the No 1 spot he felt everyone wanted him to get it, and once he had it everyone wanted him to lose it. The fragmented nature of England's season does mean that a mistake by a goalkeeper lingers longer; the notion that they are suspect attaches itself that bit more easily than it does to an outfield player. Even Petr Cech flaps at the odd cross for Chelsea, but no one seems to remember.
Robinson's problems have been more complex. He did not have a great World Cup and, although his part in Gary Neville's own goal against Croatia was unfortunate, it did seem like the kind of mistake more likely to befall a goalkeeper struggling for form. Absolving himself of any blame after that game did him no favours and too many people have private reservations about his bulky frame for that concern to be groundless.
Changing his first-choice goalkeeper is the last sort of problem McClaren needs. First of all, he has to try to find a decent pair of strikers to score him a goal against Israel. Changing goalkeepers is a bit like changing your bank – normally done angrily on a minor point of principle but ultimately with little discernible difference in terms of service or value. In fact, it is such a bothersome task that a goalkeeper really has to have lost his manager's confidence completely for him to want to drop him.
In short, it would be a huge undertaking to drop Robinson and would land McClaren with an extremely grumpy goalkeeper before the crucial Israel game on 8 September. Having been through the triumph of finally wresting David Seaman's place from him in March 2003, and the despair of losing it 18 months later, perhaps James has a karma about him now that will protect him from the barbs. He can console himself that, in this case, it is not the man who is mad – it's the job.
Four aiming to be No 1: The rivals for Paul Robinson's jersey
SCOTT CARSON (Aston Villa, on loan from Liverpool, age 21)
Meteoric rise has stalled of late. Signed from Leeds by Liverpool in January 2005, was on loan at Charlton last season. Praised by McClaren for his Under-21 performances in the summer.
DAVID JAMES(Portsmouth, age 37)
Low point was against Austria in a World Cup qualifier in 2004 when Andreas Ivanschitz's shot went straight through him. Three years on would he still be prone to mistakes? Thirty-five caps but only 11 competitive starts.
ROBERT GREEN (West Ham, age 27)
A strong, independent character. Pulled his groin in an England B international against Belarus before the last World Cup. Heroic for West Ham at the end of last season, but McClaren seems to rate Carson above him.
BEN FOSTER (Manchester United, aged 24)
Looked the man most likely to challenge Robinson until a cruciate knee injury ruled him out until Christmas. Will find it hard to establish himself as an England regular if he is Edwin Van der Sar's understudy.Reuse content