Model goalkeeper is looking naked in the penalty area
David James (left) may have the `yips' but with no credible replacement his place is safe. United have the experience of Raimond van der Gouw (right) to call upon. Phil Shaw reflects on the recent costly calamities of Liverpool's (and Armani's) No 1
Saturday 19 April 1997
It started up on Teesside and it will probably end in tears for Liverpool, if there is any repetition when Manchester United visit Anfield in today's potential Premiership decider. Early in January's game at Middlesbrough, James sent a clearance straight to Craig Hignett, who scored to send his former club on the way out of the Coca-Cola Cup.
The trickle turned into a torrent. Three horrendous gaffes at home to Newcastle - a misjudged dive, hesitation and a fatal foray into no-man's land, all in the last 20 minutes - nearly cost Liverpool a win that had appeared a formality.
Afterwards, James admitted spending eight hours in his house playing computer games prior to the match, leading to possible blurred vision. To think managers used to worry about players going out...
The following Saturday his fumble of a cross far from his line allowed Nottingham Forest to retrieve a point. The trait resurfaced in Norway, even though Liverpool beat SK Brann, and again, embarrassingly, when Coventry struck twice from corners for an unlikely away win.
James then gifted two goals to Paris St-Germain. Rumour had it he was standing for the Referendum Party; well, he was trying to take Liverpool out of Europe. And in Wednesday's derby at Everton, his habit of coming for crosses he has no hope of claiming provoked a sardonic "What's it like to catch the ball?" from both sets of supporters when he finally took one.
Bizarrely, in the middle of these weeks of living recklessly, James made his England debut against Mexico. Not since Stewart Kennedy let in five for Scotland in 1975 has Wembley seen a keeper wrap himself around the woodwork so often.
To many, James' hapless handling looks like a footballing equivalent of "the yips" in golf, where nerves wreak havoc with a player's putt. Others detect the opposite flaw, an over-confidence which makes him incapable of taking advice.
It is not mere fence-sitting to suggest the truth lies in between. At Goodison, after several near-calamitous moments which left Mark Wright looking as if he could have strangled him, James made a staggering save. There was nothing more certain than that he would come for and collect the resulting corner. Fired up, he did precisely that.
He may be James of the giant reach but his principal talent remains shot-stopping; he is arguably Britain's best when acting on instinct. Yet if judgement is called for - when he has time to think - he becomes Pat Jennings in reverse.
Nor, unlike David Seaman or Nigel Martyn, is he a phlegmatic, safety- first keeper. They exude presence much as Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton did. When a forward was through one-on-one against Shilton, they were confronted by an aura as much as by an individual. Even at 6ft 5in, James does not appear so imposing.
Part of the problem may stem from the fact that Liverpool do not have the back-up Steve Ogrizovic and Mike Hooper provided for Ray Clemence and Bruce Grobbelaar. The untested Tony Warner is James' theoretical deputy, while Roy Evans has also been able to call on a Dane, Jorgen Nielsen, since last month.
In spite of signs that the trust between James and his defenders is damaged, no one is advocating that either should take over like David Harvey did from Gary Sprake when Leeds were pursuing the "double" 25 years ago or as Les Sealey, on loan from Luton, did from Jim Leighton in Manchester United's FA Cup final replay line-up in 1990.
Today, Alex Ferguson may have to field Raimond van der Gouw, who came to United with a sound pedigree in Dutch football to succeed the experienced Tony Coton as Peter Schmeichel's understudy. Evans has no comparable alternatives.
While Schmeichel is far from infallible, as Derby demonstrated this month, he combines technique and presence, judgement and hatred of conceding a goal in measures his Anfield counterpart has yet to achieve on a consistent basis. Crucially, he can also shrug off a blunder in a way James seems unable to do.
Giorgio Armani described David James as "an extraordinary looking man". Were Anfield's No 1 to develop a temperament to complement his stature and reflexes, he could also become an extraordinary keeper. At 26 he still has time. Liverpool's needs are somewhat more pressing.
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