If there’s one man who knows what it takes to establish themselves as England’s first-choice goalkeeper, it’s David James. And the 53-cap shot-stopper believes there could soon be another name in the frame as Gareth Southgate’s number-one.
But while James reckons Aaron Ramsdale is starting to make a case to gazump current incumbent Jordan Pickford, he says the Arsenal goalkeeper will need to back-up his impressive recent displays with longer-term consistency first.
“It’s becoming an argument now with Ramsdale playing first team for Arsenal, who are in fantastic form – it’s essentially the perfect recipe for you international credentials,” James tells The Set Pieces.
“The one thing where Pickford still has as an advantage is the fact he’s done so well for England [in the past], which is the main thing. And also he’s had a long experience in the Premier League if you use that as a barometer of where one’s at – Pickford has experience.
“Ramsdale has had two seasons in the Premier League, but as was quickly highlight by many disgruntled Arsenal fans a few months ago, they were both in relegation seasons. He’s proving he’s better than a relegation goalkeeper at the moment and the longer that goes on, the better argument he’s got for the World Cup.”
Paired with Ramsdale’s recent hot streak in between the sticks for the Gunners, the 23-year-old has spoken publicly about his ambition to oust Pickford by the time Qatar 2022 comes around. All this despite not yet having made his debut for the Three Lions.
It’s been touted that Ramsdale’s first cap may come in November’s international window when England play Albania and San Marino. If that happens, it gives him only 12 months to wrestle the jersey from Pickford permanently, but James says it is doable.
“There’s more than enough time to become for the number one for England [before the World Cup], but the caveat is that he’s only been in the Arsenal team for a strawberry season and you have to maintain those levels of performance,” James continues.
“The Ramsdale performances are very encouraging and whether it’s Ramsdale that’s made Arsenal better, or Arsenal have become better and Ramsdale is in that, it doesn’t really matter. The performance he had on the weekend [in Arsenal’s 2-0 win against Leicester] was outstanding and all of a sudden, English goalkeepers are good again.”
Ramsdale’s public ambition to oust Pickford reminds James of his younger years as an England goalkeeper as he tried to force his way into the reckoning for the big games.
But while the former Liverpool and Manchester City goalkeeper travelled to four major tournaments for England, he was only the undisputed first choice at Euro 2004 and inherited the shirt during the 2010 World Cup after Rob Green’s mistake against the USA.
“I changed a lot during my international career,” James recalls. “I’d go out there to be the number one and if I wasn’t, I wasn’t very happy. I wasn’t conscious of pecking orders and stuff like that, it was all or nothing so to speak.
“I changed a lot when Paul Robinson was number one. Gerard Houllier [James’s former Liverpool manager] was a big influence on me in terms of respecting your team-mates because you’re all doing the same thing – whichever 11 is on the field, the whole squad is essentially trying to win that game.
“I sort of made it my directive to make sure whoever was playing was getting everything they needed. I’d ask if they needed anything extra in the warm-up or in training and I’d go out of my way to facilitate their preparation for the game. At the end of the day, if they didn’t perform well in the game, it wasn’t down to me not helping them out and that conflict of individual needs.”
James knows what it’s like to be both the current number one his fellow English glovesmen have in their crosshairs and the contender for the position. And he says a manager’s tendency to stick by his man regardless of club form can make a change in goal almost a non-starter unless injury or some other mishap occurs.
That appears to be the same with Southgate and Pickford, with the current England boss always backing the Everton man when the big games come around.
James says he experienced that when Fabio Capello was in the Wembley hot seat, but soon fell down the pecking order after an operation left him out of action for several months.
“You’d like to think club performances might have some influence on your selection. “Ultimately, you get in on club performances but it’s what you do for the country [that keeps you there],” James adds.
“From a goalkeeping perspective, if you can get the odds games… it’s about ‘can you do much to change the manager’s mind for the next big game?’ and it’s tough. If the manager fancies you, you’ve just got to bide your time – if you’re like me, you go to two World Cups without playing then get into one World Cup [in 2010] when you’re 39 years old because the goalkeeper in front of you had an indifferent game.
“The negative side of that is that [Green’s mistake against USA] cost England two points and I’d much rather have not played in any World Cup and had England being world champions than being there and not.”
While James’s England memories are enough to keep him warm at night, he’s supporting Utilita Energy’s Wear Warm campaign to help others stay roasty at home – without turning the heating on. As part of it, he’s urging Brits to put on a jumper instead to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.
This isn’t the case of a famous face telling others to do something different to their own actions, though, as James insists he reaches for his favourite woolly at home instead of flicking on the boiler.
“I sit in the house with no heating on and put a jumper on because I don’t see the point in heating the whole house up when it’s just me that needs to be warm, so to get involved with this campaign was perfect synergy and made perfect sense,” he says.
“The environmental impact is the key thing because if 30-odd million households were to turn their heating down from 24 to 21 degrees, we’d be saving hundreds of tonnes of carbon emissions and collectively helping save the planet. It’s so easy.
“We launched the campaign at a charity’s second-hand shop to demonstrate there are good clothes, still usable, available rather than buying new clothes [too]. That’s not to say new clothes should never be bought, it’s just as an option, there are already clothes around that can be used and more people will benefit.”
James was concerned about his environmental impact as a player too and converted his car to be powered by rapeseed oil to reduce his carbon usage while he was playing at Portsmouth, something he admits his team-mates thought he “was a bit nuts” for doing.
“I was very conscious of my carbon footprint and at times, especially in the football industry, it’s impossible to get away from travel – especially with the fixture list on a national scale and internationally when you’re quite literally going around the world,” James adds.
“In every which way I could, I tried to do my little bit and if everybody chips in – like by turning your thermostat down by three degrees – you won’t notice the different, but the amount of carbon that’s being emitted by not doing it will make difference to the environment.
“It’s interesting looking at COP26 because we’re a small island in a big planet, but we’re also one of the heads of the table at COP26 – and if we can demonstrate as a nation that we can do things the right way or in a much better way, it gives us leverage when it comes to other countries changing their habits. Little bits will all add up.”