It was Beckenbauer who started it. Until that moment, England goalkeepers had almost invariably been considered among the finest in the world. But at around twenty past one on the 14th June 1970 in Leon, Mexico, Der Kaiser stepped in. Elegantly moving the ball past Alan Mullery, he drilled a low shot straight at England goalkeeper, Peter Bonetti. Bonetti let it slip underneath him, and West Germany’s comeback had started.
Beckenbauer and co went on to win that World Cup Quarter Final, England lost their brief hold on the World Cup, and Peter Bonetti never played for his country again.
In fact, Bonetti remained one of the finest goalkeepers in football. He had just won two FA Cups with Chelsea and been voted the club’s best ever player. That he only won seven caps for England is testament only to the brilliance of Gordon Banks. He should not be remembered for that mistake against Beckenbauer.
But Bonetti’s was the first of a long line of embarrassing, high profile mistakes made by England goalkeepers. Only three years later, the great Peter Shilton – England’s most capped player to date – fumbled Jan Domarski’s shot and allowed Poland to take a 1-0 lead that would see England fail to qualify for the 1974 World Cup.
Three years after that it was Ray Clemence who blundered against Scotland. In 2002 it was David Seaman flapping helplessly at Ronaldinho’s looping free kick in another World Cup Quarter Final, this time in Shizuoka. In 2010, Rob Green allowed the USA to take an easy lead in a group game in South Africa. And we haven’t even mentioned Paul Robinson and Scott Carson, who made catastrophic errors in qualifying games for England – or David “Calamity” James.
And so we come to Joe Hart, England’s current number one. At the start of his career, Hart didn’t seem to have got the memo that England keepers are expected to make themselves look ridiculous. He was solid, entertaining and intelligent. Far from the perfect goalkeeper, he certainly rarely looked uncomfortable when wearing an England shirt, (achievement in itself, for most of the England shirts Hart has had to wear have been hideous).
Plus ca change. Hart’s apparent disdain for history could not last. Like all good Englishmen, he has a love of tradition. At Wembley in August, he dutifully flapped at James Morrison’s shot and gifted Scotland a 1-0 lead.
Not content with simply one error, however, Hart has gone on to record a dreadful start to the season, and is being rewarded with the usual vilification that goalkeepers expect from their native press. Errors against Cardiff City, Aston Villa and, most recently, FC Bayern have planted Hart firmly in the cruel limelight of reactionary criticism.
Peter Shilton, who should know better, claimed that Hart should expect to make only one mistake every eighteen months. England manager Roy Hodgson was even asked if he still had faith in his number one goalkeeper. Whoever expected a man as sensible and considered as Hodgson to answer in anything but the affirmative must have been tripping. For while Hart’s mistakes have been embarrassing, England have no real second choice. He is by far and away the most talented English goalkeeper since David Seaman, and to drop him on the basis of a couple of blunders would be one step on the way to hitting self destruct.
But then England like to hit self destruct. They build their half talented players up to such a level that they are almost expected to then fall from grace. So it is with Hart. If you study his career closely, you will notice that he has often made such mistakes before. But when he was the Great White Hope, people ignored them, preferring to highlight the blunders of Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny. He, after all, is Polish. He must be rubbish.
The truth of the matter is, both Hart and Szczesny are fantastic goalkeepers who are prone – in part due to their more adventurous style of play – to making errors. When they hit a lapse in form – as Hart currently has – those errors tend to happen temporarily more frequently.
Why do English keepers always make mistakes? Perhaps they do not. Perhaps it is simply that every goalkeeper makes mistakes, but England are so keen to replace them when they do that they end up with a far greater variety of mistake makers.
Joe Hart still has the potential to be counted among the Seamans, Shiltons, Bonettis and Bankses of English football history. Thank God Roy Hodgson has the common sense to know that a few mistakes here and there don’t alter that potential. As for the general hysteria, well it seems the Manchester City keeper is just going to have to get used to the fact that England loves a goalie with egg on his face. Plus ca change.
Kit Holden is English and is currently working as an intern at Tagesspiegel-Sport. He also writes on German football for The Independent.