Once again, the England management is unsure of which No. 1 to pick, but now it’s because the keepers are so poor.
Robert Green’s almost tragicomic error on Saturday evening in England’s opening game of the World Cup was both symbolic and symptomatic of the strange demise of English goalkeeping. Green was only in the side because he preferred to David James, whose nickname, let’s recall, is Calamity.
Of course, freak mistakes can happen to any goalkeeper. The problem is, they have an increasing habit of happening to English ones. First there was David Seaman’s failure to pick up the flight of Ronaldinho’s free kick in the 2002 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil, even though the ball was in the air longer than the average BA flight.
Then who can forget Paul Robinson, who executed a beautiful clearance shot from a back pass in the Euro qualifier against Croatia in 2006? The single flaw in the exercise being that he made no connection whatsoever with the ball, which rolled gently into the net.
And who can remember Scott Carson? He was Robinson’s replacement in the return match the following year, in which he managed to almost rival his predecessor’s mishap by effectively throwing a speculative long-range shot into his own net — the net result being non-qualification for Euro 2008.
Poker faces are in short supply in football. There is simply too much pressure and too many cameras to allow the concealment of emotions. And these days English goalkeepers tend to wear the same expression as English penalty-takers: an unpromising combination of paralysed dread and trembling panic.
Just as the fear of missing a penalty has spread like a virus and has now taken up residence in the team’s DNA, so too has a terror of long-range shots infected all England goalkeepers. It’s a surprise that the opposition doesn’t kick off by launching a large one at goal.
For it seems that the more time the England goalkeepers have to prepare for a shot, the more time they have to freak out. As is typical in the World Cup, England were clumsy and leaden against the US, lacking movement and rhythm and imagination. But they were seldom under threat. The Americans had fashioned only one shot on goal before Green’s blunder, and that too was a low, long-range effort straight at the keeper.
Something about the way Green went down to collect the ball on that occasion, in a kind of over-rehearsed manoeuvre, did not inspire confidence. It was as if he was so uncertain of the basics that he was forced to remind himself of what they entailed.
The writer Malcolm Gladwell once defined “choking” in sport as self-consciousness: that moment when a sportsman starts to think about what he is doing, rather than simply do what he’s thinking. That is the state that English goalkeepers have collectively reached. They can continue to bring off brilliant reflex saves, as Green did indeed do in one instance during the second half, but they can’t be relied upon when they have time to consider their decisions.
Fabio Capello has limited options. It’s no good instructing his keepers to concentrate, because that’s the problem. The answer could just be 23-year-old Joe Hart. Seldom has a team — the oldest in the competition — looked more in need of the arrogance of youth.
Guardian News & Media 2010