By Colin Malam Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 08/12/2002
Russell Hoult, the West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper, does not care for the giant television screens they have behind the goals at White Hart Lane. He finds them "off-putting", he says. Not when Tottenham are attacking, you understand, but when he is watching his own team attack. In fact, he worries about being caught watching television when Spurs launch a quick counter-attack.
There is little chance of his being taken by surprise this afternoon, though, when West Brom visit north London. Hoult has played so well for two seasons now, he is being touted as a candidate for the England squad when Sven-Goran Eriksson names the names for the national team's next game, a friendly against Australia at Upton Park in two months' time.
With David Seaman, at 39, proving increasingly vulnerable to injury and error, David James remaining capable of the alarming miscalculation, Nigel Martyn kicking his heels among Leeds' reserves, the jury still out on Richard Wright and a lack of experience holding back Paul Robinson and Chris Kirkland, it is no surprise to hear Eriksson plans to have a close look at one of the few other English keepers earning a living in the Premiership.
Hoult has a good pedigree, coming as he does originally from Leicester, the club that provided England with both Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton. Only two weeks into his 31st year, too, he is at the peak of a nomadic career that has afforded plenty of experience and taught him everything about the ups and downs of life as a professional footballer. When you have been sent out on loan to - no disrespect intended - the likes of Lincoln, Cheltenham and Kettering, you tend to get things into perspective rather quickly.
That's only the half of it, too. Leicester loaned Hoult to Bolton, Blackpool and Derby as well before selling him to the Rams for £200,000 in the summer of 1995. He did pretty well in his five years there, making 121 appearances and helping the east Midlanders to win promotion to the Premiership in his first season. But then he suffered the fate of too many English goalkeepers when Derby bought a foreigner, Mart Poom, and he had to take a back seat.
Eventually it was back into the old routine for Hoult, Portsmouth taking him on loan before paying Derby £300,000 for his services nearly two years ago. What finally projected this 6ft 4in late developer into the prominence that has sparked all the speculation about international recognition was the shrewd decision by Albion manager Gary Megson to buy him from Portsmouth for £450,000 in January last year.
Bingo. Hoult kept 27 clean sheets - a club record - last season as West Brom excelled defensively and climbed into the Premiership in the second automatic promotion place behind Manchester City. Despite his club's struggles, he has not done too badly this season, either. The opposition have been denied a goal in five of Albion's 16 League games and only 22 have been conceded in all. Their problem has been scoring at the other end.
But why, one is bound to wonder, has it taken so long for Hoult's ability to be recognised? "I don't know," confesses the player himself. "I'm at that ripe old age of 30, so it seems a funny time for everybody to start talking about me. Probably it's because I never really played an awful lot of football at Leicester. I didn't get more than 20 games in a row there, or at Derby.
"But I feel I'm a better goalkeeper now. I'm a lot more confident, more relaxed. Playing for a club like this, it's a lot more enjoyable. Maybe that's because I'm playing all right, but it is a more relaxed atmosphere here. I enjoy coming in of a morning to train, whereas some mornings at Derby you got up and thought, 'Here we go again. Got to go there.' Especially when you were not playing.
"They bought Mart Poom halfway through the season. So I spent a lot of time on the bench: I was out of favour for a bit there. I found it a bit hard going training and having nothing at the end of the week to train for. Here, it's different. You've got something to work for every day you come into training."
Having been through the mill, so to speak, Hoult tries hard not to get carried away by the prospect of making the England squad. "I've never seen it, to be honest," he says unconvincingly about all the speculation, "although I've had a lot of ribbing about it from the lads. It's nice to have people talk about it and it would be nice for it to happen, but I'm just here to do a job for the club, really. If anything comes of that, then fine; but I won't rant and rave about it, that's for sure."
But what if Eriksson did give him the nod? Could he, with only a couple of U-21 squad selections to his name, handle elevation to the top level of international football? "I'd give it a go," says Hoult in his matter-of-fact, down-to-earth way. " I wouldn't have to change anything because there's nothing to change: the goals are the same size. It's just a little bit bigger stage, that's all."