INTERVIEW: Ex-Three Lions goalkeeper David James tells us all about what it’s like to keep goal for your country at a major tournament, and the healthy rivalries that exist in squads
“Standby, provisional, No.1, No.2, No.2 who became No.1.”
When it comes to keeping goal for England in a major tournament David James has seen it all, and few people know what it is like to have the nation’s hopes on your shoulders quite like the former Liverpool, Aston Villa, West Ham and Manchester City man.
James kept goal for England on 53 occasions, and was part of the squads at four different major tournaments throughout the 2000s.
At Euro 2004 he was the undisputed No.1, while he gained the position at the 2010 World Cup – when he was 39 years old – after a much-publicised mistake by Rob Green against the USA.
Peter Crouch, another member of that squad under Fabio Capello, recently admitted that as an England forward he’d often want his fellow frontmen to misfire during matches when he was on the bench, with an ideal result being a 1-0 win and a midfielder such as Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard grabbing the goal, therefore he could come into the attack in the next game.
For an England goalkeeper though, there is no such luxury.
“My England career was 13 years long, and that’s not including being standby for Euro 96, and there were different times when I had different thought processes,” says James, who couldn’t help but recall the opening game of the 2010 World Cup when, having been overlooked for Rob Green by Fabio Capello, disaster struck the man given the gloves.
“USA scored, and I was sat next to Joe Hart and I said to him ‘just make sure we’re focused’, but you don’t want your team to lose.
“It’s one of those paradox situations where an indifferent performance from a goalkeeper would mean that logically the team is unlikely to win, and I would have happily sat on the bench for the whole of that tournament had England won the World Cup.
“If the team that’s on the pitch wins and you’re not in that team then there is no argument.”
So does James really disagree with Crouch’s view? Was there not even the slightest hint of enjoyment at Green’s error opening the door for him?
“I sat there thinking ‘oh dear’, but at the same time I wanted England to win,” he continues.
“It was important that England won the game, and then it would have been up to me during training sessions that put it in the mind of the manager that I should be playing next, and fortunately that happened.
“But one of the ironies of being a goalkeeper is that while the goal wasn’t particularly great for Rob Green, he made a great save in the second half to keep it at 1-1.
“But for goalkeepers if you let a not-so-good goal in it outweighs any big save, whereas a striker who misses an open goal can always rectify that by scoring.”
England’s recent tournament failures back up James’ theory.
In 2002, when he was on the bench, he saw Ronaldinho’s free-kick loop over David Seaman, while before the Green incident there was Scott Carson’s calamity against Croatia as England failed to qualify for Euro 2008. At the last Euros in 2016, Hart could have saved one of Iceland’s goals.
So is being a goalkeeper for England at a major tournament a thankless task?
Not when there are thousands of supporters there to cheer you on.
“I loved it,” continues James.
“Euro 2004 was probably the best time. We just went out and thought we were going to win every game, and the fans made a massive difference.
“Even going to Japan (for the 2002 World Cup) they were there en masse, England flags everywhere.
“You go out onto the pitch before a game and you look at the flags to find out what representation there is, and you always look for old teams first.”
So with that level of support and a nation expecting back home, will likely No.1 Jordan Pickford be able to block out the pressures and deliver this summer? Will he be helped or hindered by the competition provided by understudies Dean Henderson and Sam Johnstone?
“It’s always competitive but at the same time you’re a representative of the country,” says James.
“You’re not employed by England, therefore you have to do whatever you can to make sure that England win, and that just means training well and making sure that the No.1 choice trains well.
“I think its fair to say that even squad numbers aren’t a guarantee of the starting line-up.
“If you’re in the team you want everyone to help you do your best, nothing else matters.”
England expects, again , and the performance of their goalkeeper could go a long way to determining a nation’s mood.
David James teamed up with England and FA sponsors, LG Electronics, with an exclusive DJ set for fans to celebrate the squad announcement and launch of the England FA4 earbuds – available now from LG.com