Forty-eight years ago, on home soil, England won the World Cup. You probably didn’t even know that. It tends not to be spoken about much nowadays. England have done so well, and achieved so much, on the international stage since then that it barely merits discussion. Why would the younger generation care about Bobby Moore and co. when they’ve been treated to the dazzling skills of Wayne Rooney, the lion-hearted-never-say-die leadership of Steven Gerrard, the calm defensive presence of Phil Jagielka and the sublime consistency of the unbeatable Joe Hart? England fans these days have been thoroughly spoiled. Used to seeing opposing teams ripped apart with fluid, exciting, attacking football, they are currently bearing witness to what must be one of the finest sides to ever play this beautiful game.
Sorry. I seemed to get a bit caught up in writing that. It’s always nice to let your imagination run wild from time to time. There’s a reason human beings love nothing more than a good bit of fiction. In most cases, it beats reality. Because the reality is, England may never win the World Cup again.
Heard it all before
This argument isn’t a new one. Football fans in this nation are well aware that the standard of the national team is at an all-time low. Our pride at being the ‘inventors’ of the world’s favourite pastime is pretty much all we have to shout about anymore. (The Scottish, incidentally, also played a huge role in bringing the game to the rest of the world but, if there’s anything we love more than football, it’s pissing off the Scots with a bit of selective memory).
Yet I’m not going to present you with a list of the same churned-out reasons as to why we’re not competing with the very best at international tournaments. It isn’t Roy Hodgson’s fault and it isn’t because our players don’t bleed for the shirt or try hard enough.
It is, simply put, because we don’t have enough goalkeepers.
But you only need one goalkeeper?
That may seem a strange statement, so let me qualify it. England do not have enough goalkeepers of international quality. In fact, England do not even have enough goalkeepers playing regular first team football for their clubs at all.
Now why is this significant? Surely, as there can only be one goalkeeper on the pitch, there don’t need to be as many? Yes, this is most definitely true. But, flip that question around. Surely, since there is only one goalkeeper on the pitch, there should be even more competition for places? Surely it should be easier to find 3 top quality goalkeepers from this country than, say, 10 (or perhaps more) top quality midfielders?
The shortage of goalkeepers playing at the highest level is endemic of the shortage of top English talent in general. If we struggle to find even one goalkeeper now (and we all know about Joe Hart’s recent sketchy form), how can we expect quality to run through the rest of the squad?
You might not agree with me on this, and that’s fair enough. I can see why you wouldn’t. However, I think things start to become a little more interesting when we look at some statistics, rather than just relying on opinion and point of view. An analysis of the first team goalkeepers in Europe’s traditional big five leagues (England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy) presents us with this information:
Compared with our European neighbours, England has a shockingly low amount of goalkeepers playing first team football. Even that small number comes with a caveat; Ben Foster has the same amount of appearances for West Brom as Boaz Myhill (Wales) this season. If Myhill starts the next game, England’s stat would drop to two (Joe Hart and John Ruddy).
Now look at the other four countries. Isn’t that at least slightly worrying from England’s point of view? If Joe Hart were to suffer a serious injury or, heaven forbid, an even greater loss of form between now and the summer, England realistically have very few options. Ben Foster, retired from international football until recently, Ruddy or Celtic’s Fraser Forster (not included in the stats as the Scottish League is obviously not one of Europe’s top leagues, and far from being ‘competitive’) would have to step up.
I challenge you to name any more English goalkeepers you’d put in your squad. The choices aren’t overwhelming, so I’ll provide you with some names. David Stockdale has 10 Premier Leagues games under his belt this year, but sits behind Martin Stekelenburg in the queue at Fulham. Steve Harper has played 6 games for Hull. 37-year-old Kelvin Davis has played 2 league matches for Southampton. Cardiff’s Joe Lewis has started 1. And then there are those who have only had outings in FA Cup or Capital One Cup games, most of which came in the early rounds: Jed Steer (Aston Villa), Rob Elliot (Newcastle) and Mark Bunn (Norwich).
Eleven Premier League clubs do not have an English goalkeeper either as their number one or their number two. Not one of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham, Liverpool, Swansea, West Ham, Stoke, Sunderland or Crystal Palace rate an English goalkeeper high enough to make him even their back-up goalkeeper.
The German Example
If German manager Joachim Löw suddenly (and inexplicably) decided that Manuel Neuer wasn’t up to the job of protecting the national team, he could easily call upon any of Roman Weidenfeller, Bernd Leno, Marc-André ter Stegen, René Adler, Timo Hildebrand, Ron-Robert Zieler, Kevin Trapp, Oliver Baumann, Thomas Kraft, Sven Ulreich, Sebastian Mielitz, Raphael Schäfer, Loris Karius or even Gerhard Tremmel of Swansea, safe in the knowledge that they have consistently played this season in one of the world’s most competitive leagues.
The same can be said of Spain, where Víctor Valdés, Pepe Reina, David De Gea, Diego López and a host of others could step up should Casillas not be selected. You can repeat the process with both Italy and France. They may not all be household names to a Premier League fan, but that’s not the point. The point is that, at least in other parts of Europe, home-grown goalkeepers are able to progress and improve. Here, where money rules and teams prefer quick-fixes over long-term stability, foreign imports (and not always quality foreign imports) rule the roost.
A few more figures just to hammer it home: both Argentina and Brazil have more first team goalkeepers in the top five leagues than England do (4 each). Belgium and the Netherlands have the same amount (3). Portugal, Switzerland, Poland, USA, Croatia and Scotland all have 2. Think about that last one for a second. Scotland, with only just over 5 million inhabitants, has nearly as many first team goalkeepers in Europe’s big five leagues as England, a nation close to ten times its size. And remember, these figures are only referring to goalkeepers in those 5 leagues. While Scolari, for example, could choose to look back to Brazil for reinforcements (or to other leagues in Europe), Roy Hodgson has no such luxury – because English players, as we all know, never leave England.
A lack of competition for the goalkeeping position has to be indicative of a lack of competition and, subsequently, a lack of quality in all other areas of the pitch.
And that is why, unless the problem is remedied, England may never win the World Cup again.