31 July ~ Sunderland have made a habit of collecting international goalkeepers in recent years. We've now got Scotland's Craig Gordon and comedian Frank Carson's nephew, Northern Ireland Under-21 international, Trevor. In the past there's been Thomas Sorensen, Mart Poom, Marton Fulop and Thomas Myhre. But you have to go as far back as Jimmy Montgomery being overlooked, unfairly according to many, in the 1970s (he got as far as the preliminary 40 for the Mexico World Cup) to find a Wearside goalkeeper anywhere near the England squad. With this in mind I was a little disappointed when Bristol City, rather than Sunderland, signed David James on Friday.
While many footballers are difficult to warm to David James was rare example of a player who most fans claimed to "not mind". Shortly after signing for Liverpool in 1992, he attended a school sports event in the north-east. Despite being the latest great hope of English goalkeeping he appeared a down to earth character, inviting several schoolchildren, myself included, to "test him" with a penalty each. Not being a natural in a dead ball situation, I was surprised to see the ball go one way and Liverpool's new goalkeeper the other. Unfortunately, it then hit the base of the extremely square five-a-side goalpost and returned towards me quicker than I'd originally kicked it. When I reacted with words many would find not entirely appropriate for a ten-year-old boy, James jumped up, grinned, and wiped his forehead with an exaggerated gesture.
Over 18 years later and, for the time being, England's goalkeeping hopes still rest with David James. But his move to Bristol makes sense for both club and player. He gets guaranteed first team football, on a longer term contract than others were reportedly offering and without moving from his home in the south-west. According to him: "I've had offers to stay in the Premier League but it is more important that I play football – which I love – for the right club and be a family man." Bristol City get a goalkeeper who is still regarded as the best in England. But having a first-choice English international playing in the Championship raises some interesting questions.
Recent England managers have been reticent to pick players outside the top division, but it used to be a common occurrence. Winger Terry Paine, who got the last of his 19 caps for England in the 1966 World Cup finals hadn't played in the First Division at that point. (Southampton had been promoted at the end of 1965-66). A decade later another Saints forward, Mick Channon, also got the majority of his 46 England caps when the club were in the Second Division. In more recent times, Steve Bull got 13 England caps in 1989-90 as a Division Two player with Wolves. Indeed, the first of these was at the end of the season when Wolves had been promoted from the third. Since then, however, England's players have been drawn almost exclusively from Premier League teams, even the mediocre ones.
The pressures of top-division football have now changed. The financial dominance of the Premier League means the bigger clubs now just hoover up more technically adept foreign players, meaning that the top young English players are sent out on loan – often to the Championship. We can't be far away from a time when England managers will have to consider candidates for their squad from below the top level. I assume that David James will still feature for England next season, and he may bump into Fabio Capello in hospitality areas next season more often than he might have been expecting. Philip Godwin