The official Roy Hodgson line on John Terry's retirement, disseminated by the Football Association yesterday, was one of disappointment. For a more visceral sense of how the England manager will be feeling you needed to have watched his breakfast with Club Wembley members last Thursday, the film of which has mysteriously disappeared from the governing body's website.
Hodgson made no bones then about the despair he feels when he and his assistant Ray Lewington hack around Premier League grounds to watch virtually no prospective England players. "If you watch Wigan play, you don't watch anyone. If you go to watch Fulham, you watch Steve Sidwell," Hodgson said – and just as Terry withdraws from the fray, so we see Joleon Lescott, twice as experienced as any other remaining current England central defender, looking more than likely to slip from Premier League view himself, any time soon.
Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager, wants a central defender with more mobility than Lescott, which was why he entertained an active interest in Liverpool's Daniel Agger this summer and, when that proved unsuccessful, paid out £12m to Fiorentina for 19-year-old Matija Nastasic.
It was significant that Nastasic – and not Lescott – played for Mancini against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu last week and though there will be games ahead for the 30-year-old, do not expect them to be City's significant ones. Neither may a new deal be readily available to Lescott, who has two years to run on his current contract, and you wonder whether the defender who allowed Arsenal's young Carl Jenkinson to rob him on the City byline on Sunday, and whose limp clearance handed Laurent Koscielny an equaliser is a man looking anxiously over his shoulder at his own club's players, as well as the opposition.
He certainly admitted after the 1-1 draw that he is expecting a fight for his place now. Of his non-selection for Real, Lescott said that "obviously it hurt, I wanted to play". And it was he who introduced the name of Nastasic to the post-match interview. "Matija has been training with us for a couple of weeks now," he said of the player who has already broken into the Serbia team and is considered the natural successor there to Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic, who retired from international football last October. "He's an international, he played a lot of games for Fiorentina and he's looked strong."
Despite the impression that the new levels of pressure are not helping Lescott – who does sometimes have a mistake in him – Mancini does not seem to harbour the same doubts about his defensive game. It is in Hodgson's and England's interests, though, that Lescott does see off the Serbian in the same way that he got the better of Stefan Savic – who was so clearly out of his depth and deposited to Fiorentina as part of the deal that brought in Nastasic this summer. Gary Cahill has missed as many matches as he has started for Chelsea this season, while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are still finding their way at United. Everton's Phil Jagielka is the only central defender with a degree of England experience who is enjoying regular first-team action.
The short-term answer actually lies a short distance across the back field of Carrington from the City training centre where, day-to-day, Lescott is trying to prove himself. Rio Ferdinand has never signalled an unwillingness to play for England once more, despite the determination of both Hodgson and Fabio Capello to persist with Terry, a man who has brought embarrassment on the FA time and again, and Hodgson is the only impediment to him playing for his country for an 82nd time when England take on San Marino in their next World Cup qualifier on Friday 12 October. While that should be comfortable the match in Poland the following Tuesday will not.
A return for Ferdinand is not without difficulties, namely Ashley Cole, who was integral at Westminster Magistrates' Court in July to Terry's defence against the accusation that he racially abused Ferdinand's brother, Anton. Ferdinand's endorsement on Twitter of the use of the word "choc ice" to criticise Cole – Ferdinand claimed it meant "fake" – complicates the picture. But Ferdinand has done no wrong. It is to his credit that the slight he has justifiably felt to have suffered from England has not led him to preclude a return.
Since Ferdinand is 34 in November, his value to Hodgson beyond the short-term and as far out as the 2014 World Cup in Brazil looks questionable, which makes the search for alternatives more pressing. Jones, out for a further eight to nine weeks with a knee injury, is a 20-year-old in whom much store is now set and yet he still has only five caps. Smalling has three. For England, these men remain a hope and no more. The gaze must turn to Stoke's Ryan Shawcross, the kind of old-fashioned centre-half in whom Hodgson has always set store. Steven Caulker's fledgling steps at Spurs are not insignificant.
Hodgson can reflect that time and tide were beginning to creep up on Terry, a player less composed and indomitable without Ricardo Carvalho by his side at Chelsea and indeed with Ferdinand absent for England. But seeing Lescott drifting out of the picture, too, is something Hodgson will bear with less equanimity, which is why the player's quiet determination to hold his position will offer encouragement.
"Going knocking on doors isn't really my style," Lescott said of the issue of a new contract. "That's not in my character and I don't think my mum would be very happy with me if I did that. I just continue to play well and do a professional job. I know where I've come from. A few years ago I was playing away at Plymouth on Tuesday nights [so] I won't be rocking the boat. I will work hard. It's happened before during my career and I'm ready for the fight."
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