Being England’s first choice goalkeeper at a major tournament has become somewhat of a poisoned chalice in recent years. When Joe Hart saw Ragnar Sigurdsson’s effort slip through his fingers against Iceland at Euro 2016, he became the latest Three Lions keeper to make a costly mistake on the biggest stage of all. Rob Green and Scott Carson would have been sitting at home getting flashbacks of similar errors in 2010 and 2007 respectively.
Of course it is nearly tournament time once again with the World Cup in Russia just over three months away. However, who will start between the sticks for England against Tunisia on June 18 is very much up in the air. For me, there are at least six shot-stoppers who could stake a claim for a place on the plane, suggesting that the country’s goalkeeping situation is perhaps the best it has ever been. This is slightly misleading though, with high competition for places not due to the overwhelming quality of the candidates, but rather that no one stands above the rest as all are decent enough yet a little ‘run-of the mill’.
Joe Hart has been England’s number one goalkeeper for the last seven years, even continuing under Gareth Southgate despite his aforementioned error against Iceland. Yet many feel that he has never fully recovered from that night in Nice and a subsequent rejection by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and I tend to agree. Having notched up 75 caps, the 30-year-old is one of the most experienced, decorated and passionate players in the Three Lions squad but right now that seems to be the only argument for him to go to Russia.
Evidently low on confidence, Hart has now seen Adrian push ahead of him in the pecking order at loan club West Ham, which won’t help his case at all. He’s played 14 Premier League games this season and conceded at least three goals in half of them, letting in 30 in total whilst keeping just three clean sheets. Despite being at an age where a goalkeepers are supposedly in their prime, he looks a shadow of his former self.
Personally, I would reluctantly leave Hart at home this summer, but based on the fact that Southgate has started him in 11 of his 14 games in charge so far, I would expect to see Shrewsbury-born stopper at least in the 23-man squad.
If you’re asking who I would pick as England’s number one instead, I’d probably say Jordan Pickford. Many might suggest that at 23 years old and with just one cap to his name, the Everton man isn’t experienced enough to start between the sticks, but Pickford doesn’t seem like a character to let that affect him. Gareth Southgate too, had the confidence to give him his debut against world champions Germany last November, and the former Sunderland man made four saves and kept a clean sheet in a very encouraging performance.
Pickford gained valuable tournament experience with the Under-21s at the Euros last summer and was one of the Young Lions’ stand-out players, saving a penalty against holders Sweden in the group stage. He also knows what it feels like to play under pressure, having made a record breaking £30 million move to Goodison Park after the tournament. Only three goalkeepers in the Premier League can better his tally of 90 saves so far this campaign, whilst he has also kept six clean sheets.
It seems though that the most popular choice to start between the sticks in Russia is Jack Butland. There’s certainly a strong argument for the 24-year-old to take the number one shirt, and there has generally been a consensus over the last few years that he would be the man to take over from Joe Hart for England, whenever that time came. Indeed, no English keeper has made more saves than Butland in the Premier League this season (94), and he has worked his way up and gained valuable experience since becoming England’s youngest ever goalkeeper at just 19 years old in 2012, making his international debut even before his first start for Birmingham City’s senior team.
However, it has to be noted that Butland has played 25 league games this season for a Stoke City team who have conceded the most goals in the Premier League this season (54) and currently sit in deep relegation trouble in 19th position. Butland has let in 47 of those goals, and has been between the sticks as Manchester City, Chelsea (twice) and Manchester United have all put at least four past the Potters. Even though those goals may not have all been his fault, his confidence has to take somewhat of a hit when he sees the ball flying past him the whole time before having to constantly pick it out of the back of the net. Just last weekend, Butland made a calamitous error against Leicester, gifting the Foxes an equaliser to deny his team what would have been a huge win away from home.
Much like Pickford though, Butland appears to be a strong character and tweeted soon after his error at Leicester that he wouldn’t be ‘hiding’ as the Potters continue to battle relegation. With that in mind, Butland will certainly be a hugely valuable member of the squad and reliable understudy, but doesn’t fill me with quite enough confidence to be number one.
Next we come to two pairs of keepers not only battling with each other for a place in the England squad, but also for the number one jersey at club level too. At Burnley, Tom Heaton began this season between the sticks after an excellent 2016/17 campaign in which he made more saves (141) than any other keeper in the Premier League, putting him right in the frame for a World Cup ticket. Unfortunately for the 31-year-old, he is only just returning to fitness having been sidelined since he picked up a shoulder injury against Crystal Palace back in September, putting a major dent in his hopes of going to Russia.
Whilst Heaton is expected to return to the fold at Burnley soon, getting back into Gareth Southgate’s plans won’t be as easy as he would have first anticipated, as he’ll first have to win back his starting spot at Turf Moor from Nick Pope. The former Charlton stopper has surpassed all expectations since filling the void left by Heaton five months ago, and incredibly worked his own way into the England goalkeeper debate. Keeping nine clean sheets (more than any other English keeper) and conceding just 25 goals in 24 league starts, Pope has put in numerous man of the match performances to become somewhat of a fairytale story in the top flight. Sean Dyche will have a very tough decision on his hands when he has both goalkeepers available to him.
I’d find it incredibly hard to pick between Heaton and Pope, so would likely give the final spot in the squad to whoever finishes the season as Burnley’s number one. As tricky as it is, if a player isn’t a regular for their club, then there’s little reason for them to warrant a place in the England squad.
The other pair of keepers competing at club level are Fraser Forster and Alex McCarthy at Southampton. Forster, 29, has always been in and around the England squad, travelling to both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 with the Three Lions. This was never unjustified, with Forster keeping more clean sheets than any other English goalkeeper in the Premier League last season (14). This season has been a little different though, with the Saints facing a relegation battle and Forster keeping only four clean sheets in 20 league games, conceding 30 goals. Following a 5-2 defeat to Tottenham on Boxing Day, the former Celtic man’s 11th successive game without a clean sheet, manager Mauricio Pellegrino decided it was time for a shake-up, bringing in Alex McCarthy into the starting line-up.
McCarthy’s story is an interesting one. Called up to the England squad whilst at Reading in 2013, the 28-year-old was always seen as having great potential, but appeared to be wasting it away by settling for only a place on the bench at QPR, Crystal Palace and seemingly Southampton too until his recent run of starts. The Saints’ troubles haven’t got that much better with him between the sticks though, with McCarthy keeping one clean sheet in eight league games (albeit against Manchester United) as the South Coast side just outside the drop zone on goal difference only.
Ultimately, neither Forster or McCarthy have done quite enough to justify a place on the plane. Had either of them held Southampton’s number one shirt for the entirety of the season or excelled in their individual stints like Nick Pope has, they may have had more of a chance. Whilst both good goalkeepers, there are better options ahead of them.
Finally, the left-field option, Angus Gunn. Currently on loan at Norwich City (where his father and fellow goalkeeper Bryan played for 12 years) from Manchester City, the 22-year-old has kept 12 clean sheets in 33 Championship games. Gunn has ten caps for the England Under-21s and was drafted into the senior squad for November’s friendly against Brazil to cover for an injury to Butland, but realistically he isn’t a viable option for this summer due to his lack of experience, especially at the top level.
Who I would take to the World Cup: Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland & Tom Heaton
Who I think Gareth Southgate will take to the World Cup: Joe Hart, Jack Butland & Jordan Pickford