The England captain, John Terry, set the tone for a new era with the England team yesterday by acknowledging that he feared losing his place to Manchester United's teenage defender Phil Jones – but said that he and fellow members of the so-called "golden generation" would not give up their international careers easily.
Fabio Capello's team face Bulgaria in the Vasil Levski stadium tonight in a game that is crucial for them to win if they are to maintain control of their group in qualifying for Euro 2012 next summer. With Rio Ferdinand not deemed fit enough to be in the squad, the England manager has to pick a central defensive partner for Terry, with Gary Cahill the favourite – however, Jones is an outside bet to make his senior England debut.
There are also doubts over Darren Bent's fitness, with the Aston Villa striker's groin problem meaning he was again unable to train during England's session in Sofia last night. The likelihood is that Capello will opt for a 4-3-3 formation, with Ashley Young and Theo Walcott either side of Wayne Rooney in attack and James Milner, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry in a three-man midfield. Chris Smalling is due to be given his first start for England at right-back.
Terry said yesterday that he was aware that Jones, 19, who has already deputised for Ferdinand at United this season, had set his sights on breaking up the England central defensive partnership that has been first choice since 2004. "For me, he [Jones] is the one who really sticks out in our position," Terry said. "He's one I'm looking over my shoulder at. He clearly wants a place in the England side, whether that's mine or someone else's. He's hungry for that.
"I'm certainly not going to give it up lightly. We've seen the older players, or the 'more experienced players' as I prefer to refer to them, really keen to go on and do well in the tournament. Whether this is their last, or the next one is, they're certainly not going to give it up easily. They're going to continue right to the end.
"They [Jones and Smalling] have got a lot more games under their belts than I had when I was thrown in for the first time with England. Playing those games at a very good level in the Premiership is going to serve them well. But they just feel as though they belong here at the moment. It helps that there's a lot of Manchester United players – a big group of Manchester-based players now anyway – and we all get along as a squad as well.
"The guys are coming in and there are other youngsters as well who the guys can bounce off as well. They're all very comfortable. Looking at the way they've come in and expressed themselves has been great.
"I'm really impressed [by Jones]. He made his league debut [for Blackburn] against us [Chelsea], playing very well against Didier [Drogba, in March last year], and got man of the match on Sky. Even after that, the lads were talking and were eager for Chelsea to go and sign him. Even back then. He went on to play a lot more games and establish himself.
"He's very quick, good in the air, very comfortable on the ball, left and right foot. I've had the opportunity to play with him a couple of times in training as well, and he reads it very well as well. He literally has all the attributes that he'll need to become a very good England player as well."
With tickets on sale around the stadium yesterday, the Bulgarian football union are not even hopeful of filling half the 43,600-capacity stadium. England are top of the group on goal difference from Montenegro, who play Wales in Cardiff tonight. England face Wales on Tuesday at home and finish with a difficult trip to Podgorica to play Montenegro, who drew 0-0 at Wembley last year, on 7 October, hoping to qualify as group winners.
Capello yesterday said that he did not blame the likes of Ben Foster for taking a break from international football and would welcome the goalkeeper back if he changed his mind. "Absolutely, no problem," he said. "If some players say they're ready to return for the national team, it is OK. I never close my door to people because I think you can make mistakes, you can understand what you did, and you can return."
Terry said that Ferdinand's omission from the squad this week, despite having been fit enough to be on the bench for United on Sunday, showed that Capello would only pick players on form.
"He's said to us all along, if you're not playing for your clubs, he won't pick you. This week has been an example of that with Rio being left out of the squad. We all know what a great player he is. The way the manager is, he won't take any crap from anyone. If you're not playing, it doesn't matter who you are, you won't be picked."