For almost 10 years, Rio Ferdinand has been able to consider himself a fixture in the England team – if you leave aside the small matter of that eight-month ban for a missed drugs test – but next week that could finally be about to change.
The England captain is back in the England squad for the game against Montenegro on Tuesday for the first time since he fell awkwardly under a challenge from Emile Heskey in South Africa on 4 June and missed the World Cup with a knee injury. For almost a decade, Ferdinand has come back into England squads after injury and gone straight into the team. Now Fabio Capello is considering breaking up his partnership with John Terry that has been such a mainstay of the side for the last six years.
The England manager is understood to be leaning towards keeping Phil Jagielka as the right-sided centre-half alongside the returning Terry. Jagielka's performances in the first two Euro 2012 qualifiers last month impressed the Capello camp to the extent that they feel the place is the Everton man's to lose. That can always change – and Capello makes no hard and fast decisions until he has seen his players in training – but England could be approaching the end of an era.
The squad met at the Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire last night and will train together for the first time this morning. Just having Ferdinand, 31, in his squad has become a rarity for Capello. Over the last two years, the Manchester United defender has played in only eight of England's 23 games. In the 31 games since Capello took over the team he has played just 14. For a precociously-talented centre-half whose international debut was almost 13 years ago, the years have taken their toll on him.
It is because Ferdinand is such a major player – and one of the key characters in English football in the last 10 years – that it never feels that he has been far from centre stage. But he has. He played in six of England's 10 2010 World Cup qualifiers and not at all at the tournament itself. Now in the dusk of his career he is the England captain but that alone does not guarantee him a place.
If Ferdinand starts on the bench against Montenegro then that will also solve the problem of whether Capello keeps Steven Gerrard as captain, as he has been in Ferdinand's absence. But that question comes second to whether Ferdinand himself plays. Because if Jagielka really has done enough to keep his place then one of Ferdinand and Terry will have to make way.
It could yet be Terry who loses out to Jagielka but Terry – for all his well-documented differences with Capello – is at least a more regular performer in recent years. In the two-year period in which Ferdinand has played eight games for England, Terry has played 18. He is naturally well-suited to play on the left side of the central defensive pairing which makes him a better foil for Jagielka who, like Ferdinand, prefers the right.
For so long, the Terry-Ferdinand partnership brought together two very different but complimentary talents: Terry as the stop-them-at-all-costs tackler – albeit a cut above the average defensive hard-man – and Ferdinand with his turn of pace and ease in possession. Both of them were confident enough to pass the ball out from the back and Terry was – in his prime – a goalscoring threat at set-pieces. Yet they have never been able to play together for England as much as their talents demanded.
Since Capello took over the England job he has been able to start Terry and Ferdinand together just nine times in 31 games. In the seven years they have both been in the England squad (Terry's debut was June 2003) they have only started 34 out of 88 games together. Ferdinand missed some of those games because of his ban and when he returned in 2004 it was at the expense of Terry. They became established in early 2005 as England's defensive pairing and yet have never played together as much as the last three England managers would have liked.
Should Ferdinand be dropped by Capello for Tuesday's game he will at least be able to console himself with the fact that he has returned from these sorts of setbacks at international level before. After his eight-month ban in 2003 and 2004 he sailed back into the team. A year later Sven Goran Eriksson punished Ferdinand for his poor performance in the defeat to Northern Ireland in World Cup qualifying by dropping him for the home qualifier against Austria.
Then, Ferdinand returned at the expense of his former defensive partner, Sol Campbell, almost immediately. Lately he has not been so resilient. It was his back problems last season and, latterly his knee, that have restricted him to one League start for United so far this season. He is still relatively young for one who has been around so much – only 32 next month – and yet his 78 caps seem inadequate for a player who has been an international for 13 years.
Jagielka is not the first candidate that would have sprung to mind as the man likely to break up the Terry-Ferdinand partnership. He is 28 and has waited a long time for his chance. It has been a feature of the Terry-Ferdinand years that, especially once Jamie Carragher retired from international football for the first time in 2007, there have been few other centre-backs who have put pressure on them. Ledley King might have been one but his career has been dominated by injury.
If Ferdinand starts on the bench against Montenegro then Capello will also, in the long term, have to think about changing his captain for the second time. It is a big call although even Ferdinand must be wondering if he can walk straight back into this team.