When the concept of the Premier League was being sold to a sceptical (though, with the benefit of hindsight, not sceptical enough) public in the early 1990s, the benefit to the England team was pushed hard. Off the back of the national teams run to the 1990 World Cup semi-finals and the FA’s Blueprint For Football, the Premier League would be slimmed down to eighteen clubs with rest weeks for international matches. Of course, almost all of this was compromised. The clubs baulked at the idea of losing four home matches per season and a compromise of twenty clubs was eventually agreed (after starting with twenty-two clubs), and any pretence of symbiosis between the club and national games soon gave way to the near explicit hostility that exists between the two today.
On the pitch, few forsaw the changes to the transfer market that would change the face of English club football forever. Bosman was a seismic shock to English football and has, in its own way, changed the game forever. Many clubs have hacked away at their scouting networks and youth academies – why spend large amounts of money bringing young English players through when you can sign something approaching the finished article from abroad? – and the majority of English players in the Premier League now inhabit the lower reaches of the division.
For the England team, this has and hasn’t made a difference. On the one hand, there is still a steady trickle of almost good enough players coming through to maintain the lie that England could potentially be a force again in world football. On the other, however, the overall pool of players available to Fabio Capello is now smaller than ever, and English goalkeepers are thin on the ground to the extent of being an endangered species. Possibly the most important single position on the pitch is Capello’s single biggest headache, and this is a situation that only seems likely to get worse rather than better in the future.
It wasn’t ever thus. Gordon Banks was a world class goalkeeper – the equal of Lev Yashin during the 1960s for the mantle of “The Best Goalkeeper In The World”. In the late 1970s and early 1970s, there was a constant tug of war for the England goalkeeping shirt between Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton, which Shilton eventually won, partly because of Clemence’s occasionally accident prone moments and partly because Shilton simply outlived him. By 1990, however, Shilton was too old. A record breaker he may have been, but he often seemed to resemble a sack of potatoes toppling over when he dived, and his lack of agility seemed a liabilty when he conceded against West Germany in the semi-final. He got nowhere near any of the German penalties.
Since then, the decline has been remarkable. David Seaman managed to look as good as most for much of the 1990s but was caught out by a (possibly deliberate, possibly accidental) moment of genius from Ronaldinho in 2002. Since then, though, things have been rather grim. David James has been the “obvious” first choice, but he remains too accident-prone and capable of moments of almost sublime misfortune. He is now thirty-eight and has kept himself in remarkable physical condition for his age, but the question of whether it is possible to get any further than England have done in recent years with him in goal has always been a valid one, rendered more relevant by his advancing years.
There are pretenders to the throne, but none of them send shivers down anybody’s spine. West Ham United’s Robert Green seems the obvious choice, but he has had his moments of indecision and lacks the Champions League experience that many seem to think is a requirement for an international goalkeeper. Ben Foster had an outstanding League Cup final for Manchester United, but he lacks experience and has talked of a move away from Old Trafford in order to boost his chances of playing for England. In an almost startling display of lateral thinking, Arsenal’s Manuel Almunia has been talked of as a possible England goalkeeper – Almunia is uncapped by Spain and now qualifies for England under EU residency laws. He has the Champions League but has had a patchy season for England. Meawhile, Scott Carson remains tainted by association and Chris Kirkland of Wigan is another who seems to fall into the trap of “too much too soon”.
It may be worth giving Almunia a go. If, as it seems to be, the biggest single problem facing the England team once on the pitch once on the pitch is a psychological one, then Almunia’s experience of playing every week in front of 60,000 crowds for Arsenal and in the latter stages of the Champions League could prove to be valuable. The argument of his lack of English blood seems a weak one in this day and age, considering that national identity has become a more subjective and blurred issue over the years and that many other countries have pooled players from other countries for many years – Patrick Vieira, for example, is Senegalese by birth.
If the Premier League pool of English players is shrinking, then it is probably right for the FA to push the definition of what an “English” player is as far as they can. Arguments about “bloodlines” and the like are getting into very dodgy territory indeed, and if no rules have been broken, then why not take advantage of this aspect of the international appeal of the Premier League? For now, though, it would be surprising and disappointing to see David James still goal for England by the summer of 2010. He will be forty a few weeks after the end of that tournament, and it is somewhat troubling that the search for his successor doesn’t seem to be gathering any sort of pace.