Between 1970 and 1990 Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton gathered 186 England caps between them. Shilton earned over twice as many as Clemence with a final total of 125 to 61, but for many an expert there was not so much as a grain of difference when it came down to talent and who was the better of the two.

Both men enjoyed long success-filled careers, and both are revered today as being amongst the best ‘keepers England has ever produced. Both men, however, were complex characters in their own way and a closer look at their respective careers throws up some interesting talking points.

Peter Shilton made his league breakthrough in 1966 before England won the World Cup, and made his final league appearance 31 years later a matter of days after Tony Blair became Prime Minister. He was named in England squads over six World Cup campaigns from the time he made the original squad of 40 for the 1970 Mexico World Cup under Sir Alf Ramsey, to when he finally bowed out of international football at Italia ’90 two decades later.

Ray Clemence also made his league debut in 1966 but retired from competitive football ten years earlier than Shilton, retiring at the age of 39 due to injury. Of the two, Clemence amassed more trophies and medals but fewer caps. At Liverpool, he won five league titles, three European Cups, two UEFA Cups, an FA Cup, and a League Cup. He added a further FA Cup and UEFA Cup following a transfer from Liverpool to Tottenham Hotspur in 1981.

Meanwhile, Shilton enjoyed a golden period of success at Nottingham Forest between 1978 and 1980 when he amassed a league title, two European Cups and a League Cup. However, other than a Second Division title won with Leicester City in 1970, these were the only major honours Shilton ever won.

Shilton spent the first dozen or so years of his career at so-called unfashionable clubs, firstly at his home town club, Leicester City, and then at Stoke City. Although decent teams, it is arguable that Shilton’s career stalled a little until he finally joined up with Brain Clough at Nottingham Forest in autumn 1977. It was perhaps this fact that contributed to him falling behind Clemence in the England reckoning at this point.

Clemence moved from lower-league Scunthorpe to Liverpool in 1967 as understudy to the legendary Tommy Lawrence. Making his debut in 1968, Clemence became the established first-choice ‘keeper at Anfield in 1970.

In the early 1970s, Gordon Banks was still the undisputed number one choice for England, but a tragic car accident left him blind in one eye forced his retirement and opened up the door of opportunity for Clemence and Shilton to stake their claims. Initially, it was Shilton who seemed to be the preferred choice as he was selected more by Sir Alf in the last couple of years of his stewardship.

After Ramsey was sacked, his successor, Don Revie seemed to prefer Clemence and so Shilton was forced to kick his heels on the bench for the most part between 1974 and 1977. Following Shilton’s move to Forest and Revie’s replacement by Ron Greenwood as England manager, Shilton came back into the fold more.

With Liverpool and Forest battling each other for the game’s major honours at the time, arguments were rife over who was the better ‘keeper and who should be England’s number one. There seemed to be no definitive answer to the conundrum, as both men had their many strengths combined with a couple of weaknesses. Clemence, for example, was perhaps more athletic than Shilton, while Shilton commanded his area with slightly more authority.

Nobody seemed able to give a definitive answer as to who was best. Least of all, it seemed, the one man who mattered most: Ron Greenwood.

Unable or unwilling to choose between the two, Greenwood simply decided to select the ‘keepers on a rotation basis, with each man playing alternate games.

As England moved towards the 1982 World Cup, both Shilton and Clemence were rethinking their club careers. From seemingly being settled at Nottingham Forest and Liverpool respectively, Shilton and Clemence were both considering moves away.

Shilton was respected by Brian Clough who considered him the best goalkeeper in the world. For Shilton, the feeling was mutual, as he held Clough in the highest of regards. However, the two men weren’t close and at times seemed to rub each other up the wrong way. By 1982, Forest’s light had started to flicker a little and the Trent club was no longer challenging for the top trophies. As a result, Shilton started to get itchy feet and that summer he left for Southampton.

Meanwhile, Clemence had already left Liverpool for Tottenham a year earlier in a very surprising move. Liverpool had not had the greatest of league seasons in 1980-81, managing to only finish fifth, yet had won their third European Cup together with their first League Cup. Although Bob Paisley had signed a young goalkeeper hailing from Rhodesia, Clemence’s place was not thought to be under any immediate threat and so it was some surprise when Clemence asked for and was granted a transfer.

As with Shilton’s move from Forest to The Dell a year later, many conspiracy rumours and whispers persisted concerning Clemence’s apparent desire to leave Liverpool so suddenly. Perhaps here is not the place to look in detail at these rumours, but suffice to say they have never been totally refuted.

Anyway, as the 1982 World Cup approached Greenwood had a big decision to make. Both Clemence and Shilton had informed the England boss that it was ‘make your mind up’ time as the country could not continue to alternate goalkeepers during a World Cup tournament.

It was then that fate and Terry Fenwick intervened.

Tottenham had had a long season in 1981-82, and at one point had challenged for four trophies, while Nottingham Forest had finished a miserable 10th in the table, not been in Europe, and had exited the domestic cups in the early rounds. This meant that Shilton was well-rested by the season’s end, while Clemence had the little matter of an FA Cup Final to contend with.

Tottenham met Queens Park Rangers in the final played on a Saturday, and with less than five minutes of extra-time remaining looked like they would retain the cup they had won the previous season as they led through a solitary Glenn Hoddle goal. Then up stepped QPR’s Terry Fenwick to nod in an equaliser and force a replay back at Wembley the following Thursday.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Clemence as it meant he was now ruled out of England’s last two major matches prior to the World Cup. Instead of playing against either Holland on the Tuesday or Scotland on the Saturday, it was Shilton who got the nod for both games. In keeping clean sheets in both matches, he pushed his nose ahead of Clemence’s and ultimately started the World Cup as Greenwood’s preferred choice. Shilton would barely miss another England game in the next eight years, while Clemence would only play twice more for the Three Lions.

As England went deep into the next three World Cups, Shilton made 17 appearances in the finals themselves. These weren’t without a certain degree of controversy, however. In 1982, England won their first two group games and so qualified for the next stage with a game to spare. It was at this point that Greenwood suggested giving Clemence a game in the dead rubber against Kuwait only for Shilton to refuse to stand aside.

In 1986 there was, of course, the matter of Diego Maradona and his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal, when the diminutive Argentinian was somehow able to outjump the six-foot Shilton and punch the ball home. In 1990 questions were asked of Shilton regarding his failure to prevent West Germany’s goal in the semi-final defeat or his inability to stop any of the six penalties he faced in the tournament. Although England exited the tournament at the semi-final stage, they qualified for the third-place playoff match against Italy. It was now that England boss, Bobby Robson, suggested giving back-up ‘keeper Chris Woods a game. In echos of 1982, Shilton once again refused to stand aside.

On the point of penalties, Shilton always refused to take a gamble and plump for one side or another. Instead, he would wait until the taker had struck the ball and then rely on his reflexes and hope the kick would prove to be close enough for him to save. He also admitted that he didn’t wish to look foolish by guessing incorrectly and thus being sent the wrong way.

By 1990, Clemence had been retired for a couple of seasons following an Achilles heel injury. Following his retirement, he went into coaching and management. Initially, he joined the backroom team at White Hart Lane before being promoted to joint-team manger alongside Doug Livermore. He then had a couple of years managing Barnet. He spent a long time as England goalkeeping coach under a succession of managers, before finally retiring for good in 2013.

After the World Cup in 1990, Shilton retired from international football but continued playing in the top flight with Derby County before taking over as player-manager at Second Division Plymouth Argyle in 1992. Unable to save the club from relegation, Shilton spearheaded a push for promotion that failed in the play-offs, and in 1995 left the club.

Not done with football yet, Shilton signed as cover for a succession of clubs and appeared for Bolton Wanderers in the play-offs before turning up at Leyton Orient in 1996. After playing nine games at the East London side to bring his total number of league appearances to around 1005, Shilton finally retired.

Clemence is revered as both a Liverpool and Tottenham legend and was awarded the MBE. Shilton was awarded the OBE and is perhaps recognised as England’s greatest ever keeper alongside Gordon Banks.

Who truly was the best has never been definitively decided.

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David Nesbit

Living and working in SE Asia
David Nesbit
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