“He’s a magnificent player and what he’s done for England is second-to-none…it’s two very different things: one player who’s already got 107 caps for England and one who’s got many, many caps to come – at the end of the day, it was a decision I had to take”.
You’d be forgiven for thinking these are the words of England Manager, Gareth Southgate, justifying his decision to leave out a big-named, tournament veteran, in favour of a younger, upcoming star of the future, whether that be Nick Pope replacing Joe Hart or Ruben Loftus-Cheek being preferred to the likes of Jack Wilshere.
However, the opening quote is from none other than Roy Hodgson, when he announced his twenty-three-man England squad for the Brazil World Cup, on 13th May 2014, at Vauxhall HQ. Here, he explained his decision to leave three-time World Cup attendee, Ashley Cole, at home in favour of in-form left-back of the future, Luke Shaw, who was destined to be Cole’s long-term replacement.
Shaw has earned a total of seven England Caps since his debut against Denmark in 2014 and for a variety of reasons, his name has not been mentioned in World Cup conversations.
Other inclusions in the class of 2014 were twenty-year-olds Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, two bright prospects chosen by Hodgson for big tournament experience, brought along to taste the big time, in preparation for becoming senior International players.
For very different reasons, neither of these, now twenty-four-year olds, will be on the plane to Russia; Barkley’s lack of game time has automatically put him out of contention for a squad which was chosen on form and after an impressive season since joining Liverpool, Oxlade-Chamberlain will sadly miss out, due to a season-ending knee injury, but there’s no doubt he would have been included in Southgate’s plans.
When the England squad was announced last week, there was an underwhelming aura around the country from fans and the media that this was a young squad of whom nothing big is expected; a squad which will gain some great experience in Russia which they can build upon in future tournaments.
An England Manager can aim to build a squad for the future with all the very best intentions, but four years in football is a long time, and as we have seen, players and circumstances change and events unfold from season-to-season, so there’s no guarantee that a number of the youngsters chosen for this summer’s World Cup will be in Qatar or beyond, to build upon their experience this summer.
Let me be very clear: I want each and every young player in this England squad to fulfill their potential and will be supporting them every step of the way. However, there’s no reason why in four years’ time, we won’t find Ruben Loftus-Cheek on the fringes at Chelsea, Harry Maguire out of favour with a foreign manager following a career defining transfer or, God forbid, one of these young men misses out on the next World Cup due to injury.
Excluding Sam Allardyce’s cameo appearance, since 1994 when Terry Venables took over, the permanent England Manager has been at the helm for an average of 2.8 years, 36 games and 1.4 tournaments.
The timing of a managerial appointment may decide how many bites of the cherry they get, but history tells us that the reign of an England manager is very limited indeed, and therefore, the amount of time they have to build for the future is sparse.
Unless the FA are as patient with Gareth Southgate, as Deutscher Fußball-Bund have been with Joachim Loew, one cannot help but feel that as soon as results deteriorate, then the opening credits of the same film we’ve seen many times before will begin, where fans’ hopes are in tatters and the British Media call for the England Manager’s head.
If they’re Good Enough, They’re Old Enough…
“We’ve got to be thinking about the very top, the very best. We’ve got to be thinking about winning it”.
Terry Venables spoke before England’s first group game against Switzerland in Euro ’96, where his squad contained a nineteen-year-old Phillip Neville, his brother, Gary, Sol Campbell and Robbie Fowler, all aged twenty-one, with Nick Barmby and Jamie Redknapp, aged twenty-two also featuring.
These were young players brought to the Euros, not to get a taste of tournament football, but because they were good enough to represent their country at the highest level, at that moment in time.
In an interview with the BBC in 1997, then-England Manager, Glen Hoddle, was asked whether age was a barrier for players to be selected for his World Cup Squad…
“No. It’s no barrier. Whether you’re a young seventeen-year old, or thirty-six, it doesn’t bother me; it’s about talent… there will be six or seven countries who go there as a batch of favourites and I’ll allow myself to say we might just be one of them”.
England’s World Cup squad in 1998 was purely based on ability, with the intention of winning the tournament. It also included an eighteen-year old Michael Owen, who famously made his name during the tournament.
In years gone by, the best players at that particular moment represented their country and age wasn’t used to lower expectations or to excuse results before a ball has even been kicked. Many have said that it would be a successful tournament if England reach the quarter finals, but one cannot help but feel this should be the bear minimum.
Admittedly, the pool of players Southgate has to choose from is more shallow than that of Venables and Hoddle. There is nothing wrong with young players being picked and the sense of pride is immense, when watching a youngster go toe-to-toe with the best in the world, but we must focus on the talent of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (to name just a few), rather than their age. It sometimes feels like we’re trying to force a Michael Owen of ’98 or Rooney of ’04, to emerge from nowhere.
In 2014 and 2016, the average age of England’s squads was twenty-six – this time around it’s marginally higher. During the previous World Cup, there was a ‘changing of the guard’ notion, with the inclusion of Lampard and Gerrard aiming to execute a smooth transition for future tournaments, which further encouraged a mentality of low expectation. It felt like failure wasn’t a disaster, because the players were building a catalogue of experiences for the next big tournament.
With the opening of St.George’s Park and the vast success of England’s youth teams, the FA finally seem to be building a bright future for English football, so surely, it must be the job of the England senior team, not to plan for the future, but to focus on the tournament in hand. Post 2010, it forever feels like England are preparing for future tournaments rather than focusing on ‘the now’.
It was refreshing to hear Harry Kane talk ambitiously about England’s chances in the World Cup after being officially named as England Captain and hopefully, this squad will make the most of every opportunity that comes their way. If all goes to plan, many will be seen representing their country at future tournaments, however, England should go to Russia with an objective to win, not to gain experience for a more winnable tournament in the future, where, as History tells us, many of this year’s players may not feature at all.
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