Before Paul Scholes came out of retirement to rejuvenate the Manchester United midfield, if rejuvenate is not completely the wrong word, and before Thierry Henry came back from the United States to add to his Arsenal goal account, one of the major talking points in the first half of the Premier League season had been the excellence of some of the goalkeeping.
New giants between the sticks had been springing up everywhere, and not just at Anfield as Kenny Dalglish was cheeky enough to suggest. There were finds from abroad, such as Tim Krul and Michel Vorm, Blackburn Rovers' reserve Mark Bunn seizing his chance in the spotlight, and an overlooked Englishman in John Ruddy making a name for himself with newly promoted Norwich City. How, in these circumstances, Manchester United managed to end up paying over the odds for not one but two frontline goalkeepers who look nervous and error-prone when they take their turn in the spotlight is anyone's guess. It may be that the spotlight shines particularly brightly into the eyes of Manchester United goalkeepers, and perhaps even Arsenal and Chelsea goalkeepers too, for that matter, though that is a subject for another day.
Today's subject is the daddy of all Premier League goalkeepers, the one who has been around so long he can remember the back-pass rule being introduced, has been so consistent he shattered all records for consecutive games, and is actually older than Ryan Giggs as well as Scholes and Henry. But for work permit problems, Brad Friedel would have signed for Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough in 1993, which would have put him in England right at the start of the Premier League era. As it was, he had to stay in the United States and ended up contracted to the national team as his country prepared to host the 1994 World Cup, but Friedel was 22 in 1993, knew his future lay in England, and was only forced to wait until 1997, when he finally got a move to Liverpool, by red tape.
Bear that in mind when considering which goalkeeper may be the best the Premier League has seen. Friedel would not win any show-us-your-medals contests, has rarely been exposed to the highest level of European competition and perhaps cannot boast the individual brilliance of Peter Schmeichel or David Seaman at their absolute best, but even as a latecomer in 1997 he has been around for most of the Premier League's lifetime, and boy do the statistics stack up. Friedel has ended up with one of the most impressive of all Premier League careers.
Ironically it was only at Liverpool where he found it difficult to get a regular game. Having played under Graeme Souness at Galatasaray, Friedel arrived at Anfield as understudy to David James in the Roy Evans era, and became as confused as everyone else when first Gérard Houllier arrived and then Sander Westerveld, not to mention Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland. Friedel had rejoined Souness at Blackburn by the time Liverpool brought in the last two goalkeepers (on the same day) and, though the Lancashire club were just as prone to managerial coming and goings, the American stayed to make 287 appearances. He was man of the match when Blackburn beat Tottenham Hotspur in the 2002 League Cup final, likened to Superman by an impressed Gordon Strachan after a memorable performance against Southampton, a popular winner of the Blackburn player of the year award the following season, and in 2004 followed Schmeichel into the record books with a goal from open play against Charlton.
After twice extending his contract at Ewood it appeared the goalkeeper might see out his career in Lancashire, yet the Friedel story was far from over. In 2008 he joined Aston Villa and in the November of that year he broke the record for successive Premier League games with his 167th appearance in a row, against Fulham. Now 37, yet still athletic and splendidly consistent, Friedel kept his Villa place on merit and just about this time last year notched an incredible 250th consecutive league game, just a week or two before becoming the oldest player in Villa's considerable history at 39 years and 259 days.
Friedel went on to play in all 22 of Villa's remaining games last season, though when he switched to Tottenham in the summer of 2011 it appeared his unbroken run would surely come to an end. Edwin van der Sar had just retired from Manchester United on reaching 40 and it seemed unlikely that Harry Redknapp would be signing a goalkeeper of such advanced years as his regular first choice. Not a bit of it. Friedel played in Spurs' first game at Old Trafford (their original opener at home to Everton was postponed due to the London riots and is being played on Wednesday night), and has appeared in all 19 of the club's league games to date, meaning that he is now on the verge of keeping goal in 300 consecutive Premier League games, a phenomenal achievement by any standards.
To those who would argue that Friedel has never played at the very highest level, and that his clubs until this season at least were mostly ensconced in mid-table, there is the small matter of three World Cups to consider, even if he never managed to get a look-in past Tony Meola in 1994. He made his World Cup debut in 1998 in France, but by 2002 was just about the best goalkeeper in the Japan tournament. That is a personal opinion, if you must know, there are no statistics or awards to prove it, but most observers reckoned it was between him and Oliver Kahn and the German made one or two mistakes in the final. Yes, at least Germany reached the final, whereas the USA made only the quarters, but just as Blackburn's continued presence in the Premier League was due in no small part to Friedel's reliability in goal, so the goalkeeper's contribution to his country's most impressive World Cup performance should not be underestimated.
It may even be possible to speculate that the USA could have gone further than the second round in South Africa last year had Friedel not chosen to step down from international football, though that would be slightly unfair on Wednesday night's opposite number, Tim Howard. One thing is certain, there will be two good goalkeepers on display at White Hart Lane. Two American goalkeepers, and both now members of the small club to have scored goals from open play, for all that Howard's fluke against Bolton last week was wind-assisted and accidental.
Tottenham seem to be that little bit more convincing as top-four contenders this season, that little bit more relaxed and sure of themselves. So they ought to be, considering the money they have spent, for Spurs have not put themselves in the Champions League bracket on the cheap, as their rivals keep pointing out. Yet it could be that one critical difference this season, a reliable goalkeeper who communicates confidence and calm through to his back four, was achieved for next to nothing. Short term, possibly, although you never know with Friedel, but for minimum outlay Spurs did not make themselves a problem but solved one.
Compare and contrast with Manchester United. Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson cannot win in this situation: had he gone for Friedel he would have been roundly criticised for not looking to the future and not spending any money, and the goalkeeper himself would have been under the most intense scrutiny from day one. But sometimes a solid season or two is all you need to buy time and wait for another opportunity to arise, and Spurs are still in a position to spring the odd surprise. Redknapp will not make many shrewder signings.