Michael Owen is once again playing no part in a vital 2010 World Cup qualifier but his absence is doing a wonderful job of focusing the minds of those who have left him behind. Rio Ferdinand admitted yesterday that even England's top players now recognise the stark truth that, under Fabio Capello, reputations count for nothing.
Capello has demonstrated to his England players there will be no room for sentiment with his treatment of Owen, whom he has overlooked this week despite injuries to Emile Heskey, Carlton Cole and Darren Bent. Ferdinand said yesterday that the players now understand that – whatever their status – they cannot afford to lose either form or fitness under Capello if they want to stay part of his plans.
Ferdinand is set to reclaim his place tonight against Ukraine, in place of Matthew Upson, after sitting out Saturday's 4-0 win over Slovakia with a groin injury. Ferdinand said: "There can be no complacency in this squad. Look at Michael Owen – he's got 40 goals in 89 appearances. You'd have said he was bang on to get 100 caps two or three years ago. But this manager has come in and he's seeing things from a different angle."
The Manchester United defender said he believed the Capello approach, and the abolition of favouritism, was something the England team had not experienced for a quarter of a century but that it was exactly what was required. Ferdinand said: "Over the last 20 or 25 years there have been four or five players who you could say it didn't matter if they played poorly. They'd always get the shirt. Now no one is guaranteed to be in the team.
"It's better if people are on their toes. It keeps the hunger in your belly, the desire, the passion. If you're not fit enough, or not on form, you won't get in the squad. That's the way it's got to be. Look at what the manager has won. You don't win what he's won by having a lot of sentiment.
"It's black and white, no grey areas. No ifs, buts or maybes. [Capello says] 'This is what I want from you. If you can't do it, then you're not the right man to be in the squad'."
Ferdinand sampled life on the outside during Saturday's friendly at Wembley, when he watched Upson's accomplished display alongside the captain, John Terry. He admitted that such stiff competition for places made him uneasy. He said: "That was all I was thinking about during the game, that someone else was getting an opportunity to stake their claim."
Terry and Ferdinand remain Capello's preferred choice at the centre of defence, despite a persistent back injury restricting the latter's recent performances for England – they have only played alongside one another four times in the 15 months that Capello has been in charge. The pair last played together in September's pivotal 4-1 victory over Croatia in their World Cup qualifier in Zagreb.