Remembering Ray Clemence and the heyday of English goalkeeping

Ray Clemence died yesterday at the age of 72 after battling prostate cancer for 15 years. When I began following English soccer in the late 1970s, Clemence was the number one goalkeeper for the English national team and for Liverpool, then the best club side in the world.

At the time, English goalkeeping was the world’s gold standard. Gordon Banks had been one of the two best keepers at the 1966 World Cup (along with Lev Yashin of the Soviet Union) and, if anything, was playing even better at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico until a case of food poisoning ended his Cup and thereby ruined England’s.

In the late-1970s, Clenence and Peter Shilton (a year younger than Clemence) were inarguably among the world’s top five keepers. It’s no accident that their clubs, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, dominated English and European football during that era. With Shilton in goal, Forest won the European Cup in 1979 and 1980. Liverpool won it with Clemence in 1977, 1978, and 1981.

Clemence played 61 times for England between 1972-83. Shilton played 125 times from 1970-90.

Clemence was the natural; Shilton the grinder. Steve Coppell, who played with both for England, recalls:

At the time we probably had possibly the best two goalkeepers in the world in Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence. Ron Greenwood [the England manager] couldn’t split them for a while and alternated them in and out of the side, which neither was particularly happy with. The contrast in training sessions always amazed me. We’d do shooting practices for hours on end with Shilton and Kevin [Keegan]. Peter was non-stop: as long as people would shoot at him, he would save them.

When we had shooting sessions as a squad, Clem and Shilts would alternate in goal. Clem would make two or three great saves and then just say: ‘That’s enough, I’m alright.’ He’d finish and wander off, and Shilts would be there for another hour, stopping everything that was hit at him. That spoke volumes about Clem’s natural ability.

Many of Clemence’s most memorable saves were in the old European Cup. The list of his victims reads like an honor roll of footballing legends — Dominique Rocheteau, Uli Stielike, and Jupp Heynckes, for example. Heynckes, one of the greatest forwards I’ve ever seen and later one of Europe’s great managers, had a penalty kick saved by Clemence in 1973. He said this about the man who saved it:

My penalty wasn’t struck well enough, and it wasn’t low either. It was nevertheless a great reaction from Ray Clemence. That moment, he basically won the UEFA Cup for Liverpool.

I remember Clemence as a calm, unfussy, courageous and very agile keeper. He was particularly good in one-vs-one situations. Thanks to his strong reflexes, he was able to really aid Liverpool, as the crowd enthusiastically celebrated his saves just like goals. His name will forever be a huge part of Liverpool’s success in those days, because you can only win trophies with a great keeper.

Clemence remained a Liverpool crowd favorite even after his move to Tottenham Hotspur in 1981. In 1985, Spurs hadn’t won at Liverpool since 1912, a month before the Titanic went down.

Clemance remedied this, pitching a “shutout” that day in Tottenham’s 1-0 victory. Sparkling saves from Liverpool greats Stevie Nicol, Ian Rush, and former roommate Phil Neal ensured the victory.

When it was over, Clemence left the field to ringing cheers from the Liverpool fans. Micky Hazard of Spurs says:

It sends shivers down my spine when I think of that. He had just cost Liverpool victory and their fans were singing, ‘There’s only one Ray Clemence’ and ‘England’s No 1.’ You might sometimes expect that for a former player when they’re on the losing side, but Ray had helped us win the game with a number of great saves, including that incredible double save, and Liverpool’s fans were showing their appreciation.

I can hardly imagine how that must have felt for Ray. It was certainly different to what I used to get when I played against my former clubs! I’m sure he would have shed a tear thinking about the reception he got that day. I think it tells you everything about Ray Clemence as a goalkeeper and, more importantly, as a human being.

English goalkeeping hasn’t been the same since Clemence and Shilton left the scene. David Seaman (Arsenal) was a world class keeper, but not at the same level as that pair.

Seaman was followed by David (“Calamity”) James of Liverpool. James wasn’t as bad as the nickname suggests, but he wasn’t world class.

Two goalkeeping prodigies — Paul Robinson (Spurs) and Joe Hart (Manchester City) — looked like they might revive the tradition of great English keepers. But Robinson was never the same after a key miskick against Croatia in a European qualifying match. I don’t know why Hart’s career capsized.

When one thinks of goalkeeping for the English national team in this century, one thinks above all about errors. Not just Robinson’s, but the fumbles by Scott Carson (Aston Villa at the time) in the rain (also against Croatia) and the muff by Rob Green (West Ham) against the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup.

England’s current keeper is Jordan Pickford of Everton. Early on, he seemed like he might be the answer, and he performed well at the 2018 World Cup. But lately, he can’t get out of his own way. Pickford is currently a below average Premier League keeper. He is in danger of losing his place at Everton.

The decline of English goalkeeping must have bothered Clemence, especially since he coached the national team keepers from 1996-2007 and again in 2011-12. Of course, coaches on the national team only get to work with players intermittently, so Clemence can’t be blamed for the rot.

It must also have annoyed Clemence to see foreign keepers like Cech (Chelsea and Arsenal), DeGea (Manchester United), Courtois (Chelsea), and Lloris (Tottenham) dominate the Premier League. These days, two Brazilians, Alisson (Liverpool) and Ederson (Manchester City), are at the top of the heap. In the 1980s, goalkeeping was the Achilles Heel of the Brazilian national team.

On the other side of the ledger, Clemence surely was delighted to see his son become a capable midfielder for Tottenham Hotspur, among other quality teams. These days, Stephen Clemence is a coach for Newcastle United.

I’ll give the final word to Gary Stevens, who played with Ray Clemence for Spurs:

Whenever I think about Ray, I think about his presence on the pitch. He had that presence and he could read the game so well. He was so agile and so flexible.

Sometimes he would rush to smother the ball at a player’s feet, or he would tip the ball around the post or over the crossbar, and you would think, ‘How has he managed to get to that?’ And then you’d think, ‘Oh, of course. Because he’s Ray Clemence’.


NOTE: Quotes from former players and references to specific saves come from an excellent article in The Athletic by Simon Hughes.

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