As last season kicked off, Scott Carson must have thought that the world was at his feet. He had come a long way very quickly. He had been spotted in 2002 playing for non-league Workington’s youth team by scouts from Leeds United, and was just nineteen years old when Rafael Benitez was persuaded to pay £750,000 for his signature in January 2005. Before the season was out, he had played for them in the Premier League and in the Champions League against Juventus. He was even on the bench in Istanbul, as Liverpool came from three goals down to salvage that extraordinary win against Milan to lift the European Cup. Of course, it was always going to be difficult for a goalkeeper of his age to get regular first team football at Anfield. He spent time on loan at Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic before agreeing a year-long long deal with Aston Villa last summer. It might not have been stepping into the shoes of Ray Clemence and Bruce Grobbelaar at Anfield, but he was a 22 year old English goalkeeper looking forward to a full season as a Premier League goalkeeper under the careful tutelage of Martin O’Neill, who was making steady progress at Villa Park.
Then, along came Steve McClaren. Carson might have been forgiven for thinking that it was his own, solid performances for Aston Villa that had propelled him into the limelight, but McClaren had been starting to show signs of panic in England’s faltering bid to get to the finals of the 2008 European Championships. Carson was thrown on for a friendly match against Austria – hardly a baptism of fire against a team which, in spite of being one of the co-hosts, was one of the rank outsiders to even get past the tournament’s group stages. The form of the regular goalkeeper, Paul Robinson, had collapsed, but no-one was expecting what was to come next – Carson was picked for the final qualifying match against Croatia. What happened next was really a reflection on the incompetence of McClaren rather than on Carson himself. On a Wembley pitch that had come to resemble a paddling pool after an afternoon of rain, he was thrown into a match which nothing in his previous experience could have prepared him for. Three minutes in, he allowed a routine shot to pass through him for the opening goal of the night. An hour and three quarters later, England had failed to qualify for the finals of a major tournament for the first time since the 1994 World Cup, and Carson’s reputation was in tatters.
On the club front, things weren’t going according to plan either. Aston Villa were keen to make Carson’s move to Villa Park a permanent one, but they baulked at the £10m fee that Liverpool had put on his head. He played out the rest of the season to persistent jeers from the media, and returned to Anfield at the end of the season with his options drying up. Has there ever been a quicker fall from grace? Nine months ago, it seemed likely (for the five days between the Austria and Croatia matches) that he would be the new England goalkeeper and was the subject of a transfer bid from Aston Villa. When Liverpool put him up for sale this summer, the only two clubs to express any real interest were newly-promoted West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City. According to press reports this morning, Carson has agreed personal terms with Stoke and will be turning out at The Britannia Stadium next season.
It may be some time before we see him back in an England shirt, but it’s not all bad news for Scott Carson. This move might turn out to be the making of him. Stoke City are amongst the favouites to relegated from the Premier League this season, but their manager, Tony Pulis, has loftier ambitions and is looking to further strengthen his squad. If he can become a permanent part of an unlikely escape from relegation, his stock will start to grow again. Leeds United, Liverpool and England, all by the age of twenty-two, simply sounds as if it was too much, too soon for him. Better mangers than McClaren have put a degree of faith in him, so he clearly has talent, but goalkeeping is a unique position on the football pitch, and it’s one that requires more psychological fine-tuning than any other. How much psychological damage was done to Carson by that rainy, windswept night at Wembley last November we might never know, but it’s a reasonably safe bet to say that staying at Anfield to drop still further down the pecking order for any longer might have left him with too much of an upward climb to get back to where his natural ability would seem to indicate that he should be.
He also has the consolation of knowing that he still has plenty of time. Twenty-two is young by any standards, but this is especially so for a goalkeeper. Many goalkeepers don’t reach full maturity until they hit thirty. He only has to look back over the history of the game to know that one backward step at this age will by no means be the breaking of him. Peter Shilton was in goal for England at the 1990 World Cup at the age of forty, and Dino Zoff lifted the World Cup for Italy at the same age in 1982. Even in the modern game, with its greater emphasis on physical fitness, Edwin Van Der Saar was one of the best goalkeepers at Euro 2008 and is set to start next season in goal for Manchester United at the ager of thirty-seven. Carson has plenty of time to rebuild his career, and it’s worth remembering that, while there will be plenty of sniggering at his move to Stoke City, he will still be playing regular Premier League football next season. Stoke’s reduced circumstances will lower the burden of expectation for him. What better way could there be for him to recover his composure with a view to establishing himself one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League.
That night at Wembley feels like a long time ago already, and few England supporters blamed the inexperienced youngster for what happened that night. The burden of responsibility for that fell upon the managerial team, whose decision to take a risk that everybody watching knew was going to end in tears concisely summed up the rudderless approach that England had in trying to qualify for Euro 2008. Scott Carson would be best advised to put all of that behind him and begin of his fresh. His signature for Stoke City, where he will follow in the footsteps of Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton, is the first day of the rest of his career.