It has been a long wait for Leighton Baines to reach a position where he might just ease Ashley Cole out of the place in the England team which has been his for so long, but it feels that the Everton left-back is almost there. What a pity for him if England were to blow their chances of a place at the World Cup finals on Tuesday night against Poland and deny him the opportunity to play in Brazil next summer.
The lurking danger of being the nearly man has been in the background for Baines already this year. This summer he tried hard to persuade Everton, behind the scenes, to agree to sell him to Manchester United, but on transfer deadline day it was his erstwhile team-mate Marouane Fellaini who left for Old Trafford. Now, on the brink of World Cup qualification, and one of the outstanding players in the Premier League so far, Baines has another prize within his grasp.
There is enough anxiety around United’s failed attempt to sign Baines in the summer – and the distinct possibility it will be rekindled in January – that any questions about his club future were banned on Sunday by the Football Association. It would not take a great leap of the imagination to think he could start next season as United’s and England’s first-choice left-back.
First things first, however, with Poland at Wembley on Tuesday and a game that has the potential to define this generation of England players. Against Montenegro on Friday, Baines was, as he often is for Everton, one of the team’s key attacking threats and while he may not be granted so much freedom against Poland he will certainly be crucial once again.
The rib injury to Cole has given Baines his fifth and sixth starts of the qualifying campaign and the chance to demonstrate to Roy Hodgson that he should be picked ahead of Cole, the man with 105 caps. It is often said of the Chelsea left-back that he will never quit international football – rather international football will have to quit him. Cole has been a fabulous player for England over the years but even he will recognise that the case for Baines to be first-choice is as strong as ever.
Playing understudy to Cole with England is, Baines says, “all I have ever known. These two games are a great opportunity for me to try to put a bit of a stamp on it,” he said. “That’s how I felt going into the last game. It’s been more stop-start for me, although the last 18 months has been better in terms of playing in some of the qualifiers and playing in more games generally. I’ve enjoyed that side of it.
“With regards to trying to overtake him [Cole], you just keep trying your best and then it’s the manager’s decision. It’s a tough one for the manager as well because if you were in his shoes, you’ve got such a great player already, in Ash, and it’s that thing of, if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it.
“I understand it from the manager’s point of view. The great thing is that I hope he feels he’s got two guys that he can depend on. Ash has got this wealth of experience that I could never match. That’s something I’m never going to get, really. That adds weight to his case, but hopefully the manager has got confidence in me from when he has had to bring me in.
“I’ve no idea if, in his [Hodgson’s] mind, it’s really close or if he always knows which he prefers, which has been Ash, and if that’s always going to be the case when Ash is fit. I don’t really know how close we were. I think what I’ve done over the last five years is something that I’m happy with. You can always do better. There are always moments you look back on where you think ‘Maybe if I’d done a bit better there’.”
It feels a long time now since Baines was one of the players cut late from Fabio Capello’s 2010 World Cup finals squad, left out in favour of Stephen Warnock on the basis that the Italian’s staff felt that the Everton man might be a bad tourist. The “homesick” tag, borne of an interview that was read the wrong way, followed him around for a few years but there will be no question that he will be on the plane this time, should the team qualify.
Baines recalled the moment in 2010 that Capello rang him to tell him he would not be going to South Africa. “I was on the Dock Road in Liverpool, in the car, on the car-phone, so yes it was strange. I was on my way to Toys R Us to buy a trampoline for the kids.” At least, one reporter pointed out, he was able to bounce back immediately.
“World Cups don’t come around very often in a player’s career and I missed out and got quite close last time. There are not too many more for me even at this stage because they are only every four years. I’m sure I am as desperate as not only the younger lads, who maybe haven’t been to one before, but the senior lads as well. For some it will be their last one. The desire is there across the board.”
Baines says that he gets on well with Cole despite their rivalry, although one got the impression yesterday that the deference he has shown Cole in the past has dissipated somewhat as he recognises more his own status within the game. Baines is 29 in December and there is no time to wait. He could yet get four years as the first-choice England left-back but the longer Cole stays ahead of him the more chance someone else, possibly Luke Shaw of Southampton, could come up on the rails.
“Everyone is ambitious,” Baines said. “I like to keep some perspective of where you’ve come from and how great things really are, but even at times like this you’re still striving for more and better and to improve. Hopefully there is more for me. You want to get to the very top and be the best you can, but I can’t complain.”