Fabio Capello has given his broadest hint yet that he will give the Manchester City winger Adam Johnson the chance to make a late bid for a place in the England squad at the World Cup finals in June.
The England manager said yesterday in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport that Johnson was the only young uncapped English player to have caught his eye and suggested that the 22-year-old would get his opportunity in England's end-of-season friendlies. "He [Johnson] has come up from the Championship at Middlesbrough, where he played in a different position, and he's done well with Manchester City. Now it's important he gets some international experience."
Johnson, who has 19 caps for England Under-21s, stands out because he is a left-footed player who can operate on the right wing. With David Beckham out injured and Aaron Lennon still struggling for fitness having not played since 28 December, the City winger is an intriguing prospect.
Four years ago, Sven Goran Eriksson picked Theo Walcott for his 2006 World Cup squad despite the fact that he had never seen the 17-year-old – then still yet to make his Arsenal debut – play. Johnson is much less of a risk and has played 11 games for City since his £7m transfer in January.
The Sunderland-born player scored his first goal for City last month, a last-minute equaliser against Sunderland that he curled in from the right wing with his left-foot. His build and upright dribbling style, developed at Middlesbrough's academy, has led to comparisons with Chris Waddle, one of England's key World Cup players 20 years ago.
If he was to give Johnson a chance, Capello would have to name him in his 30-man provisional squad that is announced on 16 May ahead of the friendlies against Mexico and Japan.
The Italian was sure that Wayne Rooney would be fit to play at the World, despite his recent injury problems. "I perfectly understand Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to play Rooney [against Bayern Munich in the Champions League], because he knows how important Rooney is psychologically for the whole team," he said. "I do not think he took an unnecessary risk. If Sir Alex played Rooney after the pre-match tests, clearly his conditions allowed him to do so."
Capello also suggested that he believed Ashley Cole would be fit enough to be selected for the final squad on 1 June. The Capello camp have continued in their efforts to get Wayne Bridge to reverse his decision to retire from international football but the return of Cole should make the left-back position a more straightforward proposition. "If Ashley Cole comes back by the end of the season it means he's fit," Capello said. "He'll need to play, but this is a better problem than having to get someone back to fitness".
As for the remote location of England's training camp in the town of Phokeng outside Rustenburg in the north-west province, Capello joked that his staff would try to stop the players getting bored. "We'll try to come up with creative pastimes," he said. "But do not expect me to send the players to the casinos in Sun City."
Capello also addressed concerns about the Wembley pitch. "I was surprised to see players sliding so much on the new surface [during the FA Cup semi-final] last Saturday," he said. "We had some problems with the pitch at the start of our WC campaign, but they had been sorted. Given that Wembley is not only used for football games, I expect that all will be adjusted once again." Wembley officials have called a meeting with pitch experts from the Institute of Groundsmanship on Monday to try to solve the problem.