There will be a nervous couple of days for Darren Bent until Fabio Capello names England's team to play Montenegro at Wembley on Tuesday night, but then he is used to that. Twice in the past the wait has been to discover whether he is going to the World Cup; bad news each time. On a regular basis there is the uncertainty of being alerted that he is in a provisional England squad of some three dozen and then longing for the positive text offering a place in the 23. Even then, once in the squad, he has more often than not been left on the bench or in the stands to watch Wayne Rooney, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and others looking for goals.
What it all adds up to is just two starts and five cameos as a substitute in the five years since he was called up to replace the injured Crouch for a friendly away to Denmark in August 2005. The first six occasions he actually made it on to the pitch passed without a goal, which is never encouraging for a striker, until finally, in Switzerland last month, he did what he does best with two minutes to play, sprinting on to Ashley Cole's pass and slotting the ball in.
"It was a big, big weight off my shoulders to be honest," he admitted at England's luxurious hotel in Watford on Friday. "At some stages I felt like it was never going to come but once the chance came I was confident enough to take it and hopefully there'll be more."
Now, his confidence fired up, he is in such a vein of form and goalscoring – eight goals for Sunderland this season – that it will be a disappointment not to start on Tuesday, however much he is trying to play down expectations. "Everyone wants to play for their country but I can't take it as a gimme. Crouchy's record for England is second to none, 20 goals in 40 games. People will look at him and expect him to start. If I get picked again, I'd be delighted." He may be doing himself down there, for at the World Cup Capello largely ignored Crouch, who has not started for England since a warm-up game against Mexico in May.
Bent's main quality is his movement in behind a defence, "attacking the spaces" as he puts it, which often leads to him being caught offside but leaves him in a threatening position if the right ball is played to him at the right time. Team-mates such as Danny Murphy at Charlton and Steed Malbranque at Sunderland developed that ability to the team's benefit, and Rooney, if he can rediscover some form, or Steven Gerrard could develop an equally profitable partnership by making best use of Bent's pace.
If nothing else, a start on Tuesday would erase some of the doubts placed in his mind by his rather off-hand treatment, and especially being dropped from the provisional squad last summer. Four years earlier, he admits, he was very much an outsider, despite having scored 22 goals for Charlton. This time it hurt, even if the writing was on the changing-room wall when he was substituted at half-time in the second warm-up game, against Japan in Austria.
"You just sit in the changing room when the second half is going on thinking: 'What could I have done better and what have I done well?' That game was a bit like a trial. I was 50-50 at the time but when he [Capello] phoned me, it was hard to take. I went back to my mum's house and spent a lot of time with my family and close friends. I just tried to get back to normal. There was not much I could do to vent my anger and frustration at not going to a World Cup. I just tried to put it behind me and move on. It was a blow but what helped me was that I had missed out four years earlier so I half-knew how to deal with it. But it did hurt like hell."
Sunderland's manager Steve Bruce, the chairman Niall Quinn and even the club's owner Ellis Short all spoke encouragingly to him and have been delighted at his response. A total of 29 goals in 45 games for the club is an even better ratio than at Ipswich, Charlton or Tottenham, giving him overall figures of 122 League goals in less than 300 games. White Hart Lane was the one place he was unconvincing, one miss against Portsmouth causing the manager Harry Redknapp to claim unsympathetically that "my missus could have scored that". Even then, he finished as Spurs' leading scorer, before heading for the North-east, tweeting his frustration at Tottenham's chairman Daniel Levy for supposedly holding up the move.
These days his mantra is reflected in a tattoo reading KTF (Keep The Faith) and yesterday's tweets were suitably positive, predicting a full cap for his Sunderland team-mate Jordan Henderson and commending a good England training session. What Capello has to consider after the next couple of them today and tomorrow is the most effective line-up against a Montenegro side who, like England, have a 100 per cent record so far.
Phil Jagielka's injury has eased one complication, allowing Rio Ferdinand to come back into defence – where he should be restored as captain – in the same 4-4-1-1 formation that earned victory in Switzerland. Neither of the wide players, Theo Walcott or James Milner, are available so Adam Johnson and Joe Cole or Ashley Young can fill those positions, with Gerrard and Gareth Barry in between them, and Bent just ahead of Rooney.
Having Gerrard in that slightly deeper role gives a solidity to the midfield that is sometimes missing when Michael Carrick is in there, and as long as Rooney helps out, England need not be outnumbered in a key area. On that basis they can inflict a first defeat on the visitors and take control of the group.
England (probable, 4-4-1-1): Hart; G Johnson, Ferdinand, Terry, A Cole; A Johnson, Gerrard, Barry, J Cole (or Young); Rooney; BentReuse content