Titus Bramble should be given a place in the next England squad. Those were the bold words of Wigan keeper Chris Kirkland following his team’s weekend victory against Sunderland.
An audacious view in many minds, but what about the keeper himself? Surely he should feel hard done to if he is not standing in the Wembley goal mouth come the end of March. Or, at the very least, sat in comfort beside Cappello on the padded Wembley bench. After all, what more must the ex-Liverpool man do to make the England squad?
Since making his debut for Wigan in July 2006, Kirkland has turned his career around completely. A move from one of the best clubs in Europe could have meant a sorry road to mediocrity for the injury ravaged stopper, but his determination and character would not allow this. Lesser players may even have let their careers, let their contract, pass by, spending their days in the physio’s room, collecting their thousands every week without so much as a second thought.
It has been the opposite for Kirkland. The keeper has since knuckled down and worked extremely hard, often playing through pain to put himself in the England spotlight once again. Without a doubt, the former Anfield shot-stopper has the quality to be England number one.
There is no hesitation as he rises to claim the ball time and time again for his Wigan side, no histrionics that Robert Green is prone to, no theatrical punches that Scott Carson is so fond of, and no eccentric flapping in the wind, Ã la David James.
In a style similar to that of the great Peter Shilton, and a command comparable to his manager’s former teammate, Peter Schmeichel, Kirkland moves swiftly through the air towards to the ball, grasping it firmly and without fuss on a consistent basis — a seemingly simple though rare commodity amongst goalkeepers that currently carry a British passport.
Then we look at his ability to make match winning saves for his team, time and time again. Kirkland performs miracles in the Wigan goal every week. This is something he has improved on since moving to the JJB; he was never a top class reflex stopper like Shay Given when he resided in Merseyside. This part of his craft has been worked on, fine tuned, with Wigan Athletic reaping the benefits on a weekly basis.
There was a slight concern when Kirkland signed for Wigan that he had always struggled to be as proficient in his kicking as he had been with his hands. Perhaps that had something to do with the back strains and knee ligament concerns; he had problems picking out a target man or getting sufficient distance on his goal kicks. No Robinson-like airswipes, but it could be improved and must be if he was to be England regular. Sure enough, Kirkland hurdled this roadblock as he has so many others, and now has no qualms as he sends the ball arching towards the head of a target man up field. No sweat as he beats the away the ball with both feet under pressure from an attacker.
When an initial loan move was turned into a bargain transfer fee of £2m, Wigan fans knew they were getting one of the best prospects in the country, and Liverpool were aware they were letting one go. However, as unquestionable as the keeper’s ability at the time, was one hell of an injury record. With a longer list of injuries than appearances for the club, Benitez decided it was time to let his man go.
Improving by leaps and bounds
At the time of the move, I had the pleasure of discussing the new Wigan Athletic acquisition with the club’s goalkeeping coach. Along with the rest of the country, we were united in our belief that if Kirkland could get over his injury worries and the infamous back problem that had so blighted and eventually paved the end of his Anfield adventure, this guy could be a resounding answer to England’s goalkeeping conundrum.
With improvements in his game, no doubt helped with his regular run in the Wigan side, we are left now with a goalkeeper who has everything. A goalkeeper that sits in an all too different and superior class of peers. He now sits amongst world class goalkeepers like Shay Given, Edwin Van Der Sar. It’s a bold comparison, but anyone who’s laid eyes on this man in the last two seasons would probably agree that he’s worth his weight in gold.
Living with the pain
Then, there is the albatross that refuses to leave his neck. Though he has learnt to live with it, learnt to excel with it, it is still there. Watch him wince with every goal kick. See him grimace as he climbs to his feet after a trademark match winning save. It will always be there, and has frightened away bids from some of the best clubs, Arsenal are key example. Despite the ever-present feathery companion, Kirkland has missed only the odd league game for the Latics, none since the turn of the calendar year. A far cry from his Liverpool days, where an appearance itself was a rarity. It now appears that only the back problem remains an internal concern. The other injuries seem to be a thing of the past.
It tells you plenty about the man, the way he has learnt to cope and develop his career. He has become one of the top keepers around in spite of his injury, rather than simply alleviating himself with assurances that he’s being held back from being one of the best by his aches. A model professional, he works hard in the gym day after day, often away from training ground.
Like Ledley King, it is well known that he spends more time in the tedious surroundings of the gym and swimming pool, trying to build the strength or relive the pain in that back. He is someone who has taken one of the most onerous and topsy-turvy routes through his short career to date. Yet he has still risen like the milkiest of creams to the be one of the Premiership`s best goalkeepers.
The best around
In my view, Kirkland is the best English keeper around right now, both in quality and certainly in character. Take West Ham and Robert Green out of the equation who has shown recent aerial deficiencies and James-esque eccentricity – Wigan are the highest positioned club in the Premier League with an English keeper; FACT, as Rafa would put it.
The admirable determination and resolve demonstrated by Kirkland despite the injuries; the long list of regular appearances for his current club; and the world class performances are reason enough to make Chris Kirkland the England number one. His injury label should no longer remain a feeble reasoning behind his repeated exclusion.
Such a quality professional and top class goalkeeper does not deserve to stand alongside Gavin McCann and Francis Jeffers as a one-cap wonder. As the England team walks out onto the Wembley pitch against Slovakia on March 28th, John Terry will be proudly leading the way. Without a doubt, the man that walks onto the pitch immediately behind him should be Chris Kirkland.