BETWEEN them, teenage goalkeepers George Long and George Willis boast more caps for England youth teams than they do appearances for Sheffield United.
But, despite their relative inexperience, goalkeeping coach Darren Ward believes that United are in good hands with the young pair in Mark Howard’s absence through injury.
Since Howard succumbed to a thigh injury early into a 1-0 win at Leyton Orient in October, Long - who turned 19 on Bonfire Night - has been handed the number one jersey and Willis, a second-year scholar, has been promoted on to the first-team bench as cover.
Long made his 10th senior appearance in United colours during last weekend’s 1-0 defeat at MK Dons. Willis has 10 caps for England’s Under-17 side.
With Howard expected to be out until around the turn of the New Year, some supporters feared United’s promotion attempt could be derailed by a ‘goalkeeping crisis’, but Ward told this newspaper: “‘Crisis’ a strong term.
“True, it is fair to say that we are very inexperienced in a key area of our team.
“But so far George Long has stepped up to the plate and grasped his opportunity well.”
With United keen not to breach Salary Cost Management Protocol regulations, which limit spending on wages to a percentage of a club’s turnover, United manager Danny Wilson elected not to sign veteran goalkeeper Danny Coyne, who had been training at Shirecliffe earlier this year.
Wilson does, however, have an out-of-contract goalkeeper on stand-by should Long succumb to injury or suspension.
Ward, who made 490 appearances in his professional career before joining United’s backroom staff, added: “For a club of this size and tradition to rely on a first-year professional and a second-year scholar is a big ask.
“But I’ve been in football long enough now to not be surprised by anything! We’ll crack on.”
Ward, who made a £150,000 switch from Mansfield to Notts County in 1995, the year Willis was born, added: “With respect to Willis, we need someone to keep Long on his toes and we recognise that Willis isn’t in the ideal scenario to give us that competition, because of his age. “Having said that, he’s a great prospect and he’s been recognised by England in his age group, which is fantastic. But it’s a big ask to be relying upon him to put pressure on George Long.”
Willis spent two days last week at the new St George’s Park national football centre at Burton, working with England’s goalkeeping coaches. “International recognition is another tool in his development,” Ward added. “But it is a different ball game to League One.”
Follow Danny on Twitter: @dannyhall04