When Fabio Capello took over as England manager in succession to Steve McClaren in 2008, he largely refrained from making the sweeping changes many people felt he should have been drawn towards. By and large, the personnel who failed to qualify for Euro 2008 made up the very same group of players who won nine out of their 10 qualifying games in comfortably reaching the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.
There were two notable exceptions, however. Capello’s arrival marked a line in the sand as far as Michael Owen was concerned, with the metronomic striker swiftly cast aside. The other exception to the Capello rule was his goalkeeper.
The end of the McClaren era was defined by his goalkeepers. The man who had served as his first choice keeper for the majority of his time in charge of the national team, Paul Robinson, had been jettisoned in a very public manner, after being deemed to be largely culpable for the Euro 2008 qualifying loss to Russia in Moscow in October 2007.
Robinson had spent a year under heavy media and fan scrutiny in the lead-up to McClaren’s date with destiny on that fateful rainy November evening at Wembley against Croatia.
In October 2006, England were beaten 2-0 in Zagreb. While it was generally accepted that there was nothing Robinson could have done to prevent the first goal that night, the second goal would change the entire tone of his international career.
Again, there was little Robinson could have done differently to prevent the goal. Yet, as Gary Neville’s harmless looking back pass hit a divot on the turf, just as Robinson launched the swing of his intention to put his foot through the ball, it unexpectedly found itself nestling in the England net, rather than sailing through the air towards Peter Crouch. Despite the goal owing far more to outrageous misfortune than goalkeeper error, Robinson was widely ridiculed for the incident, and it set the tone for the following 12 months.
That night in Zagreb was McClaren’s fifth game in charge of the national team. Robinson had kept a clean sheet in each of the first four games. In response to the defeat against Croatia, Robinson kept clean sheets in the next six qualifiers. That was, however, a run that was punctuated by some polarising club form during the volatile final months of the Martin Jol era at White Hart Lane, and a glaring error in a high-profile friendly against Germany, which marked England’s first game at the new Wembley.
The critical spotlight that Robinson found himself under was, by and large, a product of how his three immediate full-time predecessors had lost the job. Chris Woods, David Seaman and David James had all been displaced after what were seen as a number of unforced and unnecessary errors.
When you come to look at the footage of the goals Robinson conceded against Russia at the Luzhniki, you don’t see damning evidence of a goalkeeper beyond capability. In reality, the nation’s mood towards Robinson changed as soon as he swung at, and missed, that Neville back-pass in Zagreb.
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When Robinson was omitted from the decisive game against Croatia by McClaren, it was a decision driven by the frustration of a nation. It was also a massive gamble. When Roman Pavlyuchenko equalised from the penalty spot in Moscow, a penalty Robinson wasn’t far from getting a hand to, it was the first goal he’d conceded in qualifying for 677 minutes.
McClaren yielded to popular opinion when he replaced Robinson with Scott Carson for a friendly in Vienna, just five days prior to the visit of Croatia to Wembley. A clean sheet for Carson against Austria sealed Robinson, and McClaren’s, fate.
It didn’t need hindsight to illuminate that fielding Carson against Croatia was a gamble. The Austria game was his first senior cap and 2007-08 was only Carson’s second season of regular week-to-week football. On-loan to Aston Villa from Liverpool, having spent the previous season on-loan at Charlton Athletic, he’d gone to the 2006 World Cup finals with only 21 professional first team games to his name when brought in from the standby list to replace the injured Robert Green.
When Carson took to the Wembley pitch against Croatia, he did so having recently celebrated his 22nd birthday. Despite his burgeoning talent, it wasn’t an occasion for someone so inexperienced.
The dropping of Robinson, and the traumatic night suffered by Carson against Croatia, all-but killed off both players’ international careers. Badly at fault for the first goal and partially responsible for Croatia’s winning goal, Carson, like Robinson would never start an England international again.
In an illuminating interview with Stuart James in the Guardian recently, Carson gave some insight on the incident and how it affected his career. Carson received heavy criticism in the wake of England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008, as did most players involved with the England squad, and it is a massive credit to him that he remained focused and positive throughout, taking a healthy approach to the situation, in that no matter what further mistakes lay ahead in his career, the simple fact was that if he could get through the aftermath of the Croatia defeat, then he could circumnavigate anything.
When Capello took over from McClaren, he opted to move away from both Robinson and Carson when naming his new first choice goalkeeper. Instead of looking to the future, or to Robinson and Carson’s generational contemporaries, Capello cast a glance backwards and recalled David James, who was fast approaching the age of 37.
Only 28 and 22 respectively, in different circumstances Robinson and Carson could have contested the gloves for a decade to come. They were part of what became a lost generation of goalkeepers for whom greatness was widely forecast.
When Capello took the England job, Robinson and Carson were part of a talented generation of English goalkeepers, all of whom were under the age of 30. Some of them had found their careers stifled and had fallen by the wayside, but Chris Kirkland, Ben Foster, Robert Green and Richard Wright were all at one point billed as next big thing, and were all still under the age of 30. Capello should have found himself with an embarrassment of goalkeeping riches, rather than feeling the need to look to the previous wave of options.
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Of that collective of goalkeepers, only Green went on to be considered the first choice England goalkeeper at any point during the course of Capello’s reign, and that being for a relatively short period of time. Foster was eventually elevated to Joe Hart’s primary back-up under Roy Hodgson, yet has periodically drifted away from the international scene.
Kirkland and Wright, so often conspired against by form and fitness, never managed the consistent, season-on-season appearances at club level to put themselves back within the international picture. Rich promise proving to be unfulfilled. Injury predominantly help Kirkland back, while an ill-timed move to Arsenal in 2001, when Seaman was still the first choice goalkeeper for both club and country, cost Wright any chance of a place in Sven-Göran Eriksson’s squad for the 2002 World Cup, having impressed enough at Ipswich Town to make Kevin Keegan’s squad for Euro 2000.
Robinson and Carson remained part of the picture for Capello. Robinson was a goalkeeper rejuvenated for a time after a move to Blackburn Rovers and acted as cover sporadically up to the 2010 World Cup finals, but elected to turn down further invites after being left out of the squad for South Africa. Carson added two more caps to his total, both as a substitute, the last of those coming in 2011 against Sweden.
Now at the age of 31, Carson classes himself to be a far better keeper than he was a decade ago; he is also at an age when a return to international football is far from an impossibility. A potential return to the Premier League with Derby County would put him in the spotlight again. As for Robinson, he is now understudy to a new England international at Burnley in the shape of Tom Heaton, a man just seven months younger than Carson.
Joe Hart is the man in possession of the gloves now, however he is another goalkeeper who has found himself under widespread critical scrutiny, and with the prodigiously talented Jack Butland no nearer to returning from his ongoing ankle injury, there is a thin scattering of English goalkeeping talent to call upon beyond Heaton and Fraser Forster.
Hart ascended to the role after the 2010 World Cup, in a move that ensured that the England goalkeeper position essentially skipped a generation. Robinson collected a more than respectable 42 caps but was forever damned by a divot on the turf in Zagreb, and despite some fine form at Blackburn Rovers wasn’t really allowed a second chance by Capello.
In recalling James, Capello essentially stepped back to go forward. Ironically something similar would be the case if Carson ever did return to the international arena. In an environment where the shadow contenders to Hart’s position are low in number, arguably steady and competent rather than spectacular goalkeepers, ones who perhaps play the percentages and the numbers game, it will be those who have found a comfortable club niche that will rise to contention.
At Derby County, Carson might well have finally found his comfortable club niche and he is a goalkeeper who could still return from his lost generation
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74