BY KEVIN O’NEILL
In 1992 world football’s governing body, FIFA, introduced a new rule – the back pass rule – that would, in time, influence greatly the overall role of goalkeepers.
The rule was brought into play in the wake of one of the most defensively-minded, turgid World Cups in history – the 1990 edition in Italy – and prohibited goalkeepers from handling the ball when passed their way by a team-mate. It also barred them from using their hands should a colleague feed the ball their direction from a throw-in.
The intention was clear and simple; to cut out negative, overly-defensive play and time-wasting.
And, as it turned out, the rule would prove one of FIFA’s better ideas. It worked, and as a result, goalkeepers needed to become far more adept at using their feet.
To this day, the rule has contributed to a change in the way that ‘keepers are analysed and judged, particularly by some high-profile coaches like Josep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, who are two strong advocates for playing out from the back from the goalkeeper.
And in some ways, the desire to see goalkeepers capable of passing the ball has even overtaken the core principle on which netminders were traditionally judged; to simply keep the ball out of the net by whatever means possible.
Indeed, this seemingly ever-growing want for confident, ball-playing goalkeepers was perhaps best evidenced when Guardiola recently made a quick dismissal of Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart’s ability with the ball at his feet.
Almost instantly, it became clear that Hart had no future under Guardiola, a fact rammed home when the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager signed the Chile international Claudio Bravo, largely for his supposed calm on the ball.
In the analysis of the decision, which led to a loan move from the Etihad for Hart, the evidence of Hart actually being superior to Bravo when it comes to actually making saves, seemed to get somewhat overlooked.
That, it appears, is the way that the once fine art of goalkeeping is going, whether you like it or not.
Personally, you could give me a ‘keeper that makes crucial saves and catches crosses all day long over one who hesitates under high balls and rarely produces unexpected saves, and sometimes even struggles to achieve the more basic stops but is, all the while, skilful in possession.
Such attributes, you see, and a ‘keeper’s in-match decision-making, were always at the core of how I, like millions of others, made our mind up on whether we fancied a certain ‘keeper or not.
It was not a very complex thing; they could either save a team’s skin at opportune times or not.
Now though, the analysis of what ‘keepers bring to the table seems to go above and beyond what it once was.
And inadvertently, Guardiola’s decision to dispense with Hart also shone the spotlight on whether English goalkeepers do, in fact, lack technical prowess on the ball.
For if the England number-one (Hart) cannot distribute with accuracy and control – an assumption that spread rapidly once the all-knowing (in some people’s eyes) Guardiola placed the thought in the public consciousness – then surely the rest of English stoppers cannot not be much use (at passing the ball) either.
Such sweeping assumptions could be construed as harsh on English goalkeepers.
But, nonetheless, that sort of mindset has caught hold of certain observers, as a degree of over-intellectualism and snobbery slowly creeps into the way some pundits and supporters analyse the game and the role of goalkeepers.
Which brings me back to the days when the appreciation of goalkeepers was based on entirely different principles. Back to a time before the beginning of the Premier League (1992) when England was categorically spoiled for choice in terms of top-notch and completely reliable goalkeepers.
For well before the back pass rule and so-called ‘sweeper-keepers’ like Germany’s Manuel Neuer, English football’s ability to churn-out truly outstanding goalkeepers made it the envy of the world.
But how best can we emphasise this?
Well, possibly by considering the utter wealth of goalkeeping talent available to various English national team managers in the eighties and early nineties – long before the majority of leading English clubs started to fill the goalkeeper position with foreign custodians.
For example, England boss Bobby Robson took four goalkeepers to the 1990 World Cup; Peter Shilton, Chris Woods, David Seaman and Dave Beasant.
While the latter pair had only four caps between them at that point, veteran Shilton had played over 100 times and Woods, his undoubted understudy, was approaching the 20-cap mark.
But let’s also consider the ‘keepers deemed not good enough for the squad – and you soon realise the magnificent depth of goalkeeping quality in the country at that time.
The young Tim Flowers and Nigel Martyn, who later won just over 30 caps between them, were two wonderful ‘keepers on the rise with Southampton and Crystal Palace respectively, while they were emerging in an English First Division boasting many more able netminders, such as Arsenal’s John Lukic (uncapped), Coventry’s Steve Ogrizovic (uncapped), the late Les Sealey (Manchester United, uncapped), and Aston Villa’s Nigel Spink (capped once).
The fact that many of these thoroughly excellent club goalkeepers never got a chance to pull on the England jersey signals the level of competition that existed among English ‘keepers back then.
And as we went into the nineties, there were many other solid English ‘keepers to suffer similarly, including the one who, in my opinion, was probably the greatest of all the uncapped English ‘keepers – the former Watford and Manchester City stalwart Tony Coton.
Born in the market town of Tamworth, just to the northeast of Birmingham, Coton joined Birmingham City in 1977 and made a stunning debut a year later as a 19-year-old when saving a penalty against Sunderland after just 54 seconds.
He played close to 100 games for the Blues before transferring to Watford in 1984, where he soon replaced the long-serving Steve Sherwood and won the hearts of the Vicarage Road faithful, winning the club Player of the Season three times in four seasons.
Indeed, his heroics for the Hornets were so frequent – and that good – that, later, Coton became only the second ever player to be inducted to Watford’s Hall of Fame (the previous inductee being Luther Blissett).
A few years back, Watford fan Dave Messenger (writing for a Watford supporter’s website) said that Coton, despite some off-field mischief in his early Watford days, managed to build ‘a magical rapport’ with the club’s fans by producing one outstanding display after the other.
He also noted that Coton’s stock rose dramatically for staying with Watford when the club were relegated from the top-flight, despite having many suitors, including Tottenham Hotspur, keen to steal him away from the Vic’.
“Tony Coton became one of the best ‘keepers in the game (with Watford),” Messenger wrote in a glowing tribute to Watford’s former ‘keeper.
“Coton was one of those immense goalkeepers who simply commanded his penalty area and guarded his goal with his life. He was also extremely agile for a big man (Coton was 6ft 3in) and able to make the hardest stops look like a training exercise. How he was overlooked by then England boss Bobby Robson was one of the biggest mysteries of the time,” he added.
Indeed it was, this writer feels.
Because for all Shilton’s majestic quality for most his career, the former league and two-time European Cup winner was definitely not the ‘keeper he once was by the end of the eighties, although he played quite well in the 1988/89 First Division season, as Derby County finished fifth. Indeed, it was a credit to Shilton’s professionalism and dedication to his craft that he managed to maintain his career with Derby until 1992 (aged 42) before moving to Plymouth Argyle as player-manager.
But without taking anything away from Shilton’s decorated career – and the fact he remains England’s record appearance holder (no mean feat considering Shilton and Ray Clemence were often rotated from game-to-game) – one does wonder whether someone like Coton, a younger, more agile and hungry ‘keeper (or even Woods or Seaman) could have helped England more at Italia ’90.
But according to Messenger’s piece, it was Coton’s loyalty to Watford – choosing to stay after they dropped out of the First Division – that probably cost him a place in the World Cup squad.
“No doubt about it,” he said, “if Coton hadn’t been in the Second Division he would have made the England squad. Damn it, he should have been there anyway! Once there, I am convinced he would have replaced Shilton after Italia ’90 instead of Chris Woods.”
But replace Shilton he never did, despite a £1million transfer to First Division Manchester City in 1990, where his initiation in to the side was met with some scepticism by City fans fond of the outgoing Andy Dibble.
Yet, if City manager Howard Kendall felt it appropriate to dish-out £1million on Coton – having known a thing or two about ‘keepers after bringing the outstanding Neville Southall into the Everton fold in the early eighties – then he must have had something special to offer.
And in super-quick time, the Maine Road faithful could see what Kendall did; a confident, dominant ‘keeper capable of making saves that were above the norm.
And even though Kendall was soon back at Everton, City achieved two fifth-place finishes in Coton’s first couple of seasons, and all the while he enhanced his reputation as one of the best ‘keepers in the country in one-on-one situations.
As things were going so well for Coton with City, it was assumed that the then 30-year-old was finally on the verge of breaking into the England set-up when awarded an England ‘B’ appearance against France in early 1992.
But even keeping clean sheets in 25 per cent of his appearances for City in the 1992/93 season, as they finished ninth, wasn’t enough to force his way in.
What was particularly galling about his continued exclusion at that time was that the England boss from 1990 to 1993 was Graham Taylor, who had given Coton his breakthrough at Watford.
But regardless of who managed England at any particular point in Coton’s career – be it Taylor or otherwise – that this man was never deemed good enough to win even a single senior cap is preposterous, in my view.
Okay, the level of competition for the number-one jersey was immense, particularly in the eighties, but surely he deserved some form of international recognition.
And when you look at some of the ‘keepers to play for England in more recent years, as the prominence of English goalies in the top-flight continues to diminish (the likes of Scott Carson, Ben Foster, Rob Green, Chris Kirkland and John Ruddy spring to mind), it leaves you almost aghast to think that their limited abilities – compared to someone like Coton – could be rewarded when the injustice of Coton never donning a shirt with the Three Lions will remain forever more.
Sadly though, that is very much a cold, hard fact.
And another cold, hard fact is that somewhere along the way since the inception of the big-money Premier League, the relevance of classy English ‘keepers, like Tony Coton, to the country’s major clubs has dwindled dramatically.
For in the high-profile inaugural Premier League season (1992/93) 15 of the team’s first-choice ‘keepers were eligible for England selection.
Now, in 2016, that figure has reduced to less than a handful.
And while the emergence of Sunderland’s highly talented, homegrown Jordan Pickford has come as a plus – to go along with the progress of Stoke’s Jack Butland until his shocking injury last March, which still has him sidelined – the future for young English ‘keepers seems nowhere near as bright or laden with the kind of first-team opportunities offered to those from decades gone by.
As Coton himself noted in a 2015 interview for The Tamworth Herald: “In terms of English goalkeepers Joe Hart’s place is pretty much cemented for the next few years,” he said.
“There’s Butland at Stoke but the days are long gone when you had the likes of Shilton and Clemence battling it out and Woods and Seaman. In all honesty, it’s Joe Hart’s place to lose,” he added.
Not that Coton would want to trade places with any modern-day ‘keeper, but sometimes you can’t help but wonder how decorated, internationally, a fabulous ‘keeper like Tony Coton could have been in this day and age.
Of course, we will never know. But what is wildly obvious to anyone fortunate enough to have seen Coton in his pomp, is that he was a master of the art of goalkeeping, who probably deserved a hell of a lot more than he got before injury finished his top-level career in 1997.