Euro 2012 – A look at the England, Rep. Ireland, N. Ireland, Scotland and Wales GKs

Shay Given

The Euro 2012 qualifying campaign is nearing a conclusion. For the majority it will end abruptly, for a few it will give them something to do next summer and others have a few weeks of fingernail biting to go yet. It’s a good time to look at the goalkeepers of Ireland and Britain.

I wish I could come up with a catchier title, but essentially what I’m asking you to do is rank the goalkeepers of England, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. There may be disagreement about who should and shouldn’t be in the squad, but for the purposes of this debate we’re going with the goalkeepers widely regarded as first choice for their countries.

I’ve spoken countless times in the past about how I think concentration is the difference between a good goalkeeper and a great goalkeeper. There’s often little to choose between top keepers in terms of agility and athleticism so – in my opinion – the ability to stay focussed for long periods and use your ability with minimum drama when called upon is a seriously under-rated quality amongst sections of the football community. With that in mind, I would rate Shay Given as the pick of the keepers playing for the British and Irish nations. I make no secret of my Irishness, but i would like to think this is not a decision based on patriotic bias.

Given has been immense for Ireland down through the years and his recent performance in Moscow against Russia was typical of the type of gritty backs to the wall display he has assisted in for the national team. His concentration is superb and the paltry number of memorable errors he has to his name reflect this consistency. His agility and reactions are top class and although many people cite his lack of command of aerial situations – and that’s a fair point – once his defenders know the story – as Ireland’s do – it shouldn’t and hasn’t proved costly.

Joe Hart is more agile and commanding than Given, but his concentration needs to improve. There have been times when his wandering mind has cost goals and other occasions when he got away with it. Eventually I believe he’ll be acknowledged as the best keeper of the 5 nations, but this Achilles heel is the one chink in the armour for the moment. It will improve and finally England may have found their long term number 1.

Third and fourth on my list are Wayne Hennessy and Allan McGregor respectively. Both are immensely talented goalkeepers, but the Wales number 1 gets the nod over Scotland’s first choice. The reason is down to mistakes. Hennessy used to make a lot of them, but has worked consistently hard to improve. He has won his place back at Wolves and although there will be further errors in the future, the frequency is becoming less and less and his natural ability will become the first thing associated with him. McGregor is more experienced and that makes his mistakes all the more disappointing. The Rangers keeper is a brilliant shot-stopper, good in one on one situations and reliable with his hands, but once in a while he has the potential to let his guard drop and succumb to a howler. I’ve argued that although every goalie is allowed to make mistakes, it happens to him too often for him to be considered amongst the world’s very best.

Alan Blayney brings up the rear, but it’s not intended as a sign of lack of admiration. I saw a good bit of him during the Carling Nations Cup and he thoroughly impressed me. His shot-stopping and reflexes were outstanding, but I feel that in general he’s a little sloppy. He struggled to make the grade in England earlier in his career, but ironically he’s probably operating at a higher level now that he’s settled at Linfield. It’s no shame to be listed behind some of the names on this list which speaks volumes for the quality of goalkeeper currently at the disposal of the nations.

Who do you think is the best goalkeeper of the British and Irish nations?

Five Goalkeeping Targets For Celtic

Lukasz Zaluska insists he’ll stay and earn the right to be Celtic’s number 1, but he was probably saying something similar 12 months ago and it didn’t work out exactly to plan. The evidence would suggest Celtic are on the lookout for a keeper and here’s a rundown of some of the options in the mix.

Fraser Forster
Fraser Forster (Newcastle)
The most obvious choice of them all, but also arguably the best option. Last season didn’t finish with the haul of silverware that Celtic would have ideally liked, but on a very individual basis, they could have been very pleased with how Forster performed for them. The season had started in something of disarray in the Celtic goalkeeping ranks with no established first choice, but it wasn’t long before the Englishman stepped forward and made the jersey his own. Immensely agile for his huge size and blessed with quick reflexes, Forster impressed almost to the point of ruling himself out of a return to the SPL.

Initially it looked like Newcastle had benefited most from the loan deal – their player was coming back better and with vastly more experience of what it’s like to keep in a pressure cooker environment. In theory, he was now ready to challenge for the starting place at St. James’ Park and a genuine rival to Krul and Harper. But since then, Alan Pardew and the club have made noises that suggest they’d be happy to let him go for the right price. Reports say an offer of £1.5 million was rejected, but equally it doesn’t sound like a whole lot more would be needed to prise him away.

Money is tight in the SPL, but if we’re only taking an improved bid of between £500k and £1m, Celtic need to find the cash from somewhere. He would be the ideal solution and not just because his birthday falls on St. Patrick’s Day. Potentially Forster could be their goalkeeper for the next decade or so and even if he isn’t, his youth means his resale value will remain strong for several seasons yet – particularly if he builds on the form of last season. He’s not without his flaws – his handling can be clumsy and he doesn’t yet command his area with the authority of a keeper who’s over 2 metres tall – but he is improving and the level of risk on Celtic’s side is minimal. They know he can perform in the SPL and he’ll be pretty cheap – what else do they need to know?

Shay Given
Shay Given (Man City)
The long association between Celtic and Ireland’s north-west would seem to add credence to the possibility of Given moving to Celtic Park, but in reality that’s little more than a romantic afterthought. The modern footballer is generally more concerned with paydays rather than patriotism and Given is no different. That’s not to accuse of him being a money-grabber, he’s merely doing what any rational person would be in the best interests of their career. He has become accustomed to earning in excess of £80,000 a week; we know Celtic – at most – can afford to pay about half of that and those raw numbers make a move unlikely.

People have put forward the ‘surely he must have enough money at this stage’ argument to me on a number of occasions and whilst I understand where it comes from, no-one but Given, his accountant and quite possibly his wife know what the state of the finances are. With very few exceptions, footballers is one of the few careers in which your income decreases so spectacularly. Once your playing days are behind you, your chances of earning the wages you once commanded are slim and depending on the amount of education that had to be sacrificed in order to make it as a professional

The carrot of guaranteed Champions League football every season is now gone courtesy of the SPL’s slide down UEFA’s rankings and with it the Bhoys have lost a significant bargaining chip when it comes to bringing big names to the club. Maybe if Celtic can tug on the heart-strings, they could convince him to take a pay-cut and finish out his senior career where it (almost) started, but I suspect it won’t work. At best, they may be able to work out a Robbie Keane style season long loan in which the wages which are beyond the Celtic wage structure could be subsidised by a wealthy benefactor, but my gut feeling is this is unlikely as a goalkeeper is never likely to draw in the crowds in the same way as an entertaining goal-scorer. Simple economics may rule Given out of a move to Glasgow.

Craig Gordon
Craig Gordon (Sunderland)
For a long time, Kieren Westwood was linked with a move to Celtic so it’s somewhat ironic that it’s his move to Sunderland that has opened up the possibility of going for the Black Cats’ keeper. It’s somewhat speculative, but based on team selection and the arrival of Westwood, it would look like Gordon is now 3rd choice for Sunderland and that’s not a position a keeper entering what are theoretically the peak of his career wants to be in. If they’re interested, the time is right for Celtic to swoop. He should be looking for a move from the Stadium of Light and a move to Celtic Park would suit. With one year remaining on his contract, Sunderland will want to cash in and recoup some of the substantial £10 million fee they paid in 2007 rather than watch him wind down his contract on the bench before leaving on a free. With that fresh in their minds, Celtic could get away with of bid of maybe £3 – £5 million and in return they would be getting a very talented goalkeeper.

As ever, it’s not a deal entirely free from strings and caveats. Gordon has repeatedly shown his talent over the years, but his record of injuries is bad enough to put off vast swathes of potential suitors. On the plus side, the form of Mignolet has given him plenty of time to recover from his injuries and there is a case to be made that when he does finally return from injury, he should be rested and recuperated enough to enjoy a long injury-free spell. However, in reality it rarely works out that way and lingering niggles are notoriously difficult to shake off. Going for Gordon wouldn’t be a bad idea for Celtic – especially on what should be favourable terms – but just make sure you have a back-up who’s ready for first team action.

Artur Boruc
Artur Boruc (Fiorentina)
It was only a year ago that the Holy Goalie said goodbye to Celtic, but it was presented as an amicable split to suit the various interests of the parties involved rather than an ugly break-up and there’s not much evidence to suggest otherwise. Boruc seemed genuine about wanting a new challenge and Celtic wanted to make some money from his sale rather than letting him go a season later on a Bosman. Sure Boruc was capable of some awful clangers, but he was also capable of making far more outstanding saves than costly errors. I’d imagine in the absence of other alternatives, Celtic fans might welcome him back. Rangers fans and members of the Strathclyde police working on Old Firm match-days might think differently. He was a controversial figure who did little to reconcile the sectarianism that has dogged football in the city with actions and gestures that were at best, ill-advised and at worst, unnecessarily provocative.
Whilst initially he went to Fiorentina to compete with for Sebastien Frey for the starting berth, at the back of his mind – and the minds of people at the club – may have been the prospect of replacing Frey long-term. The Frenchman is perennially linked with transfers away and the chances are that before too long, one of them might prove to be on the money. Boruc was an insurance policy and not long into the new season they had to make a claim, albeit one that had arisen for entirely different reasons. In November, Frey suffered a cruciate ligament injury that ruled him out for the season. Whilst there was the short-term benefit for the Pole of taking the starting role for the remainder of the season, in the longer term the injury may actually have hurt his chances of becoming the Viola’s first choice. After suffering such a major injury, big clubs are unlikely to want to risk buying a player only making his way back to full fitness. It’s difficult to recreate the stresses and strains on a goalkeeper’s joints outside of an intense training or match environment and clubs following his progress will probably want to see a full season of action before deciding to part with the cash. If Boruc goes toe to toe with a fully fit Frey for the starting position, it’s the Frenchman who’s likely to prevail. It is merely coincidence that as Frey nears the end of his rehabilitation, rumours about Boruc going to the Premier League suddenly emerged? Given the tabloid press and their penchant for making things up, quite possibly yes, but it also coincides with a time when Boruc may have realised the battle he has on his hands to keep the jersey.

So far his time at Fiorentina has demonstrated two things. Firstly, he’s still a very good goalkeeper and secondly, he’s still not eradicated the infrequent clangers from his game. It may not be to every Celtic fan’s taste, but in this case the devil you know may be better than the devil you don’t.

Cammy Bell (Kilmarnock)
Although he’s the closest to home, for a couple of reasons Bell is the arguably the least likely target on this list. The hottest goalkeeping property in Scottish football has been frequently linked with moves away from Rugby Park in the past, especially as his contract with Kilmarnock was allowed to run down, but his recent penning of a new deal as made a move less of a cheap option. We know from modern football that the signing of a new contract often has little to do with an expression of long-term loyalty from either player or club and very often is just a matter of both sides making sure they get what they can out of each other financially. With that in mind, if Celtic want him now, it is going to cost them significantly more than if they had made a move a year ago or in the January transfer window. Bell enjoyed a good season with Kilmarnock until a disappointing run of results in the Championship section of the SPL season and on a personal level was rewarded with his first cap in the early months of the season.

Having seen him thwart Celtic on several occasions, Neil Lennon will know what he’ll get from Bell. He’ll get a superbly agile and technically correct goalkeeper with excellent reactions. What he doesn’t know however is how the youngster will cope with the move from the backburner or Kilmarnock to the frying pan of an Old Firm club. Plenty of goalkeepers – both talented novices and vastly experienced old hands has struggled to deal with the intense scrutiny. The pressure he’d face as Celtic goalkeeper would be unlike anything he’s experienced in his career to date and the prospect of risking a sizeable chunk of cash on Bell may not be a risk Lennon is willing to take. In future, he may think otherwise and there’s still plenty of time for a move to Celtic Park to come to pass, but for the moment, a move looks highly unlikely.