Club Focus – Stoke – A tale of two keepers

The tremendous cheer which greeted Thomas Sorensen’s name when the teams were announced at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday was a fine indication of the esteem in which the Danish goalkeeper is held amongst the Potters’ faithful. It was a terrific vote of confidence in Stoke’s current No 1 amid rumors of his impending departure this January and the club’s ongoing attempts to bring in David James.

However, there are few fairytales in modern football, and the Dane went on to undermine this roar of approval with a performance against Liverpool which could generously be described as “distracted”. Sorensen made a complete hash of Fabio Auerelio’s 57th minute free kick, failing to gather and allowing Sotirios Kyrgiakos the simplest of finishes. The communication and organisational skills which has been the Danish international’s trademark since arriving in the Potteries were conspicuous by their absence all afternoon.

Of all the positions requiring attention during the January transfer window, the role of custodian did not appear to be a priority, given Sorensen’s fine performances. Indeed, a recent Opta index table recently identified Denmark’s No. 1 to be the third best goalkeeper in Europe, behind the illustrious duo of Edwin Van Der Sar and Iker Casillas. However, Stoke fans received a double helping of surprising news during the last fortnight. Word reached the English press of an interview that Sorensen had given to Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. He appeared to make a “come and get me” plea to big clubs, timed to coincide with the opening of the transfer window: “my ambition is to play at the highest level…I feel good where I am, but if there is a possibility, it would be incredibly difficult to say no to it”. The following week, it was revealed that Stoke were in advanced negotiations with Portsmouth to bring England stopper James to the club on loan.

Sorensen, for his part, has claimed that he had been misquoted in the Danish media. He fumed in Ekstra Bladet: “the media has distorted my words…I have finished talking with them. It’s a lie and I’m really upset because I am dedicated to Stoke”. However, it is beginning to look increasingly likely that Stoke had planned to move for David James irrespective of the question marks over the Dane’s future. James had been in the Potters’ sights as long ago as August when Tony Pulis had hinted that he was not completely satisfied with his first choice goalkeeper. After the December 2-2 draw with Wigan at the Britannia Stadium, the Stoke boss criticized his keeper for his role in the Latics’ opening goal. More recently, a tetchy Pulis bemoaned the goalkeeper’s last-minute withdrawal from the team to play Fulham with a finger injury. It was Sorensen’s eighth such withdrawal in his 18 month tenure at the Potteries club: “if anything had been wrong with Steve Simonsen when we played Fulham, the Stoke manager complained, we wouldn’t have had a keeper”.

Assuming Sorensen’s claims to be happy at the Midlands club can be taken at face value, is it really such a good idea to dislodge him in favor of the England goalkeeper? Sorensen, at 33, is in his prime and in the form of his career, however there is no denying that the capture of the England No. 1 would be a coup for a club of the Potters’ stature and would raise the team’s profile. James is also a fine keeper in his own right. The Premier League record of 142 clean sheets kept in his career is a far more fitting signifier of his abilities than the lazy “calamity” label attached to him over the years. However, at 39, James is old even by goalkeeping standards. Moreover, at his age, there is no guarantee that he will make a 100% successful recovery from the long-term back injury which has seen him miss much of this season. Will James, whose agility was his great strength, be the same player when he returns? It is a huge gamble that Tony Pulis is toying with. It is perhaps telling that no other top flight club has shown an interest in James, which is a very odd situation considering his status as Fabio Capello’s apparent first choice England goalkeeper.

Such speculation might seem redundant given that the loan deal for James has floundered over a disagreement regarding wages. However, reports in the local media in both Stoke and Portsmouth suggest that the bid could be resurrected. Even in the James deal is dead, a report in The Mail on Sunday claiming that the Potters are lining up a £4m bid for their former goalkeeper Ben Foster suggests that the position remains a priority.

If Sorensen has been seduced by the lure of a Champions’ League club then there is little to do but wish him well and thank him for his efforts in Stoke’s survival campaign. If not however, Tony Pulis should think long and hard about the wisdom of replacing Denmark’s No 1 with England’s No 1.

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