Gareth Southgate needed a strong start. Results and performances will determine how long he lasts in his new job, but this is England and even the best chefs can only cook with what’s in the fridge. There needs, then, to be a broader perspective on his work and any analysis of his performance must take into account the effect he’s able to have on the squad’s surrounding culture and the levels of accountability within the side.
Within that context, culling Theo Walcott was a bold and productive move.
Walcott’s reported reaction was telling. While few would argue that he’s had a largely anonymous few months since the last international period, he was apparently incredulous over his omission. One imagines that Southgate presented a redacted version of that conversation to the media, but even that press-friendly edition revealed a deeply bruised ego.
Curious. Shock selections have been made in the past and players who feel they have strong claims to inclusion have also periodically reacted badly, but Walcott’s dropping is neither unjust nor a shock – at least not to anyone other than the player himself.
There’s always existed this suspicion that certain managers selected England squads in a way which allowed a quieter life. Through fear of a press reaction or damaging relationships with particular managers, some players would be allowed to dictate their own terms with England. While it would never take more than a mild muscle strain for them to disappear back to their clubs, the expectation – when fit and willing – was clearly that simply being selected by their Premier League team should automatically default them into each and every England squad.
And that is part of the reason why the national team has become a world beyond form. While the common criticism is that managers have been in thrall to fame and celebrity and have been largely blind to form at domestic level, an equally destructive habit has been the propensity to ignore players’ performances when they actually represent England. Despite the team’s record over recent decades, there have rarely been any consequences for the self-selecting majority. A fringe few bounce in and out the squad, but for most that initial selection and debut becomes a lifetime invitation to St Georges’ Park. In this country, international caps aren’t so much earned as they are collected when a certain tipping-point has been reached; one day, a player just becomes an England player and is allowed to collect caps until he loses interest.
Walcott doesn’t quite belong in that category. Injury has kept him out of several tournaments and Fabio Capello famously dropped him for the 2010 World Cup, but he remains a pertinent example of someone whose actual contribution to the England team is often ignored – a player whose worth to his country is determined by how well Arsenal are playing rather than what he might bring. As of this summer, he will have been involved with the team for 11 years and yet, his Croatia hat-trick and a few other flickers aside, his career at that level amounts to very little. Arsenal supporters naturally back his cause, but even the most partisan would struggle to name five games which have validated his involvement.
That’s five games from 47 appearances.
It’s rather like a long-winded pub quiz question: “Make a case for Theo Walcott’s England selection without referencing Arenal.”
All players have to earn their chance through club football, so of course it isn’t irrelevant. Similarly, because international games are generally spaced apart, poor domestic form can’t be excused on account of an isolated and historic international showing. However, beyond a certain point a player becomes a wasted pick. If, say, after more than a decade of England training sesssions and matches a player still hasn’t acclimatised to that environment, surely what he does for his club declines in relevance?
Southgate seems to recognise that. While generally viewed as a company man and as the safe appointment required to neutralise the post-Allardyce toxicity, he’s actually a highly progressive coach – or, at least, he’s a Dan Ashworth disciple, the technical director the Football Association employ to be progressive. But there’s something refreshing and modern in Southgate’s approach to Walcott, too, principally in its implication that having played for England before and being able to tread water at club level is no longer a guarantee of selection.
This is England, so it’s wise to step carefully. Our national team has a habit of drawing the country in with promising beginnings before stabbing them through the heart. Nevertheless, Southgate’s early movements in his new job suggest that, at the very least, his times with the u21s (and the organisation as a whole) has provided some valuable insight into what needs to change and which standards need to be raised.