BY EDMUND BRACK
There is one word that continually crops up while speaking to Jack Butland: Confidence.
It is the self-assurance that saw the then 19-year-old Butland reach record-breaking heights in the fledgling stages of his career when he ended the 124-year record held by Billy Moon to become England’s youngest ever goalkeeper under Roy Hodgson during a 2-1 friendly win against Italy in 2012.
That early faith in himself saw Butland signed by Stoke City, represent Team GB at the London Olympics, and record a handful more England caps and over 150 professional appearances.
Butland openly admits he briefly lost that confidence towards the end of time at Stoke City as the club were relegated to the Championship and he lost his place in the side to Adam Davies. However, he has regained it once again at Crystal Palace.
“Football is a difficult game – goalkeeping is as well,” Butland said.
“No matter how much you love football, it is your job – it is still about performing.
“I was low on confidence for a period of time – I didn’t feel great about myself. For me, I needed a fresh start. I needed a new challenge – somewhere with new people to challenge me and new people to push me.
“Not to say that the environment that I was in [with Stoke] was wrong, but it was one that I had been in for a long time and an environment that needed freshening up.
“Not many people get the opportunity to move out of that and into another one that works. For me, it has done.
“I feel as though I have been able to show that [my confidence is back] in recent months, but I wasn’t able to show that last year despite feeling as though I was back to my best.
“It is not to say that the difficult times aren’t going to arise elsewhere, but it is about learning from them.
“It is all part of developing – it is never always plain sailing. But now, I certainly feel 100 per cent capable and able to deliver my best.
“I have certainly learnt from that experience, and I hope never to experience difficulties such as that again.”
With Patrick Vieira coming in as manager over the summer and competition for places fierce throughout the Crystal Palace squad, Butland has been handed the opportunity to shine and display his renewed composure.
While he had his name serenaded by the travelling Eagles faithful at the Amex in mid-January after thwarting Pascal Gross’ first-half penalty in the 1-1 Premier League draw at Brighton, Butland’s main source of game time has been through the FA Cup.
The 29-year-old has played every minute of the cup run and is looking to take the Eagles to the FA Cup Final by navigating a way past current European champions Chelsea at Sunday’s semi-final.
“It’s a massive opportunity,” says Butland, looking at the possibility of bringing FA Cup success to Selhurst Park.
“Given our performances in the league and against top teams this year, we have shown as a club that we’re not afraid to play the big guns and do well against them.
“It is what we are. We are not just happy to be here – we’re looking to win every game. That is something that the manager and we as players are determined to do.
“This is an extremely talented squad – it has got an incredible balance of youth and experience. When all of that comes together, you get yourself a very good team, which I believe we are really becoming.
“It is certainly one of the most talented squads that I have been in.
“At Stoke, when we finished ninth three seasons in a row, it was a slightly different balance of players – not as many young players in that, but certainly talent in there.
“In terms of youth and experience, this [Palace side] is certainly up there.”
Asked if the atmosphere surrounding the South Londoners at this present time – with Palace on course to secure their 10th consecutive season in the top-flight alongside their FA Cup semi-final date this weekend – had helped Butland in rebuilding his confidence on the pitch, he said: “Absolutely, it’s a very difficult place not to feel happy right now.
“Even if there are players who wish they were playing more, it is very difficult in this environment to not enjoy yourself and not enjoy the process.
“It’s a great group, and the group that pushes each other – it’s an environment that everyone enjoys. And it’s a great time to be a part of the club. Players, staff and fans alike will all echo those statements. It is something that we hope continues.
“When you have got a manager who has achieved what he has achieved, and he comes with that experience and that winning mentality, it is very difficult not to feed off that and take aspects from that.
“He has been keen to push us, and that has shown. When you do that, and you have got a platform that you can build from, it is very difficult not to become confident.
“There are no egos. When you have got that environment, success is the next step.”
Despite their seven-game unbeaten run coming to an end at Leicester City last time out, the Eagles have produced eye-catching performances throughout the season to show they have a fearless streak to match any side on their day.
“We were playing well at the start of the season, as we are now, but I don’t think we were as clinical at the start,” explains Butland.
“Now, that confidence is just growing – we are being clinical and putting teams to the sword.
“Vieira has been keen to stress, in every game which we have played in this FA Cup run, that this was an opportunity to win, an opportunity to do something special. As a club, it has now become a focus and something that we are rolling with.
“We didn’t set out to do this, but we do set out each week to win the game at the end of the week. That is what we have been doing in the cup and the Premier League also.”
It has been more than four years since Butland last stepped out at Wembley when Gareth Southgate handed him a start in a 1-1 friendly draw against Italy. While that might change on Sunday should he start ahead of Vicente Guaita, Butland is already hoping to schedule another visit to the national stadium in mid-May for the FA Cup Final.
“I can’t wait – a semi-final at Wembley in front of our fans is going to be special. The family and friends there – it is an incredible occasion and an incredible day out.
“But it comes down to the football. It is a semi-final, and we want to get to the final – that’s how we are approaching it.
“It is a great opportunity – one that I am extremely excited for. I can’t wait for Sunday.”
Photo: Jack Butland: CPFC / Seb Frej