The Keeper Conundrum

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For decades, England managers have been trying to conjure up the best possible team for World Cups. Gareth Southgate, though, has the hardest job of any World-Cup-bound England manager ever. His list of potential goalkeepers is almost laughably long.

Possibly the most intriguing inclusion on his list is Joe Hart. Still owned by Premier League leaders Manchester City, Hart’s current loan spell at relegation-threatened West Ham United is his fifth temporary move away from the Etihad. None have been successful. Joe Hart’s heyday was between 2010 and 2012. He made more saves at Euro 2012 than any other goalkeeper, before Andrea Pirlo’s Panenka penalty delicately sliced Hart’s confidence into way too many pieces than could ever be truly fixed. Pirlo has since said his decision to choose such a penalty was down to Hart’s cocky and quirky attempts to distract the then-Juventus midfielder. Joe Hart’s form has never quite reached those heights since. We, of course, have seen glimmers. His penalty save against Brazil’s Ronaldinho, his outstanding performances against Barcelona in the Champions League, and of course his penalty save from Lionel Messi too. His performance in a qualifier against Slovenia in 2016 is widely regarded to include the world’s best save of that year. Joe Hart is undoubtedly an unbelievably talented keeper, but he is plying his trade with West Ham – for whom he has not even been playing. Only Peter Shilton has more caps in goal for England than Joe Hart, but Gareth Southgate must decide whether or not to offer him some more, come the summer.

Another big decision for Southgate is whether he should consider Burnley’s Tom Heaton. Injured in 2017, and absent for the entire Premier League season so far, Heaton has amassed three England caps – facing Australia, Spain and France – without much luck. Nick Pope’s [more on him later] fine form as the Burnley deputy this season has meant Heaton has hardly been missed. It’s cruel on a keeper whose rise from a Wycombe Wanderers loanee to becoming a brilliant shot-stopper in the Premier League would be difficult for England’s manager to ignore. With almost 350 career appearances, Tom Heaton is an experienced and capable choice for Gareth Southgate. It’s only his recent return from injury that makes him an outsider in this race.

Jack Butland’s story is one of inspiration and guts. For a long time a one-cap wonder for England, it seemed Butland would never again represent his nation, having done so at just 19 years of age in a prestige friendly with Italy. At the time, Butland was a Birmingham City keeper, had represented Team GB at London 2012, had travelled to Euro 2012 as an unused, uncapped substitute, and still is The Three Lions’ youngest ever goalkeeper. Butland’s emergence as a fine young goalkeeper was slow at times, but his undeniable quality was epitomised by his £3.5m move from Birmingham to Premier League side Stoke City, on transfer deadline day 2013. He continued to be involved for England’s youth sides until 2015, when his senior career took off once more. A second cap came in England’s final qualifier for Euro 2016, where Butland played the entirety of a 3-0 win in Lithuania, claiming his first England clean-sheet. The following March, England’s famous 3-2 victory in Germany was made bittersweet by Butland’s early ankle injury. Despite being ruled out for the remainder of the season, he had already played 35 times that season for Stoke, and was named Player of the Year at the end of it. A clean sheet against France is the highlight for this young goalkeeper, whose good form, and age of just 24, means he is almost guaranteed at least a seat on the plane.

A man that many have forgotten about but that is still an extremely talented goalkeeper is Fraser Forster. An heroic performance in a 2-1 Champions League win for Celtic against Barcelona bought many headlines for Forster, and the now-Southampton man has not looked back since. Forster still holds the Scottish First Division all-time record for the longest period without conceding a goal. His £10m transfer to St. Mary’s in 2014 has seen him establish himself as Southampton’s Number 1. January 2016 saw Forster break his new club’s record for minutes without conceding. Forster loves a clean-sheet, and these are generally considered quite important. But since early 2017, the 29-year-old has struggled for form. His lowest point was little over a month ago, when manager Mauricio Pellegrino was forced into dropping Forster in place of another young England goalkeeper, Alex McCarthy. Still on the bench at the time of writing, Forster’s inclusion in England’s past two tournament squads may not be a run that continues this summer. Fraser Forster has some sole-searching to do, but with no full-match clean-sheets for his country yet, things can only get better. Forster is, though, still in the running.

Angus Gunn is the youngest goalkeeper on the list. The Norwich City man is only 22, but has a wealth of experience as a Young Lion, with over 25 appearances for England’s youth sides. Owned by Manchester City, this is a shot-stopper that is easily good enough to find the form to knock Ederson off top-spot in the City net when his loan spell ends this summer. It has historically proven detrimental to goalkeepers’ England careers for them to be playing in the Championship, but Gunn is, again, only 22, and is putting in eyebrow-raising performances week in, week out for his club. Included in the senior squad for the November draw with Brazil because of Jack Butland’s injury, he will have gained some good experience from that. Currently the Under-21s’ first-choice keeper, Gunn’s time will most certainly come, but it perhaps won’t be quite this soon. Then again, who knows?

Someone that a large number of supporters and pundits feel is the right man for job is Everton’s Jordan Pickford. Only 23 years of age, Pickford has been outstanding in the Premier League since he was recalled from a loan spell for relegation-doomed Sunderland on New Year’s Day 2016. A few days later, his appearance in the Premier League against Tottenham Hotspur meant Pickford had played in all of England’s top five leagues at the age of just 21. Alfreton Town’s goalkeeper in 2013 is now Everton’s Number 1 in the Premier League. His move to Merseyside for almost £30m in 2017 made him the third most expensive goalkeeper in football history. His incredible rise to the top level did not go unnoticed, and his England senior debut was a Wembley clean-sheet against World Champions Germany in November. Pickford’s young, yet experienced, hands could be wearing the gloves this summer for England. If they were, few would claim his inclusion is not merited.

England fans of old will have bleak memories of Scott Carson, to say the least. His dreadful mistakes against Croatia saw England fail to reach Euro 2008, where Romania and Turkey qualified, but Steve McClaren’s England couldn’t. A Premier League mainstay at West Brom and Aston Villa, Carson’s period in Turkey with Bursaspor was over in 2013, when Wigan Athletic called, and then Derby. It is whilst playing for Championship highfliers Derby this season, that Carson has reached form simply unseen during his days in the top flight. His extraordinary display against Manchester United in this year’s FA Cup was heavily applauded, and his form has been similarly awesome in the league. Uncapped for his country since 2011, Carson is undoubtedly an outside bet, but maybe a gamble worth taking.

Nick Pope is probably a name that not everyone will be familiar with. Tom Heaton’s understudy for Burnley was called into action at the beginning of the season, following Heaton’s serious injury. Pope has been the gift that keeps on giving – unless you’re a striker facing him. Nick Pope has nine clean-sheets in the Premier League this season. Only Thibault Courtois, David De Gea, Hugo Lloris and Ederson can beat him on that score [or not-score]. Originally owned by Charlton Athletic, Pope was loaned out to non-league sides such as Welling, Harrow and Aldershot up until 2014. Just like Jordan Pickford and Angus Gunn, Nick Pope is capable, confident and has risen up the ranks faster than goalkeepers often do. And just like this these two, time is on Pope’s side at just 25 years of age. Gareth Southgate will be well aware of the possibilities that Nick Pope’s form provides him with, but perhaps it is Burnley’s place that Pope is working harder to retain, not England’s.

The likes of Under-20s World Cup winner Freddie Woodman and other youngsters will have their time, and players like Ben Foster and Robert Green already have, but for the players mentioned above, the most pivotal months of their careers are to follow. Three of these eight goalkeepers will be in and around the England camp this summer. Perhaps two or all three will play in some capacity, but more likely only one will. For the first time in England’s history, there is an open fight for that priceless place. Only Gareth Southgate’s opinion on the matters really counts, but its unlikely even he knows which will be England’s Number 1 at the World Cup this summer. The Premier League title race is over; the race to be crowned England’s best goalie is into a sprint finish.

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