Andrew Tuft’s Monday Column – Are England’s World Cup hopes in safe hands?

David James’ return to action in Portsmouth’s 2-0 defeat against Manchester City yesterday has again raised the question of who Fabio Capello will call on to guard England’s goal in South Africa. Despite recovering from a calf injury a few weeks ago, James was sidelined by Pompey’s financial woes – should the goalkeeper play 20 games for Portsmouth this season, his contract is automatically renewed for another year, according to the Daily Telegraph – thus a loan move to Stoke City broke down over who would pay his wages. But now the much-travelled James is back for Avram Grant’s side, the other contenders to take the gloves in June have a fight on their hands.

From being a regular punch-line in his early career thanks to repeated handling errors, James has grown into his role as an elder statesman of the English game, regularly providing a sensible voice on the issues of the day surrounding the game through his newspaper column. The mistakes may not have completely disappeared but James has become a reliable and respected No.1, with experience allied to impressive agility for a 39-year-old. He could provide a calming influence on the England defence as Capello strives to bring the World Cup to these shores, especially if Rio Ferdinand’s injury problems rear their head again, or John Terry’s alleged off-the-field antics threaten his place in the side. A defence robbed of either of its most experienced centre-backs would greatly benefit from James’ presence. But if James is not there, either through inaction or injury, and Capello has stated he will only consider fit players, who will be tasked with replacing James between the posts?

Robert Green was selected for England’s last outing against Brazil, and acquitted himself well despite the 1-0 defeat in November. Green is arguably as prone to faults as James, with occasional blunders blotting his copy book despite also being capable of stunning reaction saves. Green also lacks James’ experience, an important asset for a goalkeeper who could face the world’s best attackers in this summer’s tournament. James has played in high-pressure games before, including three FA Cup finals and is approaching the half-century mark for England caps. Green may participate in such occasions in his future career, especially if Gianfranco Zola’s West Ham revolution can be refocused now the club’s finances are cheerier, and at 30 has plenty of time to establish himself as England’s first choice. With just eight caps to his name, 2010 may come too soon for the former Norwich player. In four years, however, Green will not have to battle the ex-West Ham goalkeeper and may have a successful Euro 2012 under his belt, provided England make it through the qualifiers.

Paul Robinson was the original choice to replace James, having travelled to Euro 2004 as James’ deputy and then assuming the position for the 2006 World Cup qualifiers. After a mixed tournament, where the former Leeds United player kept four clean sheets in five games but also failed to convince when it came to dealing with crosses, it was in October that year, against Croatia, the most memorable moment in Robinson’s international career occurred – a Gary Neville backpass bobbled over his foot and into the England goal. Robinson kept his place in the side, but another mistake, this time palming a shot into the path of Russia’s Roman Pavluchenko, led to Robinson being replaced as Steve McClaren’s first choice. Robinson has not played for England since, although has featured in squads and on the bench a number of times. Lost in the shuffle of those errors were some fine saves and Robinson remains an excellent goalkeeper, but has fallen down the pecking order behind Green for sure, and possibly Ben Foster. The Blackburn Rovers’ goalkeeper has the best agility of any of the contenders to go to South Africa as well as the best distribution, but has let himself down on too many occasions in an England shirt to regain top slot barring an injury crisis.

Injuries have curtailed Foster’s progression on numerous occasions but the man pinpointed by Sir Alex Ferguson as Edwin van der Sar’s replacement and a future England first-teamer has to establish himself at Old Trafford before he leaps to the front of the queue to dislodge James. Although he impressed during two seasons on loan at Watford between 2005 and 2007, Foster has not done likewise when presented with chances in a Manchester United shirt. While all goalkeepers make mistakes, in domestic games Foster has committed more than the other possibilities to be first-choice in South Africa – at fault twice against Chelsea in August’s Community Shield and wobbles against Manchester City leave Foster with room for improvement. Being more comfortable with the ball at his feet would go a long way towards erasing the doubts over the 26-year-old, as would showing more mental strength to regroup following an error, but that latter skill will come with time and experience. After United struggled to replace Peter Schmeichel, a similar quest could be on the horizon once van der Sar calls it a day, but Foster has time on his side and his time will come.

An outsider for the squad a few months ago – a string of fine performances have brought Joe Hart’s name squarely into the reckoning. Hart’s run of impressive displays began a few weeks before England’s last friendly, and the on-loan Manchester City goalkeeper has been a key component of a Birmingham City side that has surged up the table since October. The Blues’ autumn and winter form may have been built on the backs of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann but like every good centre-back pairing, they were given confidence by the man behind them. Birmingham’s record-breaking run may have been halted last week by Chelsea, but McLeish’s men produced a battling display on Saturday to draw with Tottenham Hotspur and Hart again had to be at his best to keep Spurs down to just one goal. Hart remains an outsider for the squad but with three goalkeeper slots available to Capello, he may well be taken along for the experience. The youngest of the group at 22, Hart has a good 15 years of football ahead of him and still lots to learn, but the ex-Shrewsbury Town star could be at the start of a lengthy international career.

There is an old saying: “possession is nine tenths of the law,” and rarely has it been more accurate than in football. Green, Robinson, Foster and Hart are all tremendous goalkeepers, each with plusses and minuses, but David James has been Capello’s chosen one since the beginning of the Italian’s reign and with just one friendly remaining before the World Cup, the pretenders to his throne are running out of time to make their case. Only three of them will go to South Africa and only one can start, but whoever gets the nod, England can be assured that area of the team is safe. Now, who will partner Wayne Rooney?

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