Football: Earle keen to show that England's loss is Jamaica's gain

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The Independent Online
After waiting for a call from Glenn Hoddle which never came, Robbie Earle turned his attention elsewhere and now looks to be heading for the World Cup finals. John Carlin talked to him in Washington.

It is not too often in football that a player gets called up for his first international cap when he is in his thirties. Wimbledon's Robbie Earle was in Glenn Hoddle's reckoning last season and came very close to making it into the England squad.

Earle, who was 32 in January, was dying to be picked. In an interview with the Independent in April, he said he jumped whenever his mobile phone rang. "It'd be my mum and I'd say: `Get off the line in case Glenn's trying to get through'."

The call never came. And yet now it seems that, with a little bit of luck, he will be going to the World Cup finals in France next year, playing not for England but for Jamaica, whose squad he joined in June.

Jamaica are second behind Mexico in the Concacaf group, from which three qualify, after drawing with the United States in Washington on Friday. One point from their last two games should see them through.

How did it come about that he became a Jamaican player? "I was sort of on the standby list a couple of times for England last year, so obviously I was waiting to see if anything happened," he said.

"Meantime, the Jamaican Football Federation spoke to me - this was something that was always in the background because both my parents are from Jamaica - and come the summer nothing had happened really on the England scene.

"I think the Tournoi de France was the turning point. Glenn Hoddle brought in some young players there and it looked as though there wasn't going to be any opportunity internationally at that level, so I decided to go with Jamaica."

Earle does not sound very Jamaican. He sounds as if he comes from, well, the place where he was born, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Watching him train with the Jamaican squad for the United States game, his manner seemed decidedly English.

Under the Brazilian coach, Rene Simoes, the fitness training included a rhythmic clap and jump routine which spurred some of the younger players into a sort of calypso frenzy.

Earle followed the moves but he was not going to win any dancing prizes. To be fair, he had a bad knee which ruled him out of the game in Washington. But, generally, where his Jamaican team-mates were coltishly exuberant, he was quiet and restrained - a gently spoken philosopher-footballer who keeps his head while all around are going bananas.

Not entirely unlike the role he plays with the Crazy Gang, which is one reason why the transition from Wimbledon to Jamaica had proved, he said, something of a home from home.

"There are similarities in that it's a small nation, we're a small club. There's a lot of team spirit and camaraderie, which is similar to Wimbledon. Jamaica's a smaller nation trying to get a bigger identity and that's something I've known since I've been at Wimbledon. So it's been quite an even transition, to be honest."

He was being honest because at that very instant one of his team-mates, a wild-eyed Vinnie Jones type, walked behind him and gave him a gratuitous shove in the back. Without batting an eyelid, without any visible break in his thought process, if only showing perhaps a flicker of a smile, he kept talking.

"I thought it might be slightly more difficult, but they've taken to us well. The results have gone quite well. We hope we've added something to the squad. Maybe a little of experience, a little bit of professionalism."

The "we" refers to himself and three other England-based players in the Jamaican squad: Fitzroy Simpson and Paul Hull of Portsmouth, and Deon Burton of Derby County, who has scored the decisive goals in Jamaica's last three World Cup outings.

Earle came on as a substitute in two 1-0 victories over Canada and Costa Rica last month and hopes to be fit for what promises to be a huge game against El Salvador on 9 November.

The question was whether Earle, a Jamaican for barely three months, had acquired any genuine stirrings of national pride. "You do get a sense of pride," he said. "Obviously I'm Engl-", he checked himself just in time, betraying his obviously ambiguous feelings, before continuing.

"I was born in England, so my first choice would have been England. I'm not going to deny that. But you do feel a sense of pride and a sense of trying to create a little bit of history for a country. It's almost like being able to put something back to a nation that wouldn't get this kind of attention otherwise."

From someone else that "putting something back" stuff might have sounded corny. From Robbie Earle's lips, it sounded totally sincere. If, in the autumn of his footballing years, he wins his shot at glory in France next year, it couldn't happen to a nicer man.