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Jack Butland staying grounded despite incredible rise to England squad

13th August 2012

The 19-year-old could become England’s youngest-ever goalkeeper on Wednesday but he is not allowing himself to get too carried away

Monday afternoon at England’s Hertfordshire hotel and, while the rest of the country ponders how to plug the void left by the Olympics, Jack Butland can thrill at the sheer potential of the week ahead. The teenager is fresh from the training pitch at London Colneywhere he was one of only two goalkeepers put through their paces by Roy Hodgson’s staff ahead of the midweek friendly against Italy. He should, at some stage, become England’s youngest ever goalkeeper in Berne, beating a record that has stood for 124 years. Then, all being well, he might even play his first senior game for Birmingham City on Saturday when Charlton Athletic visit St Andrew’s.

At some stage the nerves will presumably kick in but, for now, there is too little time for Butland to reflect upon such rapid elevation. By his own admission, the last few months have been “a whirlwind”. A player whose first-team involvement at club level amounts to 24 games on loan at CheltenhamTown in League Two last term has nevertheless bounced from Euro 2012 to Team GB over the summer, his career apparently on an irresistible upward curve. “I don’t know what else is up there to get to,” he says. “It’s come so quick I’m thankful for my family who are very grounded and make sure I don’t get ahead of myself. I hate to see that in players, that term ‘big time’. But I’m taking it all in and enjoying it.”

Butland has long been earmarked as a player of immense promise. He stands 6ft 4in, is commanding and confident even when thrust into training with seasoned internationals, his form having attracted 52 scouts to one of his games for Cheltenham last season. He does not play like a 19-year-old novice and even off the field he feels exceptional. He is eloquent and level-headed, displaying a maturity that is hard to grasp at times. Most would have been blinded by elevation into the England setup before playing in any of the top three divisions, yet, even ahead of an anticipated debut against the Azzurri in Joe Hart’s absence, the youngster recognises he will be better served in the immediate future playing regularly for the Under-21s rather than sitting, at best, on the seniors’ bench.

He has already spoken to Hodgson and Stuart Pearce and made his feelings known on that subject. “As fantastic an experience as it is to come away with the senior squad, there’s no better way to learn than playing games,” says Butland, who was the subject of a £6m bid from Southampton earlier this summer and has been tracked concertedly by Liverpool, Arsenal and both Manchester clubs. “It’s just like going to Cheltenham was something I had to do, and it’s got me where I am. The pitches were bobblier, the strikers stronger and bigger. The biggest crowd we played in front was around 9,000 against Bradford. But you need to play to learn and develop as a player if you want to get where you want to be, which is the top.

“This will be another big season for me to learn and get games under my belt and, if that’s in the Championship, so be it. It would be silly to go somewhere else where I’m not going to get that experience. There have been a few trigger points in my career that have kicked off everything else – the World Cup with the Under-20s in Colombia (in 2011), going out to Cheltenham, the games in the Under-21s – and they’ve helped put me forward for the Euros, the Olympics and now this.” Billy Moon, of the Old Westminsters and Corinthians, was 19 years and 222 days old when he debuted against Wales in 1888. Butland’s last competitive game was against Accrington at Whaddon Road in front of 3,217 fans back in April but, at 19 years and 158 days, he will beat Moon by 64 days at the Wankdorf stadium.

This is already reward for real endeavour. Born in Bristol and initially with Clevedon United and the local Jamie Shore academy, Butland joined Birmingham at 14 and would commute by train to training three times-a-week, doing his homework en route. “It was a two-and-a-half hour journey on the train, and only a little over an hour in the car, but I didn’t want to put it on my Mum and Dad. I’d go to school on Monday and then up that afternoon, would stay Monday night and train Tuesday with (the current England coach) Dave Watson, then back that evening. School on Wednesday, back up that afternoon, train Thursday… home that night and back up on Friday to play for the academy sides on a Saturday. It was basically 12 hours sitting on a train every week.

“I’d do catchup lessons at lunchtime back at school and made sure I had something to fall back on if anything threatened my career. I’m from a family of egg-chasers – both my granddads played rugby, and my Dad played at county level until he got a bad injury after being hit by a car, which messed up his knee.” Butland Jr walked away from school with two As, six Bs and a C from his GCSEs, his own rugby career having been passed up for football. Birmingham recognised his potential early, but it was with England, from the Under-16s upwards, that his reputation was really forged. Those at the top took note.

His own progress only really sank in when he switched on his mobile phone in the arrivals lounge at a Mexican airport ahead of a 10-day holiday with his girlfriend in late May. John Ruddy, who should start on Wednesday, had broken a finger in training and the teenager on standby had been summoned for Euro 2012. “The phone went mad and I didn’t even need to read the messages to know what had happened,” he says. “I just told my girlfriend: ‘We have to go home’. She was pretty gutted – we’re still together – but the FA let us stay for five days. I did a few beach runs to stay fit, with people looking at me strangely wondering what this guy was doing at six in the morning, but I had to do something, if not for my body then for my head, just to get back in the groove.”

From third-choice in Ukraine, he excelled for Pearce’s Team GB this month to establish his credentials as a long-term challenger for Hart as England’s No1. As premature as it may seem, the national side could have a situation similar to that with Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence where two goalkeepers of real pedigree are competing for a single place. The friends will relish that tussle. “The target is to test him and make him a little worried, and eventually try and take his place,” adds the junior. “We’re good friends but, when it comes down to it, only one person can wear the shirt. Hopefully I’ll get that chance. Anything can happen. I’m just going to make it as difficult as I can for the manager to pick a keeper.”

Yet that is in the future. For now, an opportunity awaits in Berne to make a first impression, with another potentially to come at club level on Saturday. Last weekend offered a first taste of football at St Andrew’s, albeit in a friendly defeat to Royal Antwerp. By the time he introduces himself to Birmingham’s supporters against Charlton, he should be a full England international. None of this progression feels conventional, but then neither does Butland. Club and country may have unearthed a gem. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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