Jack Butland: Chelsea Should Snap Up England's Future No.1 From Cash-Strapped Birmingham City
For lack of a better cliché, Jack Butland's recent rise to prominence can best be described as meteoric. Twelve months ago the teenage keeper was a virtual unknown, as evidenced by the fact that lowly Cheltenham Town - bookies' favorites to drop out the football league and the cause of many sleepless nights for myself - were able to attract him on loan.
His arrival at the Gloucestershire club as an 18 year-old went almost unnoticed, with Butland's early appearances in the starting XI surprising many, including the team's current first choice stopper, Scott Brown. Brown made public his dismay at being replaced by a teenager at the club to which he had dedicated so much over the years. However, it soon became clear why this situation had arisen and that Brown had very little to complain about: this kid is the real deal.
One thing I feel compelled to mention at this stage is that my high praise of those to have appeared in Cheltenham colours is perhaps easy to ignore. My undying love of the League Two playoff winning side of 05/06 caused to me to claim publicly that Grant McCann (now of Peterborough) and Kayode Odejayi (Rotheram) could one day cut it at the top level. Despite both appearing at international level during their respective careers - a handful of Northern Ireland caps for the former and a solitary Nigeria appearance for the latter (who is also the cousin of Ade Akinbiyi - misguided praise indeed) - neither has reached the dizzy heights I had hoped.
Butland, however, is an entirely different case. Fresh face aside, it's difficult to believe he is only 19 - an astoundingly young age for a goalkeeper to be making waves as he is. What struck me when I first saw him in a Cheltenham shirt was the extent of his composure and ability to command a defence made up of vastly older and more experienced players than himself. Butland's maturity beyond his years is impressive and it's exactly the reason he has so much potential.
As he improves towards his peak over the next decade, fine-tuning the technical aspects of his game, he already has this competitive advantage over others in a similar position. He may not yet be technically a better keeper than Scott Carson or Rob Green, but Butland's presence between the posts does more to ease my nerves than that of these experienced internationals.
As the Jack Butland-Euro 2012 saga hit full swing in the run-up to the competition, insistence that he didn't deserve his place in the squad began to amuse me. I lost count of the number of pundits who stood by the twisted logic of "he has only played in the fourth tier of English football so he can't possibly be good enough". The first point to be made was that, as the tried and trusted England Under-21 keeper, he was the logical choice for the reserve list, earning his spot in the squad after injury to John Ruddy. On top of that, I struggled to believe that many of these "experts" had spent a great deal of time watching Butland actually playing football.
Over time my amusement by this apparent ignorance became frustration, which is perhaps why I so enjoyed Team GB's Olympic warm-up match against Brazil. Appearing as a second-half substitute, Butland pulled off a string of impressive saves and made first-half stopper Jason Steele - a proven goalkeeper at Championship level - look very average in comparison. The pundits were suddenly interested and journalists began claiming that this kid is a bit special and could one day be Joe Hart's biggest threat at international level. I don't intend to sound smug, but I've been saying that since before Christmas.
So what does the immediate future hold for English goalkeeping's brightest young talent? In my opinion, a season or two in the Birmingham City team would serve him very well indeed. It's where he learnt his trade and, with almost a full season in League Two under his belt (he was recalled by Birmingham as injury cover prior to Cheltenham's unsuccessful playoff campaign) first team experience in the Championship would encourage his progress.
However, with reports of Premiership scouts flocking to Whaddon Road last season to see him in action, and following a handful of impressive displays at the Olympics, Butland is a highly sought-after asset. Reported interest from top clubs is enough to get any teenager excited and he may wish to take this alternate route, similar to that of Joe Hart himself.
With limited backup options and a first choice keeper the wrong side of 30 or not as solid a he once was, Liverpool have been linked with the teenager. The option of spending a year or two as an understudy at one of the country's top sides may be an attractive one, especially as Butland's mentor and well-respected goalkeeping coach, Dave Watson, has followed manager Chris Hughton out of St Andrews to his new club, Norwich City.
If this is an option of interest to Butland, my message to Chelsea is this: the kid is worth the gamble. He'll cost you more now that he would have three months ago, but could still prove to be an incredible bargain. Manchester City picked up a young Joe Hart for under £1 million following an impressive season in League Two with Shrewsbury Town. A couple of years later, he began turning out City and the club now possess one of the world's best goalkeepers, with at least ten years left in him.
It's no coincidence that Butland is regularly compared to England's number one. It is, however, unfortunate for him that Hart is the man he must one day displace to thrive at international level. There are few, if any, more imposing goalkeeping rivals in the world.