Football: Wright-Phillips happy to be flexible

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOR A MAN whose England career hinges on him eventually replacing the most iconic player of his generation, it would be fair to say that Shaun Wright-Phillips is fairly relaxed about his future. If there was only one place for a right-winger in Sven Goran Eriksson's team then Wright- Phillips would probably be the single biggest threat to David Beckham reaching a century of England caps, but tomorrow night looks set to be another exercise by the Swede in the delicate art of compromise.

Against the Netherlands Wright-Phillips should finally get his first start in an England shirt - and for many it will be long overdue - but the 23-year-old will not be included at the expense of Beckham. Wright- Phillips might have the whole tradition of English wing play resting on his narrow shoulders, not to mention Manchester City's season, but he is, in his own words, "playing the best football of my career".

Just as what happened when Jermain Defoe's case for playing became too strong to ignore before the game against Wales, Eriksson could try to accommodate Wright-Phillips as part of a three-man attack with Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney. It would mean the Manchester United striker moving to a more left-sided berth and Beckham shuffling inside, but it would be a chance to see whether the England captain could operate with a traditional winger outside him.

There is little point, however, in asking Wright-Phillips to press his case. He is not one of football's tough talkers - in fact he sits at the top table at England gatherings appearing like the lucky schoolboy chosen to come to watch proceedings. But he possesses the quiet confidence of one who knows that his time will come and, as it will be for many of his generation in this England squad, that time could come when the World Cup next year is over.

"Whether I play is not really my decision, I am just trying to get involved in the England squad and what will be will be," Wright-Phillips said. "Everyone knows what a great player, as well as a person, David Beckham is. I am just hoping that I can learn from him. I know if I want to go far in my football career I have to do as well as him. That [pressure] doesn't bother me one bit, I am glad just to put on a shirt and be named in the squad. I want to show people I can play."

Wright-Phillips' development this season has been English football's good news story, not least because of the personal tale that accompanies it. He was the stepson of Ian Wright who stopped growing at 5ft 5in and was rejected by Nottingham Forest because of his size. Already a father to a son and daughter - Dmargio and Dneay - Wright-Phillips has over the last 12 months become the kind of player that even Arsene Wenger admitted this season he would like to sign.

The next test, however, will be to prove himself as the wing-back in an England team that might be on the brink of converting to a fourth new style of formation. Eriksson has tested out the flat midfield four, the diamond and, against Wales, a variation on 4-3-3. If he asks Wright-Phillips to play outside Beckham, then the City winger will find himself back in the position he occupied against Chelsea on Sunday. "I played in that role and it kind of works," Wright-Phillips said. "But it doesn't bother me. If I am on the pitch then I am happy. I am still learning and I am only 23 and I think I still have a lot to offer. I just cause problems really when I go forward."

He is infinitely adaptable, and will have to play in attack for City even more this season now that Nicolas Anelka has left. He is capable of scoring from outside the box - take his goal against Ukraine for England and those against Arsenal and Aston Villa this season - but he is essentially a traditional right-winger who loves to hug the touchline. With Beckham drifting right that might not always be possible.

Eriksson's four years in charge of England are rich with examples of players who have been forced to play in unfamiliar positions and suffered as a result. Owen Hargreaves has so often been the spare chair of the midfield, and Joe Cole can hardly say that Eriksson knows how best to deploy him. Equally, Defoe might find this week that he has slipped down the pecking order.

Wright-Phillips could not be persuaded to consider beyond life at City - "I love the club and that's where my concentration is as the moment" - let alone where his England career might take him. He is no soft touch though. The way he casually brushes off the appalling racial abuse he suffered in the Bernabeu in November shows that there is iron in his soul. "I found it quite amusing in some ways," he said. "As in I can't believe they're all still stuck so far behind everyone else."