Who’s Number 1?

The end of the season is fast approaching, which means the World Cup in South Africa will soon be upon us. The media is awash with speculation, hypothesis and conjecture about who will make Fabio Capello’s final squad for this summer’s carnival of football.

There are those players who are widely agreed to be certainties to be on the plane: Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, even disgraced ex-captain John Terry to name but a few. The goalkeepers too, most experts will tell you are pretty much decided with Joe Hart, David James and Robert Green looking most likely to fill the three goalkeeping berths.

Whilst those 3 seem to have played themselves into the squad, who gets the nod as the first choice remains very much wide open.

The stance I have heard repeated in numerous media is that Joe Hart is too young and Robert Green too inexperienced, leaving David James, who turns 40 in August as the first choice. “Nothing wrong in that” I hear you cry. Yes, you’d be right. There is nothing wrong in a goalkeeper that old representing his country. Dino Zoff did it to great effect, lifting as he did, the World Cup in 1982 as Italy’s captain. Peter Shilton was England’s number one at the 1990 finals in Italy, again aged 40. However, is James in the same class as these and other examples of older goalkeepers? Certainly not in Zoff’s case, probably not Shilton’s either. No-one can doubt James as an athlete. No one can doubt him as a shot stopper, as a presence and organiser of his defence. There is however, as there has been throughout his career, a question mark over his concentration and his decision making. Everyone can remember a high profile David James mistake, Liverpool fans more than most. Whilst it is fair to say that James has cut these errors right down, there is still a nagging doubt that he is never far away from a catastrophe. International football and more specifically World Cup football hinges on small margins. A dropped cross or a rush of blood to the head at the wrong time for James could be the difference between England getting a flight home or advancing to the next stage. I suspect Fabio Capello knows this which is why I think he is leaning towards one of the other two.

Robert Green would seem to be in possession of the number one shirt at the present time. He has featured in the last few games for England and has earned a lot of praise for his performances for West Ham over the course of the season. The problem with the praise Green has earned is the team he plays for: West Ham have struggled all season, narrowly avoiding relegation. It is fair to say that goalkeepers plying their trade in poorer teams are given more opportunity to shine. If a goalkeeper is peppered with shots for the entire game, law of averages states he will make a decent number of saves and is therefore likely to stand out. How many goalkeepers have had outstanding seasons at struggling clubs, only to come up short on a larger stage or to disappear virtually without trace? Ben Foster and Scott Carson are two obvious recent examples. Going further back, I can remember calls for names like Russell Hoult, Paul Gerrard and Richard Wright to be included in the England set up. Whatever happened to them?!

Perhaps I am being a little harsh on Green. He has performed heroically at times in his attempts to keep West Ham in games. However, as previously mentioned, the amount of action seen by him skews one’s perception of him. How would he cope in a quieter game where he is called less frequently? As the old adage goes, the world class goalkeepers are the ones who have nothing to do for 85 minutes, but maintain the concentration to pull off a wonder save in the 86th minute. Is Green in this mould?

Green, like James has shipped his share of goals this season. Neither has kept a clean sheet in a long time. Obviously this is not solely down to them, but similarly, it doesn’t exactly make for a confident or confidence giving goalkeeper.

And so to Joe Hart. Hart had a shaky start to the season at Birmingham. There was some talk of him losing his place in the side; however he was retained and given time to prove himself. The decision to keep him in the team has paid off. With the outstanding Roger Johnson and Scott Dann in front of him he has consistently turned in solid displays. Hart has proved he is capable of moments of agility and brilliance when needed, but also that he is solid and dependable. Of the three contenders he has had the most settled season, helping Birmingham to exceed all expectations by not only avoiding the drop, but also securing an almost guaranteed top ten finish. One should not underestimate the importance of the settled season Hart has enjoyed. Whereas the concession of a goal could lead to a feeling of “here we go again” for the other two; Hart is more used to playing in a side who has competed with most, if not all teams in the league.

As with James and Green, Hart has had periods where his team have been under sustained pressure and he has been required to make numerous saves. Unlike the other two he has enjoyed more success this season. It is no surprise that Hart was voted into the PFA team of the year. It is telling that he has received the most votes out of all the goalkeepers in the league, not just the English ones. This shows how highly regarded he is by his peers.

Capello has said he will select the team based on form. This is questionable (Gerrard? Terry? Ferdinand?) However, if this is the case, then Hart surely gets the nod over any of the others.

There are certain quarters who lament the fact that Hart is not experienced enough. Green has only mustered 9 caps so is hardly experienced either. I am of the opinion that nowadays, whilst experience is important it is not the be all and end all. Hart has the fearless nature of youth on his side, a quality that more and more young footballers seem to possess. Like many of his peers he has complete confidence in their own abilities even at an age where he is supposed to be timid and unsure of himself.

Obviously in an ideal world, England would supply the goalkeepers for Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea so that they were exposed to Champions’ league football- widely considered the pinnacle of the club game. This is not the case so the argument of “big game experience”, in my opinion becomes moot. Similarly, with the Premier League now a global commodity played out to a worldwide audience, players are better equipped to deal with pressure than before.

Hart needs to be given the chance to show that he can transfer his form from the league to the biggest stage in football. If he performs well, then we have the added bonus of potentially having found a first choice for some years to come. Take David James in the squad as an experienced alternate to offer a wise head and valuable support, but in my opinion, we must go with the goalkeeper who has had the best season, and who is in the best form. This has to be Joe Hart.

I suppose if all else fails, Manuel Almunia is eligible for England now; I wonder what his plans for the summer are…..


1 Comment

  1. Well, Green’s just a bit shit for my liking. Almost as prone to a clanger as Jamo back in his Liverpool days. Barely worth his place in the squad in my opinion. I agree that Hart is bloody good. I’d have him number 1 as of August 2010 and hope he stays it for a long time. Wouldn’t argue with him being number 1 for the Worldy C, but still reckon you’ve got to go with Jamo. Great man, great hair.

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