Jack Butland is back starring again for Stoke City and widely tipped to be England’s next No.1 – and the manager that gave him his debut at Cheltenham Town could not be any less surprised.
After missing the vast majority of last season with an ankle injury, Butland has started all six of Stoke’s Premier League games so far this campaign as he works his way back towards top form. Once he gets there, many believe he may replace Joe Hart as England’s first choice, possibly in time for the World Cup next summer.
Like Hart, though, Butland began his playing days in the lower reaches of the pyramid, having been spotted by then-Cheltenham manager Mark Yates as he looked to provide some much-needed competition for his regular stopper, Scott Brown.
Butland, 18 at the time, had not played for Birmingham City by that point, but he had recently been handed his England Under-21 debut. Yates, a former Blues player himself, had close connections to the club and was well aware of Butland’s talents so agreed a deal to take him on loan.
“Birmingham is not too far from me geographically and I played there, so I’ve always kept an eye on what they’ve got in their youth ranks, which is what you have to do,” he says. “When you hear of these talented youngsters, it’s your job, when you’re in the lower leagues, to keep an eye on them and use them, give them a little bit of experience.
“We needed a ‘keeper to put a bit of pressure on the one we already had, who, incidentally, improved enormously for having Jack around. Jack was really keen and up for it, and he was just a pleasure to have around the place. It was a really exciting time for the club and he did brilliantly for us.”
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Butland was only initially intended to act as a back-up to Brown, who had been an ever-present for Cheltenham for almost three seasons, but the young stopper was so impressive in training that Yates had no hesitation in throwing him into the lion’s den of League Two football.
It went so well that Cheltenham extended his loan deal until the end of the season, after which Butland headed to the European Championships with the England senior team as Roy Hodgson’s third-choice goalkeeper.
“His confidence immediately struck you,” Yates says. “There was an aura about him. Without him being big-headed about anything or blase about it, he just oozed confidence even as a gangly 18-year-old.
“You could see he would fill into a really good frame, and he was very confident about himself without being arrogant, which the lads could see straight away.
“He didn’t want to be out on the training ground with the lads having pot shots at him all the time, but he would give them 10 minutes of his time at the end of training to give them shooting practices and some of the saves he made were incredible; the lads would see it as a challenge for themselves to see if they could beat him.
“When he’d done his work and he’d had enough – when things were in favour of the strikers, who would starting shooting from a bit closer – that was him done, and he’d let the other ‘keepers field shots.”
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Progression was quick for Butland, who ended up making 24 appearances in League Two before taking over No.1 duties at Birmingham the following season.
“He had a 24-game period and he was just outstanding from the start,” Yates said. “His confidence off the pitch was transmitted on the pitch. For a young ‘keeper he was just so calm and collected.
“He had one game where he things just didn’t go quite right for him, but he showed his class and in the next game he was impeccable again. We knew good things were expected from him.
“I’m no goalkeeping expert, but he filled the goal frame, and he made things look easy, almost effortless. His kicking was good, accurate, long when it needed to be, he controlled his area, he came for things, and he was just very positive in every way.
“You always hear ‘they’re going to be this, they’re going to be that’, and I thought that with Jack, but you never know, which is testament to the lad.
“He was really grounded and, although he had that air of confidence, you could see he’d been brought up right, you could see he was a family lad, he was polite, well-mannered, but just a classy kid.”
With Hart struggling to find form at West Ham, Yates, like many, thinks Butland is a perfect candidate to replace the incumbent should Gareth Southgate decide a change is needed. Readers in Sweden may wish to use a bonuskod if they want to back him to be No.1 for the World Cup.
“My opinion is he will be England No.1 at some stage,” Yates says. “Goalkeeper is an awkward one as there’s only one spot and Joe Hart is an exceptional ‘keeper so Jack has got a battle on his hands. When he gets his chance he’s got to take it – and he will get a chance.
“He’s come back from a long injury lay-off and he just needs to concentrate for playing for Stoke, keeping clean sheets and looking as good as he has done.
“He’s such a young age, so the goalkeeping world really is his to dominate. There are kids coming through like Jordan Pickford and one or two others, but Jack is at a great age to keep improving and be number one for years to come.”
Whatever becomes of Butland’s career, Yates feels privileged to have worked with such a talent, but seeing him blossom is the real honour for all those who gave him a chance.
“His attitude is the difference between a decent ‘keeper and one like Jack. Nothing fazes the kid – he came from playing 24 games at Cheltenham, then he went to the Euros in the Ukraine and he hadn’t kicked a ball in anger for Birmingham in a competitive game.”
By Will Unwin
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