Glenn Moore: Safe in his hands? England risk all by keeping faith in Robinson
Brian Clough, who got most things right when it came to football management, was one of the first to realise the worth of a goalkeeper. He even put a value on it. "A good goalkeeper can save you 18 points a season," he wrote. "It can mean the difference between winning a title or missing out, between being relegated or surviving."
Clough was referring to his decision, at Nottingham Forest, to sign Peter Shilton, paying top dollar for his fee and his wages. "He'll put you in the workhouse," warned the chairman of Stoke City as he banked the cheque. Instead Shilton cemented Clough's place in history, rewarding him with a league title and two European Cups.
Steve McClaren cannot just go out and sign the best, as Clough could in 1977. The best goalkeeper in England is a Czech, Peter Cech, and his main rivals are Dutch, Spanish, German, even, astonishingly given the depth of the goalkeeping talent pool England once possessed, American, Finnish and Scottish.
McClaren has to make do with what is available, which is why he has stuck with Paul Robinson so long. Robinson is not as naturally gifted as David James or Ben Foster, nor as in-form as Rob Green or Scott Carson. However, James has been tried and found wanting in the past, and at 37 belongs to the past, while the other three have two caps between them.
Whoever McClaren chose for Saturday's match against Estonia represented a gamble. Estonia will not trouble Robinson; Gordon Banks, at 69 with one eye, could probably play without alarm. But having played at Wembley, Robinson will also have to face Russia on artificial turf in Moscow on Wednesday.
Robinson's confidence is as shot as a golfer with the yips but he has conceded fewer goals per match than any England 'keeper. The decision is critical. A safe goalkeeper does not just make saves, he helps create an environment in which he is not forced to make as many saves. If the back four believe in their goalkeeper they will defend better, if they are unsure about him their defending will be riddled with uncertainty. This is apparent at Tottenham at the moment, as it was at Manchester United when Fabien Barthez was in goal.
Robinson's main weaknesses appear to be a vulnerability to long shots and a flaw in judging and taking crosses. He is regularly beaten from range and one former international manager believes he leads with the wrong arm when attempting to save a shot to his left, always stretching with his stronger right arm. A goalkeeper under pressure will try to make a statement, so he will come for a cross he has little chance of reaching.
Scotland's Craig Gordon, at £9m the most expensive keeper in Britain, said it is not simply about trying harder. "An outfield player can go out and think, 'Right, I'm going to give it 100 per cent and run after every ball'. But when you stand in the goals, you have to react to what comes about. You can't go chasing the game to try to get involved. You could end up chasing out of your box or going for a cross you shouldn't have. You have to rein yourself in, be disciplined."
Robinson will need to have his mind right. Goalkeepers, more than any other player, have to be mentally resilient. Green, writing in The Independent last month, said: "I am not sure there is a lonelier place on the planet after a goalkeeper makes a mistake. There may be 10 team-mates on the pitch and thousands of supporters in the ground, but I can assure you that for a few seconds you wish that you could disappear."
Green, who despite being the in-form keeper is perplexingly not in the squad, added: "By nature it is very easy as a goalkeeper to become obsessed with things such as your technique, facts, stats, and the opposition. There is much more thinking involved compared to the instinctive role of an outfield player."
James has admitted he became so obsessed he not only analysed his statistics remorselessly, but tortured himself about any perceived technical failing. " It didn't matter if I saved a shot," he said, "if I didn't catch the ball then I'd got it wrong. I became so preoccupied with catching the ball that clean sheets became irrelevant; what mattered more was how I kept them. If I hadn't had to make a save, or if I parried a shot, I didn't want it to count as a clean sheet. It felt like cheating."
James said this desire to catch everything led to him conceding goals. Shilton, many years after the event, admitted a similar obsession resulted in the infamous goal by Jan Domarski which put England out of the 1974 World Cup. He was, he said, "trying to make the perfect save" and lost focus of the fact his first priority was to stop the ball, whether he caught it or not.
James has long used a psychologist, privately, outside the club environment. So has Dean Kiely, now at West Bromwich Albion. Mark Schwarzer, the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, has studied the autobiographies of tennis players such as John McEnroe and Boris Becker for insights. "Tennis is mainly an individual sport but being a goalkeeper is similar," he said.
Robinson will be working with Bill Beswick, McClaren's sports psychologist, this week. Beswick will have the tricky task of asking Robinson to face up to the fact he is making errors, and not blaming outside factors such as the chaos at Tottenham, while trying to persuade him he remains a talented 'keeper.
At some clubs the manager is the psychologist. Manuel Almunia is now keeping goal for Arsenal well enough for Arsène Wenger not to rush Jens Lehmann back but at one stage he was struggling for confidence. Then Wenger made him captain for a Carling Cup tie. "The armband made me stronger and I played really well," said Almunia. "I think the manager knew being captain would send my confidence up."
That sounds silly, but we are talking of the most eccentric branch of a sport suffused with superstition, the least forgiving position, and the most misunderstood. Goalkeepers, wrote James recently, "are like the trainspotter at the end of the platform: there are other people around you, but you're in your own world, concerned only with your own activity."
James argues that goalkeeping is unfashionable among kids, primarily because its exponents are so heavily criticized. If true this, along with the lack of specialist coaches, must be a factor in the shortage of English 'keepers. Solving that is a long-term problem, McClaren's worries are very short-term.
As Clough alluded to, a good goalkeeper can make the difference between qualifying and not qualifying. In 1973 Shilton's error cost England. Sixteen years later he denied the same opposition in Katowice to secure England a place at the 1990 World Cup. The great goalkeepers learn from their mistakes. A cynic might suggest Robinson thus has plenty on his curriculum, McClaren evidently hopes he draws strength from it.
Fault lines: Robinson's gaffes (for club and country) so far this season
11 Aug Sunderland 1 Spurs 0
Rooted to spot as Chopra slotted home a late winner.
14 Aug Spurs 1 Everton 3
Little movement as Lescott powered in header. Osman fired in second after Robinson collided with Ricardo Rocha.
22 Aug England 1 Germany 2
Palmed a Schneider cross out from under crossbar to feet of Kuranyi, who slotted home equaliser. Pander's 25-yard shot flew in for winner.
26 Aug Man Utd 1 Spurs 0
Nani's long-range shot sailed past the Spurs stopper, taking a slight deflection off Tevez.
1 Sep Fulham 3 Spurs 3
Smertin's long-range shot looped over him after clipping Rocha. Failed to reach Kamara's 18-yard overhead kick as Spurs surrender a 3-1 lead.
15 Sep Spurs 1 Arsenal 3
Easily beaten to a free-kick by Adebayor, who headed in equaliser. Allowed Fabregas' shot from distance to beat him before failing to get anywhere near Adebayor's late volley.
23 Sep Bolton 1 Spurs 1
Campo header loops across Robinson into far corner.
1 Oct Spurs 4 Aston Villa 4
Dropped corner to allow Laursen to open scoring, then let a shot from same player through legs for second. Too slow to get across for Gardner free-kick for visitors' fourth.
4 Oct Famagusta 1 Spurs 1
Fabinho's 20-yard shot deflected off Gardner, leaving Robinson with little chance.
7 Oct Liverpool 2 Spurs 2
Pushed Gerrard free-kick straight to Voronin for opener. Beaten by near-post Torres header for Reds' late equaliser.
Alternative employment: Four who could step into the breach
Scott Carson (Liverpool, on loan to Aston Villa; age 22, uncapped)
Rafael Benitez saw enough in Carson's Under-21 performances to sign him from Leeds for £750,000 in January 2005, but not yet enough to trust him in the first team. Has played nine times for Liverpool. Athletic and promising but only 66 professional games.
Robert Green (West Ham United, 27, one cap)
Very unlucky not to be in the squad given his fine form throughout 2007. As instrumental as Carlos Tevez in the Hammers' survival. Capped against Colombia in New Jersey in 2005 while at Norwich. "I can't praise him high enough," said his manager, Alan Curbishley, last week.
Ben Foster (Manchester United, 24, one cap)
Sir Alex Ferguson paid £1m for him in 2005 but he is yet to play for them. Spent two impressive seasons on loan at Watford and was expected to challenge Edwin van der Sar this season. Then suffered cruciate knee ligament damage. Former Café Rouge chef who began in non-League.
David James (Portsmouth, 37, 34 caps)
The most naturally talented and athletic English goalkeeper since the Peter Shilton-Ray Clemence era, but even at 37 he remains prone to gaffes. In part this is because his desire for perfection makes him a more dynamic keeper than most. Worked hard on concentration.
Declining asset? England's No 1s, from the great Gordon Banks to Paul Robinson
Gordon Banks (1963-72) Leicester City, Stoke City
(73 games, 57 goals conceded, 0.78 goals per game)
The maestro, a World Cup winner in '66 whose career was cut short by an eye injury sustained in a car crash. Played his last game in May '72.
Peter Shilton (1970-90)Leicester, Stoke, Nottm Forest, Southampton, Derby
(125, 80, 0.64) Dedicated to the point of obsession, he filled the goal. Fit enough and good enough to play a World Cup semi-final at 40.
Ray Clemence (1972-93) Liverpool, Tottenham
(61, 54, 0.89)
Won everything at club level but never played in a World Cup due to Shilton's marginal pre-eminence.
Chris Woods (1985-93) Norwich, Rangers, Sheff Wed
(43, 25, 0.58)
England's No 1 throughout Graham Taylor reign. One of the Anglos who joined Rangers.
David Seaman (1988-2002) QPR, Arsenal
(75, 44, 0.59)
Unfairly remembered for Ronaldinho and the ponytail, he was England's best 'keeper for a decade.
Tim Flowers (1993-98) Southampton, Blackburn
(11, 9, 0.82)
Reliable understudy to Seaman.
Nigel Martyn (1992-2002) Crystal Palace, Leeds
(23 ,18, 0.78)
Understudy whose form varied.
David James (1997-2007) Liverpool, Aston Villa, West Ham, Manchester City
(34, 31, 0.91)
All the gifts, and has improved with age, but still suffers infuriating lapses. Tough enough mentally and physically to come back at 37.
Paul Robinson (2003-07) Leeds, Tottenham
(39, 20, 0.51)
12 Feb 2003-date.
Only includes goalkeepers with 10 caps or more