An exclusive interview with Alex Stepney – a goalkeeping legend of Manchester United
Manchester United goalkeeping legend Alex Stepney spoke exclusively on SportingPedia about the upcoming quarter-final clash between England and the World Cup holders France on Saturday, December 10 at 7pm UK time.
In this part of the interview we discussed the two countries’ goalkeepers and who stands a better chance in a potential shootout between the teams. We also talked about the other leading players performing at goal.
Highlights Of The Interview
- “Jordan Pickford is better suited for potential penalty shootout than Hugo Lloris”
- “Gareth Southgate will field the same starting XI that began against Senegal”
- “The quality of the matches has been on a very high level and I expect England – France to be one of the best games in Qatar”
- “Our game is to go forward! Let France worry about us”
- “Jude Belligham has been unbelievable for England”
- “The goalkeeper is the team’s puppeteer and I like how Pickford mixes it from the back”
- “We are a lot better at corners than France”
Full Transcript Of The Interview
Pavel: Let’s start with the hot topic. What are your observations of the World Cup?
Alex Stepney: Well, there was a lot of talk, obviously, about where it was or where it was being held, and surprisingly enough, I’ve been absolutely surprised because it’s been great in a lot of respect with the way they’ve arranged it, but more so with the games. I think the referees and the linesmen lines people have done a magnificent job. The only thing that I can think of really was that goal that the ball was basically over the line and the VAR said it was in. It was actually one rule that I don’t like. I mean, it’s been going on for a while now where when corners are taken, even in the Premier League and around Europe, they’ve seemed to put the ball just over that line. Why they’ve changed that, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s right for the game, actually. If the base the ball is on the line. Yes, no problem. But not the curvature, the ball. But that’s the way things have changed. Everything is changing. We have to move on. But it didn’t look right to me and I don’t think it looked right to anybody who watched it on television. That ball was definitely out, but anyway, the VAR has been absolutely brilliant. I mean, we have a few problems here in England, Premier League, et cetera, but now I think the organization of the games run by the people, it’s been absolutely fantastic.
Pavel: Which were the teams that you enjoyed watching the most, besides England, obviously?
Alex Stepney: Yeah. I tell you what, Pavel. I’ve got a feeling that when you looked at the group stages, not one team got maximum points.
Pavel: Yes. No one with a perfect record in the groups.
Alex Stepney: Exactly. And I’ve got to say that because now I think there’s 26 players in the squad that because teams have already qualified for that last game, they put out the rest of the team. And I don’t think that’s a good thing, to be honest.
Pavel: You were part of the England team at the 1970 World Cup.
Alex Stepney: Yes, I was. But we only had three substitutes. And it was completely different. I mean, when you see now the substitutes all lined up and then they can be used basic, most of them, it’s quite different from 1970, when actually there was only three subs. And if you were not involved with the plane or you weren’t a sub, FIFA made you sit in the sand. That’s how much it’s changed. Going to say, that the way it’s set out now. Everything’s moved on. You have to accept that. It’s a very hard job. Now, how can I say, for running the team.
But then again, if I go back to 1970, we had a manager. We had Alf Ramsey at the time. We had two assistants, trainers and a doctor. That’s all we had. Now they have so many coaches and they’re like data analysts.
Alex Stepney: Well, can I just say, when some of these players score a goal and they take their shirts off well, it looks like a bra.
Pavel: Can we get back to the teams at the World Cup, who are your favourites?
Alex Stepney: Well, obviously I’d like to be famous, but I’ve got to say that obviously Brazil still are outstanding the way they play. They don’t worry about anything, they just carry on and go for it and they have the skill. But in saying that, the game is, in a way, the other teams let’s take Spain, for instance. I mean, all Spain do is pass, pass, pass. And when they came up against Morocco, they had a plan to defend. But Spain never had any player that could take anybody on and go at them. And that seems to be right throughout football nowadays, especially from my position as a goalkeeper, the way they play the ball out of the back and there have been mistakes made by that.
Pavel: Yes, It’s completely true – pass, pass, pass. And the goalkeeper gets more time to prepare for himself, to anticipate where the ball will come from.
Alex Stepney: Absolutely. If I remember rightly, I mean, back when I was playing, do you know I only had 4 seconds to release the ball?
Pavel: Yeah. From catching to releasing?
Alex Stepney: 4 seconds. Now they take a minute, I think.
Pavel: By the rule they are allowed six, but it’s going like sixteen.
Alex Stepney: Exactly. But that’s normal.
Pavel: Did you not mention France earlier on intention?
Alex Stepney: Well, France is a very good team. They’re reigning world champions. But, like, going back to what I said before, they changed. I think they qualified. They actually put a complete reserve team out, and they lost. They didn’t have to win, but they lost. Now, to me, that really is not a good sign for the rest of the tournament, in all due respects. I know it’s a different thing. But with England, Southgate’s made only a couple of changes. Southgate made a couple of changes, and that wouldn’t surprise me on Saturday that he will start with the same team that he started with last week, because if you keep a winning team, it’s not a problem. And he has the players there who come off the bench knowing that they can come out there and play their part for the team. So, hopefully, I think, obviously, with playing France, it’s a different kettle of fish in respect, as you say, because they’re world champions and they have a certain player who plays on the left who probably could win 100 meters, but you can’t worry about one player.
Pavel: Let’s focus on Jordan Pickford and his counterpart Hugo Lloris. They both play in the Premier League.
Alex Stepney: Well, I will say this, that Pickford the other night has done very well and made two crucial saves, actually. At the right time. And that’s what a goalkeeper has to do. If it’s nil nil, even though you might not be doing a lot in the game, but if you come up with that, you have to be the concentration levels have to be fantastic. Now with the race in the Premier League, obviously having the last two seasons, he’s made quite a few mistakes.
Pavel: Well, I remember Pickford in one Liverpool derby gifted Liverpool the winning goal in added time.
Alex Stepney: Yeah, well, we all make mistakes, but you have to forget about that. It’s where you make sure if there’s only one mistake, it’s not so bad. But everyone makes a mistake. You’re a goalkeeper, the ball is in the back of the net and it’s your fault. The forwards can miss from five yards, four yards and get away with it. The goalkeeper, it stays in history. I think with Pickford, I’ve got to say, with this modern game, the way they play out from the back, he does mix it up quite a bit. He doesn’t keep doing the same thing, which does affect the high press, which the other teams don’t know what to do, whether to press or not to press, because he’s mixing up and I agree with that.
Pavel: If the game goes to penalties. We all know the saying that it’s not the goalkeeper saving the penalty, it’s the player missing the penalty. But just professionally, Pickford or Lloris is better suited for a shootout?
Alex Stepney: Well, I would say Pickford, I would say I think he’s more stature. The only thing with penalties is I don’t like goalkeepers moving before the ball is kicked.
Pavel: Well, but it worked out for Morocco against Spain.
Alex Stepney: Ah, yes, it did. But the thing was, if you got the goalkeeper, if he had stood still and kept his eye on the ball and it went down the middle. It amazes me. How can I say that? You’ve got to you’ve got to stand there and react to the ball, not the player.
If you react to the ball, then you’ve got a chance. If it’s new to you, you’ve got a chance of saving it.
Pavel: Is there one particular goalkeeper that has impressed you the most during the World Cup?
Alex Stepney: Oh, I think Alisson. Yeah, Alisson for Brazil. I mean, he is a superb goalie, but I mean, I see him all the time, obviously this, you know, in the Premier League, and he is a master of his trade.
Pavel: Yeah, he’s been pretty solid and the distribution with legs in the modern game is very important. But what would you say about Thibaut Courtois the best goalkeeper for the last season in the Champions League, ranking 7th in the Ballon d’Or this year.
Alex Stepney: When they won the Champions League, the pressure that he was under, I mean, I can never forget that there was a corner late on and everyone was in a box. I mean, I know he’s about six foot-five, six foot-six, but he came and he claimed the ball, where how many goalkeepers have you seen in the World Cup catch the ball? They punch it. And that’s why I say Courtious does his job to perfection for crosses, because he uses size, his height and he does talk to his defense.
Pavel: Do you see any goalkeeper claiming the most prestigious individual award in football soon?
Alex Stepney: Yeah, I think, like I said, Alisson’s got to be the one. He is absolutely outstanding.
Pavel: You are saying that Alisson is winning the Ballon d’Or?
Alex Stepney: If Brazil win the World Cup, he’s got a hell of a chance.
Pavel: But then people will point out to Liverpool’s Premier League season which is not going very good.
Alex Stepney: Well, I mean, we’ve had that for quite a while. I’ve got me Bad John, by the way. Listen, these things happen. Yeah. We’re only talking early on in the season. We’re halfway through now. This amazes me because now we don’t start back till Boxing Day, I don’t think. The Premier League starts back. And this time this month or six weeks that we’ve had off, what will happen between the teams at the top and the teams at the bottom? Because it could be a bad thing for the teams at the top, but it’s break.
Pavel: Liverpool have six or seven players at the World Cup only, while City 16 or something like this and this can affect the rest of the season.
Alex Stepney: Arsenal are having a magnificent season so far.
Pavel: Sorry, I’m not a fan of Arsenal, but the way they play this season, hats down!
Alex Stepney: Yep. Who are you a fan of?
Pavel: No one in particular in England, but I’m a diehard Real Madrid fan.
Alex Stepney: Okay. You don’t want me to tell you about the 1975 and 1968 then, do you?
Pavel: No, I wouldn’t like to. Tell me about the English yougsters. Youngsters Rashford is 25, I think. Now. He’s not that young. Saka, Rice …
Alex Stepney: Bellingham unbelievable.
Pavel: He’s coming to Madrid, isn’t he?
Alex Stepney: Well, you have to prize him from the German league. No, I think he’s very mature. And I go back to what I said earlier about Spain. They never had anybody that would take people on or go at defenses. When Bellingman gets the ball, he’s one player who will receive it, turn and go at the defense from midfield, and that upsets defenses.
Pavel: I shared to a friend that I haven’t seen a player performing with such calmness when he has the ball. Probably since Zinedine Zidane.
Alex Stepney: Absolutely! Every touch, everything. He’s also got strength. Strength. Because today’s game there’s so much strength in the players. But he rides it, he knows where they are and it will go on. Well, you’ve seen that, obviously, in the World Cup.
Pavel: So you’re picking Alisson as the goalkeeper of the World Cup and Jude Belligham as the most impressive England player?
Alex Stepney: Yes.
Pavel: Well, I’m thinking, to switch the topic to club teams now. There are some topsy-turvy times at Old Trafford now.
Alex Stepney: Yeah, obviously, but we’ve had that for a while. The fact is, don’t forget, look, no one’s ever going to beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s record, right? And when he left the club, well he didn’t leave the club, he decided to move upstairs.
Pavel: Wait, sorry, so you don’t think that Gurdiola can stay another ten years and beat Sir Alex?
Alex Stepney: It was one thing about Guardiola. When did he last win the Champions League?
Pavel: Some 10 ten years ago?
Alex Stepney: The thing is, Manchester City, that’s the only thing they want. And Guardiola, if you think about it, I know you’re a big Real Madrid fan, and he was at Barcelona, but he’s never won it since he left Barcelona.
Pavel: Well, I don’t say I’m liking him and the style of his teams, just saying that if he stays another 10 years at City, that probably he will better SAF’s record.
Alex Stepney: Because the fact is that. He went to Bayern Munich because they wanted to win the Champions League. Three years there, didn’t win it. And obviously, Man City. And being an ex-Manchester United player I don’t want City to win.
Pavel: What did you think when there were rumours that Ronaldo was joining City?
Alex Stepney: Listen, Ronaldo, the way the game is today, if Ronaldo joined City, all hell will have let loose.
Pavel: There will be no people on the streets, only angry fans.
Alex Stepney: I mean Ronaldo’s best times were with United and not Real Madrid. (laughing)
Pavel: Okay, so what are the best attributes for a goalkeeper?
Alex Stepney: Definitely organization. Talking to the defense. When you’re a goalkeeper, you are the puppeteer, you’re the back.
Pavel: I read a story about you saying that you injured your jaw, while playing and giving instructions to the defenders.
Alex Stepney: Yeah. That was a bit of a white lie story because what happened was in the first minute of the game against Birmingham City, I went out for a free kick, which logged into the area and the center forward did what he normally do. Instead of heading the ball, he headed my cheek and knocked me out. And not like today, you have to go off, but in those days you had a cold sponge put on your face and you carry on. And at halftime I relaxed and had a cup of tea and my jaw started to swell. So when I went out for the second half I had the ball and I went to shout out at fabulous captain Martin Buchan that I was going to throw him the ball and … it cracked so it was right, but it wasn’t right because I had it cracked from before.
Pavel: Do you have any observations on the young English goalkeepers coming through the Academies?
Alex Stepney: It’s very difficult today because there’s so much in respect with the academies and the players that play. If you’re number one goalkeeper, you’re number one and you don’t see a lot of the reserve games or the games. It’s only when they come through and get their chance and they have to take that chance when it happens. Like with De Gea, he had a bit of a bad spell probably 18 months, a year ago, last season, and we have one coming through called Henderson.
Pavel: Yeah, Henderson. They sent him to Nottingham.
Alex Stepney: I think that’s right, yes. Well, he actually was playing well, he deserved his place and he the finished season. I think he must have played about ten or twelve games at the end of the season and then. Unfortunately at the start of the season we’re in now, he got covid and obviously De Gea’s chance to come back and he has proved himself superbly. He didn’t want to lose his place and I think he’s done so well to come back as he, you know, playing very well to keep Henderson out and that’s why Henderson went.
Pavel: But I’ve been hearing that the Swiss goalkeeper is coming to United in January and they are letting De Gea go for free.
Alex Stepney: Who? Sommer?
Pavel: Yes, Yann Sommer, because De Gea’s contract is expiring in 2023.
Alex Stepney: But there has been in the paper recently here that he’s been offered another year, so who knows? The only thing about him, he is probably about six or seven games away from the games that I played for Manchester United.
Pavel: So he has to go in January. (laughing)
Alex Stepney: He did come from Atletico Madrid, didn’t he?
Pavel: Come on, can we compare Atletico and the others?
Alex Stepney: When go back and think about Real Madrid. I think Casillas was fantastic, I mean, he was unbelievable as a young kid who came through and he took his chance, didn’t he?
Pavel: Yeah. He caught it, he grabbed his chance and never let it.
Alex Stepney: That’s right. And that’s what you’ve got to do as a goalkeeper.
Pavel: Now mentioning Casillas. I checked your height – 1.80 meters.
Alex Stepney: Well, six foot me.
Pavel: Okay, I looked at the Premier League goalkeepers, Pickford is 1,85 and one of the shorter in the league.
Alex Stepney: Nowadays, nowadays, I am 6 foot five, and that just proves little point of view. And me is the fact that the only thing they’ve never changed is the size of the goals. Let’s think about it. The goalkeepers are now so much bigger and taller. It’s easier for them than it was for me.
Pavel: Do you remember Jorge Campus?
Alex Stepney: Yeah. It’s unbelievable.
Pavel: Are you happy with the tenure of the Blazers.
Alex Stepney: Well, it’s an awkward one because I work at Old Trafford, I do the hospitality, and I’ve got to say that there’s so many rumours that it’s out of date now, but I’ve never seen anything that hasn’t in respect of moving into the stadium. There’s always things going on there. They’ve changed the lounges, they’ve done this, they’ve done that. They’ve updated inside the outside of it I don’t quite know, because you don’t get involved in any of that. But the Glazes never sort of done anything to do with, I’m going to say the past. They’ve never changed the history of the club. I think managers have I think the managers that have come in have in a way, I’m talking more Van Gaal, not so much Ollie, because Ollie only knew much, a lot about it. The Glazers have never done anything to do with the past … they have never changed the history of the club. I think managers have. I think that the managers who came in have. In a way like Van Gaal, Mourinho. I don’t know much about Ten Hag, but I think with Van Gaal and Mourinho, there was no way that they are going to stay at a club for more than probably two years, three years.
Pavel: They were chasing trophies. Instant success.
Alex Stepney: Absolutely. But not the respect. And not having the respect of the history of the club, ex players, etc.
Pavel: A quick top 5 of the English goalkeepers?
Alex Stepney: Yeah. That’s a hard one, really? My words. My words. Well, you see that there’s not many English goalkeepers.
Pavel: Well, I like Aaron Ramsdale.
Alex Stepney: Well, Ramsdale has come through. Yes, he’s probably one that has come through. Who else have you got?
Pavel: Nick Pope.
Alex Stepney: Nick Pope’s done well. He was at Burnley. He’s come on well, he made a horrible mistake playing for England. His first cap, I think it was. But, yeah, he’s done well. But he’s in a team that’s changed. The team’s winning. It’s when you’re a goalkeeper. It’s when your team is not playing well you’ve got to be the savior, but when your team’s scoring goals, it makes it a lot easier for you. So, yeah, I say Pope and Henderson really. Henderson’s done alright. De Gea’s done very well. And Ederson, that’s at City.
Pavel: He’s been a constant in City’s goal for the past five years.
Alex Stepney: Yeah, but it’s the way, Ederson, that Pep wants his team to play as a goalkeeper. When he joined, that actually ruined a guy called Joe Hart, who was England’s goalkeeper. But unfortunately, this is how I look at it, Joe Hart was England’s goalkeeper, and a manager comes in and says he can’t use his feet. The managers that he played under never played that way, so he never really had a chance. And I think that ruined his career, actually.
Pavel: I think some kind of the same happened to De Gea. He’s not at the World Cup because he’s not playing good with his feet.
Alex Stepney: I messaged him the other week and he presented me with a signed shirt. And he’s a nice lad. I would have liked to see more talking organization and not saving the ball with his feet. Because as a goalkeeper, you have to use your hands. Your hands, your head and your mouth.
Pavel: So what about Ten Hag, any observations?
Alex Stepney: Not really. You see, that is the thing now. We don’t get involved. When Alex was there, we could meet the players and the players knew who we were. But now, the modern game, it’s one of these things, it’s moved on. And we don’t have a lot to do with the manager now.
Pavel: Okay, can you come with the top four finish at the end of the season?
Alex Stepney: Finish of the top four in the Premier League? Yeah, obviously City, and I think I’m not sure about Tottenham.
Pavel: What about Arsenal?
Alex Stepney: Arsenal? Arsenal, City, right?
Pavel: You’re saying Arsenal on top of City?
Alex Stepney: Well, it’d be nice for a change. And ironically, I mean, the manager at Arsenal was under Mr. Guardiola.
Pavel: That’s right, yeah, his assistant.
Alex Stepney: So I’m going to go Arsenal, City, Newcastle, Manchester United. How about that?
Pavel: Fantastic. I don’t see Liverpool.
Alex Stepney: Well, they’ve had their run. Would you like to talk again about this game on Saturday?
Pavel: Yeah, tell me more about the game on Saturday.
Alex Stepney: I think that England, like I said before, will basically play the same team. Start with the same team, Southgate. I think that’s what he’ll do. But we don’t have to worry about them. We must play our game. The only thing about it is because of the left side of Maguire and Shaw, which are both teammates, okay. And Stones and Walker teammates on the other side, they have to make sure that they don’t do so much passing around across the pitch, get it forward, and players in the middle of the farm. The Bellignhams and these sort of players have got to, even if Mount plays, got to go and turn and go at the defense, because I think that could be a weak point. If Varane plays, he’s liable for injury. He’s not been fit for United for a while. I think there could be some sort of lack of consideration defensively with Lloris and the back four.
Pavel: This is what I think. Even though Varane is not in the best form, in defense, they are surely better equipped than you. But in midfield, with Pogba and Kante out, these young ballers like Bellingham, Rice. I like Rice.
Alex Stepney: Yeah. Yes. Of course.
Pavel: West Ham put some out of this world price tag on him, but I like how he plays.
Alex Stepney: Yeah. Okay. I think England has got to go not play around so much. It’s their game to go forward. Let them, let France worry about us.
Pavel: Yes, but this is not what I’m seeing of Southgate and his style. I’ve seen more of England playing the waiting game, exposing the wings with Saka and Rashford, Phil Foden.
Alex Stepney: Yeah, I quite agree with you. And this is what I’m trying to say to you. I don’t want England to go out there and keep passing across the back because that is not the tempo of the game which you want to go and win.
It’s a knockout game. You have to go and play your game and get at them and let them worry about you. Don’t you worry about them.
Pavel: Yeah. This is the moment that the Three Lions have to go out and make a statement.
Alex Stepney: And another thing, if we do put that pressure on, you got more chance of getting corners and we are a lot better at corners than France.