It’s a game of opinions, of course, but most would concede that Joe Hart is lucky to still be England’s first-choice goalkeeper. A dreadful set of performances at the 2016 European Championship appeared to deflate his self-belief, Pep Guardiola’s instant dismissal of his abilities then sent him into a miserable Italian exile, and his initial performances for West Ham haven’t convinced anyone that he’s close to rediscovering his equilibrium.
England had successfully qualified from Group F before Gareth Southgate picked the side which beat Lithuania on Sunday, but it would be naive to think of Jack Butland’s selection as nothing more than pure rotation. Clearly, this is the starting point for a debate. It likely won’t become the English equivalent of the ferociously dull German torwartfrage (Oliver Kahn vs Jens Lehmann in 2006), but the two are clearly now in direct competition for the starting role in Russia.
Butland is a terrific prospect. Playing for Stoke City hasn’t afforded him as much visibility as that enjoyed by Hart or even Jordan Pickford, and the serious ankle injury he suffered in Berlin eighteen months ago distanced him from the international scene. Nevertheless, a consensus has formed around him: whenever he appears on television, either live or within Match Of The Day highlight packages, he is typically excellent. He passes the eye test, too: tall, broad, imposing and agile, he looks like a monument to the art of goalkeeping.
The decision seems to be so obvious: the veteran international who has perhaps outlived his purpose, or the young up-and-comer who seems to get stronger and more reliable every month. Nevertheless, there exists a layer of complexity which must be respected.
England have now played their final competitive game before heading to Russia. Germany, Brazil and Italy will all take part in friendlies at Wembley between now and then and, once the draw has been made, The FA will presumably organise a set of preparatory games which replicate the challenges within.
That’s probably what gives Hart the edge. It’s reasonable, of course, to point out that he’s hardly coped well with tournament pressure in the past, but he does at least have a sense for what that environment can be like. Conversely, nothing that happens between now and May can truly prepare Butland for that level of the game: not just the quality of players he will face, but the attention that will come with being on the field in the first place. The Premier League might be the most visible club league in the world, but his progress so far has mainly occurred under the radar. His saves are applauded and good performances recognised, but his errors don’t linger in the mind (or the press) to nearly the same extent.
Consequently, it’s hard to know how he will respond once that changes. One of the most inhibiting issues for Hart currently, for instance, is the knowledge that his every move is being judged. Every goal-kick he takes and cross he comes for is occurring under the national microscope and even for someone used to scrutiny that must be tremendously difficult. As he continues to show, is that bad form is harder to shake when nobody wants to talk about anything else.
Determining the effect on Butland is much harder and it’s impossible to approach this situation without involving Robert Green and the personal crisis he suffered in 2010.
Irrespective of what may have happened to him since, Green was a fine goalkeeper – and, conveniently, was spoken of in much the same way as Butland is now. He too had the benefit of mild competitive experience before that World Cup, making several starts in qualifying as England dominated a weak group. But then Rustenburg: the fearful look on his face in the tunnel and, forty-five minutes later, the mistake which changed the perception of his career.
Admittedly, there are some key differences: Green was in competition with David James until (apparently) twenty-fours before that game kicked off and, in minimising his preparation time, Fabio Capello probably hung his goalkeeper out to dry. It’s the kind of mistake which today’s marginal gains-orientated FA presumably wouldn’t make again. Secondly, Green had a history of negative moments with the national team, with his last competitive involvement pre-Dempsey being his red card against Ukraine in the final qualifier. It was unfortunate and occurred in what was essentially a dead-rubber, but it was still a game-changing error. Mixed with the natural pressures of an opening World Cup game, his relative inexperience and the tournament-wide distrust of the controversial Jabulani, that personal history made Green’s nerves and ultimately his mistake easier to explain.
Unfortunately, that moment came to define him. He has played nearly 700 professional games, but his fumble will forever be the dominant association with his career. It’s something you wouldn’t wish on anybody and, on the basis of his apparent fragility in the years since, it’s a burden Green has carried ever since.
Assuming that Butland is likely to suffer the same fate is clearly nonsense. Different players have different emotional characteristics and will, inevitably, respond to different challenges in unique ways. Nevertheless, Gareth Southgate might have created a problem for himself in leaving a viable option under-prepared. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the decision, the time to make a goalkeeping change was probably at the beginning of this season. The games against Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia would have been a soft permanent entry into international football, but would have allowed Butland to grow accustomed to the role and everything which comes with it. Evidently, there is a clear difference between winning the occasional cap and living full-time within the week-to-week dissection. Completing almost semi-assured qualification from a weak group would hardly have been a baptism of fire, but it would still have been of worth – far more so than the remaining friendlies, all of which will be played in second gear and in front of dozens of Mexican waves and hundreds of children on class trips.
Butland does not play for a major club and, although he did represent Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics, has never had to perform under great duress. No title run-in, no European knockout games, nothing but league fixtures and the early rounds of the FA Cup. That isn’t to say he’s incapable of shouldering that kind of responsibility, but to find out whether he can within a World Cup seems like a leap faith. Those qualifying games may only have offered a meagre challenge, but would still have allowed him to feel like a true part of the side and to build the necessary relationships with an otherwise stabile defence.
But instead, Hart’s form has been overlooked – any concerns evidently outweighed by his experience – and he has been picked for all the games of significance. It means, if past precedents are to be respected, that he and England are tied to each other until the World Cup at least. It’s become the sensible move, or at least the one which minimises the possibility of a career-altering catastrophe. As those who read Michael Calvin’s book, Living On The Volcano, will know, Butland struggled with the pressures of his position as a teenager, almost to the extent where it cost him his career. Having overcome that challenge, the justification for risking him in a World Cup for which he hasn’t been properly prepared seems minimal.
Doubtless, that concern will be batted away and, in the court of public debate at least, Premier League form alone will be used to settle this. But beware the undercooked goalkeeper: Green is the example everyone remembers, of course, but Scott Carson, too, and Nigel Martyn, whose tournament debut against Romania in 2000 was also mildly calamitous. Once in a while, an untested ‘keeper does extremely well in unlikely circumstances (Chris Woods in the 1978 league cup final, for instance), but more often that kind of forced promotion ends badly. Sometimes, it even leaves a destructive legacy.
Playing for England is a mighty challenge, playing in goal for England at a major tournament is a level beyond; national head-coaches have underestimated this issue in the past and the incumbent would do well not to repeat their mistakes. For his sake, for the team, and for the player involved.