BARNSLEY goalkeeper Luke Steele has set his sights on an England cap – five years after walking out on Manchester United.
Both Ray Clemence and Joe Corrigan checked on Steele in recent weeks as Fabio Capello extended his search for a new goalkeeper beyond the Premier League.
Although missing out on last week’s friendlies against Spain and Sweden, Steele took encouragement from the selection of Ipswich Town’s David Stockdale – just two months after Derby County’s Frank Fielding was also called onto the international stage.
Steele, 27, says his ascent into the ranks of England contenders has justified his decision to quit Old Trafford at the age of 22.
He still has another 18 months on his contract at Oakwell but wants to play in the Premier League soon.
Speaking ahead of today’s South Yorkshire derby with Doncaster Rovers, Steele told the Yorkshire Post how he joined Barnsley with a three-year plan designed to take his career back to the top.
“When I was at Manchester United, I found it hard to get in the first team. I felt I was fighting a losing battle,” he recalled.
“No matter how well I did, I always felt they were going to bring someone in like Edwin Van der Sar, Tim Howard or Fabien Barthez.
“I am just thankful that I made the decision to move on. I could have stuck it out for a few more years and there are goalkeepers of my age who have not played 50 games and who are happy to sit on the bench. They have probably earned more money than me but I wanted to play football.
“Some goalkeepers develop later than others and that’s probably been the case with me.
“This season is the first time in a long while that I’ve actually thought about playing for England because everyone is aware that Ray Clemence and Joe Corrigan from the FA have been to watch games.
“Both Frank Fielding and David Stockdale have been included in recent meetings so it is in my mind that it is quite relevant to my career at this moment in time.
“It’s always been my dream to get into an England squad and is is pleasing to know that I am being thought about.
“I wanted to get 150 games under my belt and now I want to be pushing for those sort of accolades. It is a realistic target.”
Ironically, the retirement of Steele’s former team-mate Ben Foster from international football has helped push open the door to his ambitions.
Foster, 28, was on the books at Old Trafford with Steele but both opted to seek pastures new for the long-term benefit of their career. “It’s a tough club to make it as a goalkeeper,” said Steele. “I don’t really think any (youth) goalkeeper has made it there and I’ve always said that if it does happen he will be the best goalkeeper in the world. It’s such a hard job to come through at Manchester United and actually get trusted to play.
“It didn’t work out for either of us but coming here to try and establish myself as a goalkeeper was the best thing I could have done. The plan was to play week-in, week-out and clock up 150 games. Now I have done that, I want to try and move forward. I am not saying I want to leave but I want to move forward and see what I can achieve in the game.
“People like Ben Foster could get to 30 and re-sign for Manchester United. That’s the way it goes. It’s not my ambition to go back but it’s a possibility! You never know what can happen.
“Wherever I go next, it will be somewhere I am going to play. I don’t want to leave and be on the bench. I’ve had opportunitites to do that in the last three years but I have always said ‘no’ because I want to play. I feel I am at a stage now where I want to be established at the highest level. This club is helping me do that.”
If or when Steele does leave Oakwell, few will deny him an opportunity to return to the top-flight.
Since making his debut in a fifth round FA Cup victory against Liverpool at Anfield in February 2008, Steele has matured as a goalkeeper and been a rare constant at a club where so many other players have departed. “Every year, myself, Bobby Hassell and Stephen Foster look at the team photos on the wall,” he said. “We are the only three players left from four years ago! There must have been 50 players who have come and gone in that time. Some players do well but obviously most of them don’t so they have to leave and do other things.
“I’ve always been taught from a very young age about loyalty. Staying at one club can be a good thing because you build a relationship with everyone and when it comes to derbies they mean that little bit more.
“I do get annoyed when the club sells players – even though I know it’s for financial reasons,” he added. “I wish we had kept Brian Howard, Jason Shackell, and Adam Hammill. Can you imagine the team we would have now? I want the best for this club so I want the best players to stay but that’s not always the case.
“We are all trying to reach the highest level we can and the path is different for everyone. The three-year plan I had has gone perfectly so far but the Premier League is where I want to be and, hopefully, I will achieve that.”
The Tykes pulled off a transfer coup last night when striker Nile Ranger agreed to join the club on loan from Newcastle United.
Ranger, 20, is set to make his debut in today’s South Yorkshire derby and Steele said: “We always make sure the players, especially the new lads, know that the Doncaster game is not just another fixture. The atmosphere is different and there is more emphasis on winning. We have six games in December and a lot of points to play for in a short space of time. Hopefully, we can get off to a good start.”
Steele is also looking forward to his first encounter with El-Hadji Diouf, the Senegalese international striker, who recently joined Rovers on a short-term deal.
“I have never played against Diouf before but he’s not exactly on top of his game. He’s left that behind him now,” said Steele. “I am sure he’s not just here to have a holiday and pick up his money. He wants to do well and move on again like everyone.”