International withdrawals have been treated with suspicion for a long time. It’s a legacy of a previous generation, during several now-retired players having admitted that they didn’t always enjoy representing the national team and came to view it as a chore. Now, whenever there is a withdrawal an accusation normally follows. In the public’s mind, groin strains and sore backs are fronts used by players who want to skulk back to their clubs for ten days of video games and banal Instagram.
But it’s outdated. The existence of that mentality was probably overstated in the first place, tying in as neatly as it did with the perception on an inhibited, terrified squad, but there’s little evidence to suggest that it survives in 2017. The current international break may have seen a proliferation of withdrawals (Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson, Harry Winks and most recently Phil Jones), but all of them appear caused by genuine injury – and, more importantly, involve players who have always seemed enthused about playing for their country.
Social media can put its pitchfork back in the cupboard.
Rather than dwelling on old suspicions, it’s probably better to focus on what is quickly becoming a healthy selection policy. As of late Saturday night, Lewis Cook, Angus Gunn and Dominic Solanke had been added to the senior squad and, of course, Jordan Pickford, Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all started the game against Germany on Friday. The message isn’t part of a blunt determination that younger is always better. Yes, Cook, Gunn, Solanke and – arguably – Loftus-Cheek have all received call-ups based on what they’re likely to be rather than what they currently are, but it still represents healthy evolution and a determination to be curious.
Conversely, England used to be wedded to certain players. Not just the usual suspects who were defaulted into the side by their profile and then deemed to famous to drop, but also to a series of underperforming fringe players who were allowed to become long-term squad fluff. Cowardly selection was to blame; these reinforcements would all fit roughly the same profile – players with thirty-odd caps who had never really performed on the international stage, but who appeared in the Premier League regularly enough to be difficult to object to.
More broadly, there seems to have been a place for that sort of England player for decades. Stewart Downing, for instance, has won 35 caps, Shaun Wright-Phillips has 36, and Theo Walcott is currently three away from a half-century. The point isn’t to denigrate the careers of those players, or any others of similar profile, but to acknowledge how contradictory their involvement often seemed to be. England were never likely to depend on them, never seemed entirely committed to using them properly, and yet continued to pick them through some abstract sense of loyalty. Kieron Dyer, for instance, has more caps than Darren Anderton, Viv Anderson and Nobby Stiles, but (winning a penalty against Turkey in 2003 aside) you would be hard pressed to recall a single moment of his England career.
International selection should always be an opportunity for exploration. Any team, club or international, has a core of permanent parts, but its fringes should – within reason – remain under constant review. Not every debutant is capable of becoming a first-teamer, but selections should always be guided by that aim and there should exist the intent to properly examine a player in a position which suits him – and, for the longest time, that hasn’t been the case.
It’s possibly tenuous, but nevertheless tempting to link that to the ennui which exists around the England team. Repetitive failure has been the single biggest turn-off, of course, with the processional nature of the qualifying games a close second, but – outside of competition – supporters have rarely had a reason to buy a ticket. Instead, the expectation is that to watch the national team will be to see the same group of players under-performing in exactly the same way and, obviously, that doesn’t make a strong case for a trip to Wembley or even watching the game on television.
Beyond an unlikely World Cup or European Championship triumph, there’s no silver bullet for that indifference. However, it can be argued that there is a flicker of intrigue to this side. Not in the style, not even necessarily in their performances, but through that matured selection policy. How many people, for instance, delayed nights out on Friday because of a faint curiosity as to how Loftus-Cheek or Abraham might perform? How many more will make sure to get home from work on time on Tuesday so as not to miss Solanke’s possible debut? The answer is probably in the tens rather than the thousands, but that would still represent an improvement of sorts.
Gareth Southgate’s job is to win games, not to ignite public enthusiasm. What seems to be happening though, albeit at a very gentle rate, is a handy marriage between the two. It was notable, for instance, that both Abraham and Loftus-Cheek started the game against Germany, rather than being restricted to pointless minutes once the game had died as a spectacle. That’s one of the key differences: players now seem to enter the squad with an opportunity to actually play. During a different era, Abraham would have likely spent thirteen minutes labouring awkwardly on the wing and Loftus-Cheek, raw, unproven and untested, would have to have waited until he returned to his more famous, more media-facing parent club for his first call-up.
The answer to every question England face, it seems, is no longer just to hand valueless caps to players who already have a cupboard full of them.
In itself, that is not a guarantee of anything real and neither will waving a few developing players in front of the public disturb their thick sense of indifference. The change, however, is that England now promise something different. Not necessarily anything good or exhilarating, but certainly a welcome sense of experimentation which has been missing for decades.
Consequently, there is at least a reason to watch these games now.