In the first of a new series that traces the history of some of English football’s most iconic shirt numbers Kevin Henning looks at the heroes and zeroes who have worn perhaps the most iconic of all – the England number 1 jersey.

Of the eleven shirts that make up a football team, the English national side have been blessed in one particular position. The England number 1. The goalkeeper. As a nation, we’ve produced some of the best and most consistent stoppers in the history of the game. At times we’ve had great goalkeepers in abundance. We’ve also had the odd barren patch, but the English public are most confident going into a tournament when we have absolute confidence in our goalie. Well, with the amount of penalty shootouts we face, we need a little reassurance.
The most renowned keeper to ever play for the Three Lions was of course Gordon Banks. The man who guarded our goal all the way to World Cup glory in 1966, winner of 73 England caps, Banks even had an old saying borrowed to him. “As safe as the Banks of England” somehow made more sense when referring to a bloke between the sticks than it did about some of the most secure vaults on the planet. Banks’ importance to England was magnified during the following World Cup where, armed with arguably a better squad, we set out to defend the Jules Rimet Trophy and were making a decent fist of it until disaster struck prior to a Quarter Final showdown with West Germany. The Stoke City stopper was struck down with a stomach bug and Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti was called upon to replace him. Banks sat in his hotel room and eagerly awaited his team-mates return. Sadly, when they arrived, it was bad news. Bonetti had conceded three as the Germans came from two down to condemn England in what would prove to be their last World Cup Finals appearance for twelve years.
During the seventies, England tried to replace Banks who was forced into early retirement from the national side due to the loss of an eye in a car accident. Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence had arrived on the scene and would battle for the jersey for the next decade until Shilton emerged as first choice in the run-up to the Spanish World Cup of 1982. A mention must also go to Joe Corrigan during this era. The Manchester City keeper would surely have earned more than his nine caps had he played during any other era than the one dominated by the Clemence/Shilton duel. Shilton had won the battle though and hung onto the Number 1 shirt well past the retirement of Clemence who ended his England career with an impressive 61 caps. Shilton was simply irreplaceable during the 1980’s and amassed a record 125 caps during a career spanning 3 World Cups.

Memories of the saved Gary McAllister penalty against Scotland and the shootout shut-out against Spain in the quarter final are still vivid.

As Peter Shilton made his way to that staggering total, his understudy Chris Woods must have longed for the day of his retirement. It came at the end of Italia ‘90 and Woods would have been forgiven for believing that he had a clear run at the shirt for the rest of his career. That was until the emergence of David Seaman. A disastrous European Championships in 1992 hadn’t seemed to have affected Woods’ position but come the start of the 1993-94 season, Seaman claimed the shirt for himself. As always, top class keepers were made to fight for scraps and it seems unbelievable now that fringe goalies of this time Nigel Martyn, Tim Flowers and Ian Walker managed just 37 caps between them until Seaman‘s retirement in 2003. The fact that a highly rated keeper such as Tony Coton never even made a single appearance shows how blessed we were during the 1990’s. The highlight of Seaman’s time was surely the European Championships held on home soil in 1996. Memories of the saved Gary McAllister penalty against Scotland and the shootout shut-out against Spain in the quarter final are still vivid. Unfortunately, Sven Goran Eriksson probably held onto Seaman for a little too long and clean sheets started to become a rarity for the Swedish lothario. Thoughts of Ronaldinho and Macedonian corners still bring England fans out in cold sweats but the pony tailed one probably deserves more respect than he is given for his Three Lions career overall.
The next goalie to make the shirt his own is probably the one that I wished never had. David James had a reputation for displaying lapses of concentration and there were quite a number of examples of this during his England career. The man who admitted to not preparing properly for an away friendly in Denmark due to his being named as a substitute, often demonstrated the reason for his ‘Calamity James’ nickname at the very highest level. A fantastic shot-stopper, it was James’ decision making that often put his team in danger. He never won his critics over and his critics never really gave him a chance. Reporters (and I use that word lightly) from the Sun newspaper once tried to take a donkey into a Chorzow stadium in a less than subtle swipe at the former Liverpool keeper. They claimed at the time that the ass was to be replaced by the ass.
Upon the arrival of Steve McClaren as England boss, James was ushered away from the starting line-up. Beverly born Paul Robinson headed a new batch of promising keepers which included the injury prone Chris Kirkland along with Ben Foster, Scott Carson and Robert Green. Kirkland was often touted to be the first choice for a sustained period but never stayed fit for long enough to prove himself. The other young stoppers were all given chances but all seemed to let the pressure of the role get to them and the resultant high profile gaffes all seemed to arrive in the most important England matches.

Croatia went on to beat England 3-2, the ‘Wally with the Brolly’ was sacked and Scott Carson became a hero to Scots everywhere.

First to suffer was Paul Robinson who in October 2006, took his eyes off a Gary Neville backpass in a vital Euro qualifier in Croatia only for the ball to bobble over his foot and into the England net. The return game at Wembley thirteen months later saw the Three Lions needing just a point to book their tickets to Austria and Switzerland. Manager Steve McClaren chose that night to hand the England number one shirt to a young Scott Carson who promptly slung a thirty yard chancer into his own net. To be fair to Scott, he couldn’t have put the ball further into the top corner had he tried. Croatia went on to beat England 3-2, the ‘Wally with the Brolly’ was sacked and Scott Carson became a hero to Scots everywhere. Not to be outdone, Robert Green joined the “How Big A Game Can I Balls Up In?” contest and really upped the ante in England’s opening match of the 2010 World Cup. A weak shot from 30 yards by USA’s Clint Dempsey squirmed through Green’s gloved fingers and into the net. The curse was continuing and latest boss Fabio Capello decided that it was back to the future and recalled David James for the remainder of England’s diabolical tournament. Ben Foster decided he there was no way to prise the “Cock Up Keeper’s Cup” from Green and announced his international retirement in May 2011. David James had made a similar statement by joining Bristol City nine months earlier.
Those four years’ worth of disasters had left England fans longing for the days when the nation had a keeper to rely on. The calamity crew had cleared a path for young Manchester City man, Joe Hart who had been voted the Premier League’s best goalkeeper whilst on a season long loan at Birmingham. Over a year later, Hart is looking like he could emulate Banks, Shilton and Seaman and have a long and distinguished England career. Young, confident and able, Hart has made himself quite literally the first name on the team sheet. If he can avoid the kind of mistakes shown by Carson, Robinson and Green, stay more focused than David James and resist the temptation to throw his toys out of the pram a la Ben Foster, Hart could challenge the 100 cap mark. There is a nation of football fans hoping that he does.