Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Wordsmith Keeper

The Sunday Times has a nice interview with Robert Green in which the cultured goalkeeper reveals his journalism ambitions...

He writes for a national newspaper but doesn’t read any, plays football at the highest level but prefers cricket and rugby. Goalkeepers have always been a breed apart, but Robert Green, of West Ham and England, is more singular than most suggests Joe Lovejoy. This 28-year-old son of a retired hospital consultant gained 10 GCSEs, studied law and psychology and thought twice before giving up his studies for the professional career that started at Norwich City a decade ago.

Green is blessed [some managers would say cursed] with an inquiring mind, and has a thirst for knowledge that extends well beyond the confines of his 18-yard box. The success of the articles he writes for The Independent [without the aid of a “ghost”] has encouraged him to believe that he could contribute more on a broader range of subjects, and Eamon Dunphy may soon have a serious rival as football’s gift to journalism.

In the meantime, that inquisitive nature has been exercised by the way he was jettisoned by England between the end of last season and the start of this one, during which time nobody played a game, and by how Steve McClaren could be daft enough to throw Scott Carson in at the deep end for England’s key match in the failed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.

Green, currently in the form of his life, hopes for a recall from Fabio Capello for the friendly at home to Switzerland on February 6, but has learnt the hard way not to take such things for granted. The man for whom West Ham paid Norwich £2m in August 2006 is good value on any number of subjects, from the goalkeeper’s strange lot to the vagaries of the English education system and Sven-Göran Eriksson’s managerial merits.

As a starting point, however, we went for his forays into the broadsheet press. “I was trying to find something to occupy my mind outside of football,” he explained. “For a couple of nights before a game, I’d be sat at home, not doing a lot, and I felt the need to fill that space. I tried a few pieces online for The Sun last season, it seemed to go well, and my agent spoke to different papers about it to test the water. The Independent liked what I’d done and gave me a go.”

From his earliest days, at Norwich, football was never enough. “While I was up there,” he says, “I went to night school to do a couple of A-levels and studied psychology for a year and law for a year. A footballer’s job stimulates you a lot physically, but not mentally. It’s very much tunnel vision. There’s no real spectrum of life - not real life, anyway - and it’s good to have something else to focus on.”

Green was not academically minded at school. “I went to the local comprehensive in Guildford, nothing special,” he says. “It seems to me you’re either in a very good school, where you’re encouraged to learn, or you’re not. Mine didn’t really help me. A couple of my mates now teach in places where it’s more a matter of crowd control than education, and I think my experience came into that category. It has taken time for me to find education my own way.”

He enjoyed other sports - cricket (as a batsman), rugby union (at fly-half) and golf (his handicap a bandit’s 14).

“We had a good rugby team at school,” he says. “I was the smallest of the backs [at 6ft 3in], we had a team of giants and I used to kick for the corners and let the other lads beat up the opposition.” As a goalkeeper, he was still largely reliant on others for protection, and the unique responsibilities of the position weighed heavily.

“When I first started with Norwich, I found it very stressful, going out on the pitch knowing that if I made a mistake it would cost us,” he says. “It wasn’t uncommon for me to be sick before a game, I found the pressure unbearable. Fortunately, with experience you learn how to deal with it better. The way I do it is not to read the papers or watch TV coverage. I leave it to my dad [Steve] to give me a detailed appraisal of anything I’ve written.”

Alan Curbishley’s appraisal of Green’s work on the field is unequivocal. “Rob came out of the England squad with an injury and has done nothing wrong since,” the West Ham manager says. “He deserves to be picked again.” The goalkeeper had been key to the Hammers’ great escape last season, when they won seven of their last nine games to avoid relegation. The pick of those results were 1-0 victories away to Arsenal and Manchester United, when Green was man of the match on each occasion. Curbishley rated him “11 out of 10” for his heroics at the Emirates, where Arsenal had 35 goal attempts on target.

It was, and still is, Green says, the best performance of his career. After clambering out of the grave they had dug for themselves, the “Bubbles” club are progressing nicely this season, a top10 finish well within their compass. “We’ve had a lot of injuries, 11 or 12 at one time, but we’ve coped well,” says Green. “The important thing is that the make-up of the defence has been consistent. Matthew Upson, George McCartney and Lucas Neill have played nearly every game, with Anton Ferdinand or Danny Gabbidon making up the back four. That unit has been the foundation of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve not been gluttons as far as scoring goals is concerned, but we’ve managed to keep it tight, especially away from home. Consistency in availability and selection has been a massive factor, and the good results we’ve had breed confidence.

“We’re not the crisis club this time, the ship has a steadier feel, and we’re definitely moving in the right direction, although we had a massive disappointment last Wednesday, when we went out of the FA Cup [at Manchester City] after playing pretty well. It wasn’t the most entertaining of matches, but we were the away side, playing against a team that haven’t lost at home all season, and we were left asking, ‘How many chances do we need to win a game?’ We had them, but unfortunately we didn’t take them. I hardly had to make any saves compared to Joe Hart.

“Now we’re playing them again in the league [at Eastlands today], and we can take confidence from the way the game went on Wednesday. We know we can create chances against them, and that they can be beaten at home.”

Green had not been surprised by City’s resurgence under Eriksson. “Not at all,” he says. “I couldn’t name a club where he’s failed. We spent £25m on players here during the summer, but we recouped £20m of that from sales. Sven has spent £45m. He’s spent it well, he knows good players, but the point is he has had the backing. At Lazio he won Serie A, spending a lot of money. If a club is lucky enough to have a lot of money and needs a manager to build a team, he’s your man.”

Mention of Eriksson brought us on to Green’s experience with England, 45 minutes of playing time in four years in and around the squad. “Sven gave me my cap, as a second-half substitute against Colombia in the United States [in May 2005], then I was going to the World Cup in Germany until I played for the B team at Reading [against Belarus] and ruptured my groin after about three minutes [having come on at half-time].” Carson went to the World Cup instead, and Green has been cast aside.

“I thought it was crazy to put Scott in against Croatia at Wembley,” he says. “Paul Robinson hadn’t been playing well, but if there was a time and a place to replace him, that certainly wasn’t it. The right thing to do was to give him [Carson] experience in a friendly to feel his way in. You shouldn’t get thrown in like that for England’s biggest match for two years. It was too much to ask of anybody.

“I don’t want to make excuses, but part of our problem is that every time England play, it's a must-win game in the eyes of the media and the public. Because of that pressure, the manager is going to pick his first-choice keeper every time, which is counter-productive in that the No 2 gets no experience and therefore is never ready. I’ve been part of the England set-up for 30 matches now and I’ve played for 45 minutes. You’d think a keeper who has been around the squad for four years would have played more than half a game.

“I was involved last June, for the Brazil and Estonia matches, but didn’t take any part, then we had a friendly in August [at home to Germany] and I was dropped for David James, without playing. How I got worse and ‘Jamo’ got better over the course of the summer is anybody’s guess. It did seem odd, and I’ve not been involved since.

“If I play the next game for England, it will be my biggest achievement in football, and I’d love to do it, but after everything that’s happened you learn to take nothing for granted. What’s the point getting upset over it? I’m doing everything I can. For the past year I’ve played better than ever before.

“I had a sports psychologist at Norwich who had a saying: ‘You can’t control the uncontrollable,’ and I can’t control the England thing. What I can control is playing as well as I can for West Ham and staying in the team here, keeping out Richard Wright and Jim Walker. If that gets me into the squad, then great, but the be-all and end-all is that I don’t have the final say there.

Don’t get me wrong, I do want it, I’d run to Wembley - do anything - to be in the side, and maybe things will be different under a new manager.”

The wordsmith keeper’s match report would be interesting.

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