Since 2000, seven of England’s goalkeeping debutants have been under the age of 25. However, since 2010, only two of those seven debuted under the age of 25: Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland. Considering the average retirement age of a goalkeeper, that’s very young in perspective. Furthermore, the fact that two of these goalkeepers would become England number ones soon after their debuts gives the striking indication that goalkeeping is, generally, an international strong point, in terms of the Three Lions. The domestic form of England’s most recent goalkeeping trio (Dean Henderson, Jordan Pickford, and Nick Pope) has been solid all season; Pickford being the only exception with some questionable performances in a struggling Everton side.
The word solid is a good indicator of how England’s goalkeeping union has performed over the last two decades or so. Joe Hart, no matter his domestic form, was a sturdy custodian of the #1 jersey for about 9 years. His understudies in that time have included, most notably, Rob Green, Ben Foster, Fraser Forster, Jack Butland Tom Heaton. Of those 6, only one ‘big’ mistake comes to mind, which is Green’s howler in the 2010 World Cup. Mainly though, England’s crop of shot-stoppers have been decent, to say the least over the past 20 years.
Another thing that comes to mind when discussing the Three Lions’ shot-stoppers is this:
Very few have played for the ‘big six’ teams.
Richard Wright, Paul Robinson, and Joe Hart (Arsenal, Spurs, and Man City respectively) are the only three shot-stoppers to have made their England debuts whilst on the books of Premier League ‘big guns’. Ben Foster, albeit being contracted to Man United, was on loan at Watford when he made his England debut.
And this is why England’s goalkeeping history makes good reading for upcoming talents such as Dean Henderson, Freddie Woodman, Aaron Ramsdale and, going even younger, talents such as Coniah Boyce-Clarke at Reading FC (u17)
More concisely, our point is this:
Look at England’s goalkeepers from the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012, 2014 World Cup, Euro 2016 and 2018 World Cup.
2010: Joe Hart (Man City), David James (In between Portsmouth and Bristol City) and Rob Green (West Ham)
2012: Joe Hart (Man City), Rob Green (QPR), John Ruddy (Norwich City)
2014: Joe Hart (Man City), Ben Foster (West Brom), Fraser Forster (Celtic)
2016: Joe Hart (Man City), Fraser Forster (Celtic), Tom Heaton (Burnley)
2018: Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley), Jack Butland (Stoke City)
The thing about this list is that only Joe Hart was at one of England’s ‘big six’ clubs at the time of the competition he was picked for. Pickford and Everton could be included in that category, but the clubs we’re looking at mostly aren’t pushing for European spots. Take Rob Green, for example. West Ham had only just been promoted from the Championship the year he was picked; QPR had only just survived in the Premier League. Similarly, the year Tom Heaton was selected, he’d earnt his place through a brilliant year in the Championship. David James had just joined Bristol City (Championship), and Stoke City had been relegated the year Butland joined the World Cup squad. It highlights the way goalkeeping differs from players outfield. It’s a different ball game in the penalty area, and if England’s entire squad was made up mainly of players from the above clubs, it’s likely that, respectfully, England may simply not be as good. Yet these clubs have produced and contract multiple England international goalkeepers. It’s testament to goalkeeping in general and good news for young goalkeepers; that similar success can be achieved internationally in goal regardless of your club, to an extent of course.
Of course, there are variables with this. For example, had Butland not been out with an injury during the 2016/17 season, he made have claimed the England number one jersey before Pickford was seriously in contention. This may have had a knock-on effect; England’s number one would surely not have settled with playing in the Championship.
But back with the ‘size of club’ thing. The fact England’s GK Unions gave been composed mainly of (underrated) goalkeepers between the sticks for mid/lower mid-table teams is promising for the trio of England youngsters we’re going to focus on here. Freddie Woodman is currently between the sticks for Swansea City, on loan from Newcastle. Dean Henderson is enjoying a brilliant season with Sheffield United, although despite the way they’re playing, we’re not considering the Blades as one of the traditional ‘big guns’ in this article. Finally, Aaron Ramsdale currently holds the number one shirt at AFC Bournemouth, after a good loan spell with AFC Wimbledon in 2018/19. The fact that England’s top flight doesn’t consist of many English goalkeepers in the European-challenging teams is a good omen for English GKs at ‘smaller’ Premier League clubs, respectively. In the most recent Three Lions’ squad, no goalkeeper was at a club in the top six at the time of writing. Yet nearly 70% of the remaining 22 outfield players were at a top-six team. Of course, these statistics are variable but haven’t, and most likely won’t change a huge amount over the past few and next few years.
Woodman, for example, has already signalled his intent to push into Gareth Southgate’s squad. The 22-year-old spoke to BBC Sport Wales about how it was ‘the ultimate dream [to play for England’s first team]’. He went on to add ‘If you end up playing for England, it means you are a good player and you have done something well. Hopefully I can get there in the end.’
Another who is in the same sort of boat as Woodman is Aaron Ramsdale. Woodman, with 55 senior appearances across England and Scotland’s professional divisions compares nicely to Ramsdale’s 54 senior appearances. Their experience is somewhat limited, but doesn’t this further enhance their cases? Ramsdale, who had made the two-division jump when Eddie Howe started him as number one for the Cherries, has adjusted to PL life fantastically. The same applies to Woodman, and even Henderson in 2018/19. Limited senior appearances and they immediately claim the number one shirt at their respective clubs. Who says this sort of form can’t apply to the national squad? If it does, theoretically in the next few years, it also says something about the mindset and characteristics the younger players are bringing to a senior England side. As well as being a testament to the good work being done by their respective side’s academies, many will argue that natural competitiveness and a commanding desire to be number one (or a ‘leader’, for that sake) is something that England as a national side had missed throughout the 2010s. The ability to rise to those crucial moments in international tournaments that England has faltered in over the past decade. Seizing the occasion. This is something that was more apparent in the 2018 World Cup under Southgate, yet it can surely only be a blessing to have characters of such a young age that are likely to be able to encompass the above traits, in theory.
The fact they aren’t being kept out of the starting role, as may happen at the bigger clubs in the Premier League, is definitely a catalyst for confidence. More exposure, more responsibility, and more poise when playing. The confidence shown in the three by their managers needs to be reflected by Gareth Southgate. We’re not knocking the fact that Nick Pope, Jordan Pickford, and even Tom Heaton and Fraser Forster are experienced, and also very good professionals. They deserve their spots when selected, but Southgate must also be careful not to hamper the international potential of the young trio we’re featuring. He’s already done it somewhat with Dean Henderson, who has deserved his place definitely. We’ve also got to remember that, should one of the three be placed in a senior squad, and even play in a friendly, it will psychologically do them a world of good. Again, Freddie Woodman has already spoken of how valuable the experience alone is:
‘I was working with Joe Hart, Tom Heaton, and Jack Butland," he recalls. "It was a moment I will remember for a long time’. BBC Sport Wales.
This will further enhance their experience, meaning in the next decade, when Forster, Heaton, and even Nick Pope will no longer be youngsters, their transition into the Three Lions’ first team should be even smoother. As well as this, it helps the Premier League even more. More international exposure usually means more trust in the goalkeeper, or, more simply, the better a goalkeeper he is. To perform on the world stage will most likely attract the attention of the Premier League’s top teams, and it can’t hurt at all to have more homegrown, English talent in top Premier League sides, as well as around the continent.
Furthermore, we need to consider how Ramsdale and Henderson are established Premier League number ones at 22. TWENTY-TWO YEARS OLD! That’s literally 3 years gone a teenager. People are often quick to forget quite what an achievement playing professional football at these ages is. The human brain doesn’t fully mature until 25, to put it in perspective. From a footballing perspective, this is fantastic from a business point of view, a playing point of view, and for football itself. But it’s even more impressive in relation to what we’re witnessing, but often forgetting, on the pitch. As we all know, as a goalkeeper there is nowhere to hide. To play a composed game, knowing the stakes and expectations (to instantly perform as a GK) week in week out, is really quite something. To be called up to the national squad proves to the goalkeeper in question that they ARE performing, and the performances aren’t going unnoticed. It all links back to the point of trust; we think Southgate should chop and change goalkeepers in friendlies. It only adds to the fact they KNOW they’re doing things right, and no matter how robust a character you are, validation surely never goes unappreciated.
And there we have the knock-on effect that can make or break goalkeepers. Play well, know you’re playing well, have the idea you’re playing well reinforced and validated, play with more confidence. The safety cushion, albeit easier said than done, is the knowledge that you were ‘doing it right’ all along. The principle applies to goalkeeping from Under 6s to Under 23s, and further into the first team. If Southgate can balance the competitive priorities of his national side whilst breaking in young goalkeeping talent over the next decade, then England’s goalkeeping safe will have an un-crackable security code, so to speak.