Roy Hodgson was just about to tuck into his starter at London’s Bluebird restaurant, where he was chewing the cud with the press, when news came through to take the edge off his appetite: Andros Townsend, his great discovery of October, was out of the World Cup.
Townsend joined Theo Walcott and Jay Rodriguez in being ruled out of the summer’s finals, with Kyle Walker likely to follow. Then there are Jack Wilshere and Phil Jagielka, who may play for their clubs before the end of the season after lengthy lay-offs, but may not. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana are carrying injuries, plus Wayne Rooney is out today with what may be a groin problem. And who knows what other injury blows await before England play their first World Cup tie in Manaus next month? Four years ago England were already in South Africa when Fabio Capello lost his captain, Rio Ferdinand.
Injury is the shadow hanging over every English World Cup campaign. Remember Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan being rushed back without success in 1982 and Bryan Robson’s travails in 1986 and 1990? More recently, in 2002 the build-up was dominated by broken metatarsals: the one that ruled out Gary Neville; the one that David Beckham never really recovered from, and led to his infamously jumping out of Roberto Carlos’s tackle against Brazil; and the one suffered by Danny Murphy, himself called up as a replacement for Steven Gerrard. Four years later Sven Goran Eriksson went to Germany with four forwards: Peter Crouch, untried 17-year-old Theo Walcott, and two players carrying injuries – Rooney and Michael Owen. As with Beckham in 2002, their performances were below par. In 2010 Capello promised he would not make the same mistake but Rooney, again, Ledley King and Gareth Barry travelled unfit. England suffered for it.
Hodgson was making no such pledges this week. It would depend on the individual, and the injury. So while Gerrard will go if there is any chance of him playing a part, a fringe player such as Chris Smalling had better look after himself.
Every World Cup coach has this problem, but England managers are more vulnerable because their players’ bodies are subject to greater stresses. England, said Capello this spring, “are always tired because they play too many games”. This is not quite accurate. The leading Spanish teams often play more games than their English equivalents, but Premier League games are far more demanding than those in La Liga. This is exacerbated by the lack of a winter break, which would enable those players carrying niggles (as most do during a season) to recuperate. Uefa studies have shown in the past that players in the Premier League are four times as likely to be injured in the final three months of the season as their Continental counterparts.
“The intensity of the Premier League every game is from minute one to 93, 94, 95,” said Manuel Pellegrini. The Manchester City manager, who spent a decade coaching in La Liga, added: “In Spain if a team is losing 2-0 or 3-0 with 10 minutes left the intensity is very low. Here you cannot stop for one minute. All the games here are not finished until the end, every match is more intensive than La Liga – and you do not have a break in Christmas.”
Pellegrini, though, said he did not think this would affect the destiny of the World Cup as “in England there are a lot of players of all national squads”. However, the difference is that while only some of Hodgson’s rivals’ players compete in England, all his except Jermain Defoe and Fraser Forster do.
At least, this season, they are no longer playing in Europe following Chelsea’s midweek Champions League exit. Fifa research following the 2002 tournament showed that those who played more than once a week in the 10 weeks prior to the final were 60 per cent more likely either to incur injury during the World Cup or perform worse than expected during it.
With the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg going into that competition, like Beckham, injured, Fifa subsequently enforced a pre-finals break from club football but Hodgson will still be recording how much football his team play in April and May. Gary Cahill, for example, will be playing his ninth match in five weeks tomorrow, so Hodgson is unlikely to have been too upset that he, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole will not be playing in the Champions League final.
Also in Hodgson’s favour is the number of English players who have been kicking their heels on the bench at times this season, such as Cole, Lampard, Danny Welbeck and James Milner – though Manchester City’s strange insistence on taking Milner and Joe Hart to Abu Dhabi at the end of the season has understandably irked the England manager.
That, though, highlights one of the causes of the quadrennial injury crisis. There are too many matches. The same problem afflicts rugby union, cricket and tennis, with the same consequence: injured players. But if it is the players who bear the brunt, they are also part of the problem. They would happily play fewer matches but would not accept the lower salaries that would have to go with it. So clubs play exhibitions and refuse to cut the size of their leagues.
Meanwhile Hodgson will spend the next few weeks waiting, and hoping he does not receive a call telling him yet another player will be watching the World Cup at home. Many more and he could lose his appetite for the job.
Broken bones and shattered dreams: England's World Cup injury list
Out: Steven Gerrard, Ledley King, Danny Murphy, Gary Neville
Went, but not fit: David Beckham, Kieron Dyer
Out: Robert Green, King
Went, but not fit: Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney
Out: Beckham, Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves, Joleon Lescott, Owen, Jonathan Woodgate, Bobby Zamora
Went, but not fit: Rooney, Gareth Barry, King
Out: Jay Rodriguez, Andros Townsend, Theo Walcott
Doubtful: Kyle Walker
Fit?: Phil Jagielka, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rooney, Jack Wilshere