The future of goalkeeping in safe hands

Peter Drury
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There is little that stirs the senses of English football like a heroic goalkeeping display. Pompous as we are, we like to consider goalkeeping a traditionally English art. So, it was it was particularly gratifying on Tuesday to watch a young lad from Beverley, North Humberside, keeping the world's best player at bay for so much of a wonderfully authentic European night at Elland Road.

There is little that stirs the senses of English football like a heroic goalkeeping display. Pompous as we are, we like to consider goalkeeping a traditionally English art. So, it was it was particularly gratifying on Tuesday to watch a young lad from Beverley, North Humberside, keeping the world's best player at bay for so much of a wonderfully authentic European night at Elland Road.

Paul Robinson is England's Under-21 goalkeeper and Nigel Martyn's understudy at Leeds. His performance against Barcelona was world-class. Not just the array of scientifically impossible saves from Rivaldo, nor the arching tip-over from Alfonso's header, but the command of his area, the composure and the general aura of utter competence. It all hinted at the renaissance of the great English keeper.

Once upon a time, we certainly had the best in the world. Post-Gordon Banks (who, himself, eclipsed the brilliantly elastic Peter Bonnetti), we suddenly found ourselves with Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence, who alternated international duties while brilliant custodians like Phil Parkes and Joe Corrigan hardly got a mention.

In those days (only 15 or 20 years ago), every team in the land seemed to have a heroic No 1... and almost all of them were British. At random, I picked out the Rothmans Football Yearbook for the 1982-83 season. Of 22 First Division goalkeepers, there was one South African (Gary Bailey of Manchester United), one Yugoslav (Raddy Avramovic of Notts County), one Zimbabwean (Liverpool's Bruce Grobbelaar) and the rest from these isles. For nostalgia's sake, here's the list:

Jennings (Arsenal), Rimmer (Aston Villa), Coton (Birmingham), Moseley (Brighton), Blyth (Coventry), Southall (Everton), Cooper (Ipswich), Grobbelaar (Liverpool), Findlay (Luton), Corrigan (Manchester City), Bailey (Manchester United), Woods (Norwich), Shilton (Nottingham Forest), Avramovic (Notts County), Wells (Southampton), Fox (Stoke), Turner (Sunderland), Davies (Swansea), Clemence (Tottenham), Sherwood (Watford), Godden (West Bromwich Albion), Parkes (West Ham).

Even down the divisions, there were goalkeepers who were heroes in their own town. Supporters of Hull City will rave about Tony Norman; Gillingham fans go all dewy-eyed at the mention of Ron Hillyard; Mike Walker was keeping 'em out for Colchester; at Walsall, they had Ron Green. All good earthy pros... and scores like them all over the country.

Suddenly, however, our goalkeepers stopped being called Green, Norman and Walker and turned into Stejskal, Miklosko and Kharin. In itself, that wasn't a problem. However, while you can argue about the merits and de-merits of the influx of foreign players into English football, it is indisputable that it had an effect on the depth of our goalkeeping talent and on the notion of the muddy-kneed, homegrown, terrace-loved goalkeeping "cult".

At the top level, England got away with it. Woods took over from Shilton and, having gone past 40 caps, gave way to Seaman. Basically, ahead of a series of understudies, Seaman has held the fort ever since while the country has fretted about the apparent absence of a successor. Now, it seems, we are back in the happy position of having to worry no more.

No one is going to forget Dietmar Hamann's goal for Germany in a hurry. But, prior to Wednesday night's Champions' League match with Sparta Prague, that was one of just two goals Seaman had conceded in half a dozen games. To me, his assurance and agility continue to mark him out as the best.

But, gladly, the competition is good. Martyn is unfortunate that he should have sustained an injury just at the point when he was best-placed to stake his claim. He could easily be England's man.

So could Tim Flowers, who has been terrific for Leicester; I saw him take on West Ham single-handedly in August - and he won. What's more, his club manager is in temporary charge of England, which can't be a bad career move.

Behind the thirtysomething pretenders, the list of England goalkeeping 'wanna-bes' includes Ipswich's Richard Wright (who already has one full cap) and Manchester City's Nicky Weaver. Both can only benefit by the blossoming of their newly promoted clubs.

In addition, Coventry's 19-year-old Chris Kirkland has proved himself utterly capable; West Ham have immense faith in Steve Bywater; and, if you talk to the Arsenal goalkeeping coach Bob Wilson about their coming star Stuart Taylor, you'll hear a list of superlatives. Taylor has just impressed on loan to Crystal Palace, he's trained with England and, with the Worthington Cup and a Champions' League dead rubber to come, he may well get his Arsenal debut very soon.

And then there's Robinson, whose performance the other night was the best I've ever seen. The outlook is very bright. 14 of the 20 goalkeepers who started last week's Premiership matches were British or Irish. It's just like the old days. The country is in safe hands.

Peter Drury is an ITV football commentator

Comments