As Gareth Southgate gathered his England squad this week, it is likely a handful of the players to excite him most this season were absent. At Southampton the 23‑year‑old Angus Gunn has established himself as first-choice goalkeeper under Ralph Hasenhüttl, his late heroics earning a point last Saturday against Manchester United. Along the coast Aaron Ramsdale, 21, has fought off competition to claim Bournemouth’s No 1 jersey and Dean Henderson, 22, has rejoined Sheffield United on loan from Old Trafford to build on his golden glove‑winning promotion campaign.
Goalkeepers have always been later bloomers than outfield players but a young keeper getting regular game time is doubly striking in today’s Premier League, where managers can rarely afford to plan much beyond the short term. For three to be doing so at once, all English, hints at a wider pattern.
The Football Association’s head of goalkeeping, Tim Dittmer, sees it as the result of a sea change on the training field. “In the past couple of decades the coaching of the position has become more professional – more courses, more coaches, a wider range of practices,” he says. “Coaches who once upon a time may have merely repeated how they were trained themselves [as players] are increasingly drawing ideas from a wider range of experts and disciplines.”
Talent abounds beyond the top tier. In League One another young United loanee, Kieran O’Hara, is at Burton Albion while the 19-year-old Nathan Bishop has started for Southend and Nathan Trott, 20, is playing for AFC Wimbledon, on loan from West Ham.
In the Championship Leeds will have to cope without the 22-year-old Bailey Peacock-Farrell – the Darlington-born Northern Ireland international having been snapped up by Burnley – but eight Englishmen aged 25 or younger have played in goal.
The pick of the bunch has perhaps been Swansea’s Freddie Woodman, 22, who has kept a clean sheet every other game for the leaders since arriving on loan from Newcastle. He has won trophies for England at the Under-17 European Championship and the Under-20 World Cup, where he was named the tournament’s best goalkeeper (and if one were to put money on anyone making it as England’s No 1, one could do worse than the man whose godfather is Southgate).
Senior England call-ups remain uncharted territory for all the aforementioned bar Gunn, though Southgate’s selections may well have done plenty to aid their careers. “If you look at what Gareth did in Russia – picking Jordan [Pickford] despite a supposed lack of experience, and how well he played – maybe you can see the effects now,” says Richard Hartis, Manchester United’s senior goalkeeping coach who was on the England coaching staff at the Under‑20 World Cup. “It gets managers thinking a different way about what younger keepers can bring.”
When the FA announced its England DNA coaching blueprint in 2014, many dismissed it as a branding exercise. But over the past two years a startling run of tournament success among the age-group sides has forced even the most hardened sceptic to reconsider.
The most eye-catching talents to emerge have been tricky attackers such as Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho but similar technical polish is apparent in a crop of goalkeepers who look at ease with the ball at their feet.
“A keeper these days needs to be able to receive the ball in tight areas, to see space and exploit space, either with a short pass or by striking the ball the length of the pitch,” says Dittmer. “But that’s a tactical skill – and about space perception – as much as a technical one.”
It is a skill Pickford demonstrates with the flat, volleyed upfield passes that have become something of a signature. That Ramsdale and Henderson have made more passes than counterparts at Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester City and Manchester United show such tactics are no longer the preserve of the elite.
Nor is the modern keeper the disparate, disconnected figure he once was. “Nowadays teams attack with 11 and defend with 11,” Hartis says. “Goalkeepers will be part of the gameplan: building possession, getting tactical input.” He describes how Ramsdale, as a youngster in Sheffield United’s academy, would train with the under-23s in the morning then, as an outfielder, with the under-18s in the afternoon. Pickford, too, would sometimes moonlight as a centre-back in Sunderland’s academy.
Which sounds like broad-ranging practice until taking into account something else the current crop has in common. “They were all keepers by about 12 or 13 but they were all doing other sports, too,” Dittmer says. “Aaron was a really good cricketer and ran cross-country at county level, Dean played a lot of cricket as well. [Henderson kept wicket for his county as a schoolboy.] Jordan played any sport he could get his hands on. Jack Butland was a keen rugby player.” Even for the most specialised position on the pitch, generalised practice at a young age can be priceless.
It is paying off, and with promise in such abundance could it be that English football is on the verge of something it has typically struggled with: producing a great goalkeeper? “This is an extremely exciting generation,” Dittmer says. “But to be one of the greats, you have to sustain it over a decade, maybe more. The test of time will be the one that tells us the most.”
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