English Goalkeepers – Is The English School of Goalkeeping Still Producing Talent?

The English national team has recently been able to reach new heights that previous generations couldn’t even sniff. Even though the former generation of English footballers that included David Beckham, Michael Owen, and Steven Gerrard just to name a few, arguably produced higher expectations. The current generation led by Harry Kane, and company has proven they are able to produce much better overall results than their predecessors. In spite of this the current list of English goalkeepers that play in top flight leagues, primarily in the Premier League, doesn’t stack up all that well with what countries like Germany, Italy, or even Spain have to offer. Do they not stack up well just in terms of fan fare and marketing? Can we really say that Jordan Pickford is at the same level as Ter Stegen, Donaruma, or Unai Simon? 

On top of exploring the current landscape of English goalkeeping, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the past. What English goalkeepers have really made a mark in the global game? Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton? How did we go from that to David Seaman, Joe Hart, and Jordan Pickford? The English Premier League since its inception has been one of the top leagues in world football. There’s not a ton of things that can be said to debunk that statement. The way though, that English keepers are potentially being trained or picked out may very well be the reason why we haven’t seen any of them topping the best goalkeepers in the world list for generations. 

English Goalkeepers – Gordon Banks Style of Play

Gordon Banks is arguably the first widely popular goalkeeper in English football history. The tradition of keeping one goalkeeper for a long time on the national team potentially started with. Ironically as the potential godfather of English goalkeepers his style of play didn’t necessarily translate to the current style of play that modern British goalkeepers in general exhibit. Banks was a little on the shorter side, standing around 6ft 1 inches tall. Arguably short for today’s standards, but not during his playing days. In any case, his skill set included quick reflexes and better than average athleticism. Both of those skills were on display in that famous save that he made to a Pele header in the Mexico World Cup of 1970.     

On top of the athleticism that again wasn’t necessarily a sign of the times, Banks was one of the first goalkeepers to start using gloves. Who could blame him? The balls that they played with back in those days were known for getting really heavy. Particularly, when they got wet. Having faced some of the best players of his era who were able to put a ton of power behind their shots it’s no wonder that Banks had to look for a way to protect himself. As I mentioned before though his skill set didn’t necessarily translate much to the next generation of English goalkeepers.   

Was Peter Shilton’s Longevity A Positive?

Peter Shilton was the next goalkeeper who grabbed the baton from Banks. At least when it comes to notoriety. One of the things that he shares with Banks, and actually many of the other goalkeepers in this article is that he didn’t play for what we consider top flight English clubs in his career. Granted, during his time on the pitch his Nottingham Forest squad won the Champions League in back to back years. Again he’s a goalkeeper that for today’s standards may be a little bit on the shorter side at 6ft tall. However, during his playing days he was known as a goalkeeper with great length and physical stature.   

It’s hard to look at the past and judge it objectively. Particularly when you’re trying to compare it to today’s game. From the footage that I’ve seen of Shilton he was rather sluggish. Granted, the footage that most people of younger generations have seen of him date back to 1986. Those were not his primer years. Yet, he was able to stay on as England’s number 1 all the way to the 1990 World Cup. His longevity may have been a sign that English goalkeepers weren’t growing on trees in that generation. He looked “old” in 86, and still made it to 1990. I know that could offend some people, but I’m just calling them like I see them. I have no bias in this topic at all.  

David Seaman Flamboyant Yes, Talented … 

David Seaman embodies what we know today as the traditional Premier League goalkeeper. There’s an argument to be made that an entire generation of English goalkeepers was subsequently modeled after him. That’s not necessarily a great thing though. For David Seaman I think the modern day comparison would be David De Gea. In the sense that they are tall goalkeepers with a staggering physical presence, and usually very reliable at the local level. The thing is, they tend to choke on the biggest stages. In the interest of full disclosure I have to say that Seaman is the first goalkeeper on the list that I actively saw play. What do I remember about David Seaman? That Ronaldinho goal of course!  

He was a tall empeowring presence, but at least from my recollections not terrible athletic. He liked to play off the line. That wasn’t necesairly a great idea, because that Ronaldinho goal wasn’t the only time that he got caught out of position, and made to look foolish. It seemed like he didn’t have a ton of awareness to be able to angle his body currently and take steps back towards goal in those types of plays. Overall, a bit of a stiff! Which, if you’re counting was also my biggest knock on Shilton. In fact, in other articles I’ve written about English goalkeepers the main criticism is always the same. Their awareness of where they are in the box, and their overall footwork is subpar. It seems though that, if you’re appointed England goalkeeper you have to be there for a long time.   

David James, Joe Hart, & The Premier League Prototype 

The next generation of English goalkeepers arguably cemented what a lot of people call the Premier League prototype goalkeeper. Keepers like David James, and Joe Hart seemed to be cut from a similar cloth. I bring up these two, because they happen to be the most capped keepers during their respective moments at of the top of the English game. Both are tall imposing goalkeepers. That being said, the main knock on them is that they were rather stiff. Not overly athletic, relying way too much on their size to be able to make saves. I didn’t necessarily think that David James had bad hands. Like most goalkeepers of his era, the main knock may have been the fact that he was just not on par with the rest of the team. Meaning he was a below average player for a team that featured Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, and company.   

Some of the criticism may be fair to a certain extent. Other than the Joe Green error in the World Cup, it wasn’t like poor goalkeeper play necessarily kept England from reaching the big games. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the entire generation of players was just a bit over rated. Either that, or they flammed out pretty quickly. Right, Michael Owen? With Hart came a new generation of players. He was, ok on the world stage. Then Guardiola came to Manchester City, and decided that he was too stif and bad with his feet. From there, Joe’s career has literally gone down hill. There seems to be very few people at Etihad stadium these days that second guess Guardiola’s decision to move on from Hart.  

Jordan Pickford & Current English Goalkeepers

Jordan Pickford currently stands as England’s number one option in goal. His tenure has included reaching a World Cup semifinal, and a European Championship final. Although, a lot of people don’t love him as a goalkeeper. Particularly, pointing out plenty of his errors while playing for Everton, with the three lions he’s proven to be a very reliable option. In fact, he’s been able to shake off some of the common errors that his procedosesors were prone to committing in big moments. That, in large part, has allowed England to reach new heights in international competitions. Let’s just be honest here, England has never really been known as a squad that consistently reaches the final stages in international tournaments. This generation seems keen to change that. Even though the team may not be as well rounded as what we saw from previous generations.  

When it comes to Pickford in specific I’ve mentioned that he’s proven to be a new breed of English goalkeeper. Although, most of the keepers that he’s shared a dressing room with on the three lions squad are more the traditional English goalkeeper. He has shown that he’s much lighter on his feet than his prodocersors. Just not as stiff as most of the previous generation’s goalkeepers. This has allowed him to make unique saves that we haven’t seen for a while with the national team. Again, some people like to point to the fact that his play at Everton is traditionally shaky. Even if that’s the case those insecurities don’t seem to follow him to the national team. It’s looking like he’s going to continue starting for the 3 lions for years to come.      

Where Do We Go From Here         

Realistically where is the English school of goalkeeping going? I’ve actually made the argument in other articles that Jordan Pickford remains in goal with the English national team because he’s one of the only goalkeepers who offers something different. Compared to what we see from the prototypical English goalkeeper. He’s tall enough to be able to play well in crosses and corners kicks. Yet, he’s a little more agile than what we’ve traditional seen in goalkeepers from this country. As I mentioned before though, a lot of the goalkeepers that he’s called up to the national team with are more traditional English goalkeepers. In that, they are taller, stiffer, keepers. With that in mind, it can be said that the prototype hasn’t changed a whole lot. 

There’s another very important issue that British keepers have had to face for generations, and that doesn’t seem ready to chage at all. That is the fact, that most of the top tier English clubs don’t actually feature an English keeper as their starter. Aaron Ramsdale seems keen to be the one to change that. As was the case in the times of David Seaman it’s looking like Arsenal is once again the club that wants to take a chance on an English goalkeeper. Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta has chosen the young Ramsdale even over German Bernd Leno. Who set the club back a pretty penny when he first moved to London from Bayern Leverkusen.

Does Aaron Ramsdale Represent The Future of English Goalkeepers? 

Aaron Ramsdale of Sheffield Utd during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. 21 Sep 2020 Pictured: September 21, 2020, [Photo via Mega Agency]

Saying that Aaron Ramsdale is more athletic than the average English goalkeeper over the years doesn’t seem to be an understatement. One of the things that has impressed me about him is his aerial body control. He is one of those goalkeepers that is able to adjust his body in flight to be able to make saves to shots that may have been deflected. That’s not a common skill that you’re going to be able to find anywhere. In fact, we’ve literally explored generations of goalkeepers in England. None of them were necessarily known for being overly athletic. Even those that were better athletes, were better athletes for their respective eras. When athleticism wasn’t at the levels that we see today.  

There’s an argument to be made that English football needs more Aaron Ramsdale’s. It’s hard to see a near future where he doesn’t end up as the number one for England. There may be some Dean Henderson people out there. The fact is, he still has to beat out De Gea. Plus, he’s more of a traditional English keeper. As we stand right now, Pickford won the job just because he has a little better mobility than some of the other options. It doesn’t seem like going back to the traditional keepers is a good idea!