Preparing for one new experience this summer, when he leads a team at an international tournament for the first time, England's manager Fabio Capello says he would welcome another soon afterwards – a local derby against any of the home countries in the European Championship qualifying rounds that begin in September. In the draw that will be made here at lunchtime today, there is a one-in-three chance of being paired with Scotland, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. All of them are in the same pot and could, like England, be drawn with Wales.
The Football Association long ago accepted that it is impossible to find room in crowded schedules for the Home International Championship, which previously ran for exactly 100 years from 1884. Occasional talk of reviving the oldest international fixture between England and Scotland has come to nothing and the countries have not met since a two-leg play-off for Euro 2000, when England won 2-1 on aggregate but lost at Wembley.
"I have no problem playing any of the home countries," Capello said. "Wales have good young players coming through. I would be happy to play Scotland. It's OK for us. Let's play."
The Scots, who appointed Craig Levein as their new manager just before Christmas, feel the same. For Northern Ireland and Wales, the additional finance would be a boost, as it was when they met Sven Goran Eriksson's team in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup; England suffered a humiliating 1-0 defeat in Belfast but won the group. Being drawn against Ireland would revive unfortunate memories of the last meeting in 1995, which was abandoned after 27 minutes as England fans rioted.
Capello has identified five countries – Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Holland – plus the hosts, Poland and Ukraine, as particularly strong, although none of them can meet England, who are one of the nine seeds that will head each qualifying group.
The strongest country England can meet are from the second pool, comprising – in ranking order – Greece, Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, Serbia, Denmark, Turkey, Slovakia and Romania. England would like to be in a group of five teams, not six.
While it is difficult at this stage to look beyond the World Cup, Capello has mentioned several players he believes will be in contention for a place next season. "I like Adam Johnson, but all these players have to play," he said. "Players like [Kieran] Gibbs, [Jack] Wilshere, [Jack] Rodwell and Johnson. At the moment Gibbs and [Theo] Walcott are not playing. You have seen what has happened to Joe Hart now he is playing at Birmingham. For him it is a good moment because he has improved a lot because he plays. Before, he made mistakes but now after playing regularly he makes less mistakes because he has more confidence."
In contrast, Manchester United's Ben Foster has suffered from not playing and Hart now appears to be one of four goalkeepers fighting for the three World Cup places, with David James, Robert Green and Paul Robinson. In the same way, Capello also welcomed Wilshere's loan to Bolton, which will "help him mature and develop". Aston Villa's James Milner, outstanding in central midfield recently, already seems to have booked his place after this commendation from the manager: "Milner is a fantastic player. He has improved more than any other player in the squad. He is intelligent on the pitch, can make good passes, assist for goals and score himself. He is very like [Frank] Lampard, younger but with great energy and he can get forward and score goals."
One area in which Capello appears to have changed his tune is in relation to the number of foreign players making it more difficult for young English prospects to play regularly. "The good England players will come through," he said. "In Italy people say young players are not coming through because foreign players are there but it is not true. Totti, Maldini, Baresi all came through because they had talent and quality."Reuse content