For all England’s traditional strengths, there has been a dearth of world-class goalkeepers in recent generations. However, young Jack Butland, who is just starting out at the tender age of 18, has been in exceptional form at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, bringing a smile to the lips of English FA officials and holding out hope of a new, more promising era.
The player, on the books at second-tier Birmingham City, has kept three clean sheets in three games so far, producing some truly breathtaking saves on the way. “I’m obviously very pleased with my performances so far,” Butland told FIFA.com at the team hotel. “But our success is due to the team. It wouldn’t have been possible without the help of my defenders and every other player,” continued the 6'4 in shot stopper.
The Bristol-born talent joined the Birmingham youth academy four years ago, where excellent training has helped him mature and develop into a classy exponent of his trade. One important factor was working alongside the likes of seasoned internationals such as Joe Hart. “I learned so much from Joe, especially that I should be enjoying myself when I play,” Butland offered. “In the past, I became really angry when I made a mistake. Joe helped me overcome that. He's been a massive help. For a goalkeeper, mental strength is the most important attribute of all.”
The youngster, whose childhood idol was Peter Schmeichel, is hoping to pick up as much international experience as possible in Colombia, as he seeks to lay the foundations for a successful professional career. His undoubted strengths came to the fore in England's final group match against Mexico, where he earned his team a precious point with a string of fine blocks, culminating in a penalty save from dangerous Mexico striker Taufic Guarch.
It all bodes well for his team's future progress in the tournament, as there is always the possibility of knockout matches going to a penalty shoot-out. The player views the prospect with some excitement. “Shoot-outs are always tremendous for the goalkeeper. If you lose people say it's unlucky, but if you win you're the hero. Penalty shoot-outs are always a thrill."
For a goalkeeper, mental strength is the most important attribute of all.
The Three Lions now face Nigeria, the most prolific team at the tournament so far with 12 goals. Butland is neither fazed nor anxious about the Round of 16 opponents. “We've not let in a goal so far, and if you don't concede any goals you can't lose. It's as simple as that," the 18-year-old declared. “It'll be a good game against Nigeria. We just have to play the way we've done so far, and I'm confident the goals will come."
Butland cannot really help in terms of putting the ball in the Nigerian net, but his contribution between the sticks could be a vital factor in seeing England through to the last eight, as well as advancing his own case for regular football at a senior level. In general, it is more difficult for young goalkeepers to establish themselves in the professional game: clubs tend to look for experience in goal, and there is of course only one opening per team for the man with the gloves.
Twenty-year-old first-choice keepers in top-flight leagues are a rarity: Iker Casillas was a major exception in his day with Real Madrid, while Bundesliga clubs Kaiserslautern and Freiburg currently feature Germany U–21 keepers Kevin Trapp and Oliver Baumann respectively. “I think coaches are looking for experience and maturity, because they have to rely totally on the goalkeeper," Butland reflected. “The experiences I've picked up at this World Cup so far have been simply fantastic. When the time comes, I'll be given a chance, and I hope I can take it."
England coach Brian Eastick’s staff includes Stuart Pearce, a long-serving former international and senior boss Fabio Capello's assistant. Pearce will be watching the junior internationals like a hawk, and will doubtless come away with a wealth of interesting observations and ideas. It will not have gone unnoticed to Pearce that the U–20 set-up currently includes a gem between the sticks.
And Butland is the kind of cheery, grounded character who could well feature for the senior squad sooner rather than later. He concluded his chat with FIFA.com with a broad grin: “Maybe Stuart will put in a good word with him [Capello] on my behalf." Another sparkling display in the last 16 would see that happen automatically.