World Cup Qualifying: Roy Hodgson's problem is that England are stuck between the golden generation and the new

Manager still turning to the same old faces while he waits for next generation to mature 

While the England players boarded a Football Association flight home in the early hours of yesterday, or the private jets provided by their clubs, the journey back for their Montenegrin opposition was a little different.

Many of the side who drew 1-1 with England on Tuesday night checked in at Podgorica airport yesterday alongside English fans on the way home, with neither group giving the appearance of having slept much the previous night.

The Montenegro captain, Mirko Vucinic, wearing rock-star sunglasses was having a coffee and chatting to Dejan Damjanovic, the goalscorer from the night before. Vucinic was on his way back to Turin but Damjanovic plays for FC Seoul and there are no direct flights to Korea from tiny Podgorica International. Simon Vukcevic, the former Blackburn midfielder, was with his partner and their daughter in economy on my connecting flight to Vienna.

It was a sharp reminder that Montenegro, England’s opponents in the last two qualification campaigns, is a country of modest means. It has a population of just 630,000 and a sprinkling of good-quality players who have spread far across the globe, to clubs of varying quality. The former Yugoslav republic, which only joined Fifa in 2007, now occupies a part of English football history. It is the only nation England have played more than twice and never beaten.

There is a vibrancy and a determination about this young country’s football team. They make the most of what they have and they do not expect the five-star treatment. Compare that with the FA’s insistence that Theo Walcott be accompanied by an official on a commercial flight home from Italy at the weekend, as if he was incapable of doing it himself.

Roy Hodgson’s team are not out of the hunt for World Cup qualification yet but, after six games, they have hardly got going. Three wins against the group’s two weakest sides, San Marino (twice) and Moldova, and three draws with Ukraine, Poland and now Montenegro. They are yet to suffer the defeat that would really spell disaster but it is hard to escape the feeling that they are sleepwalking, with the hope that at some point their luck will change.

As for Hodgson himself, he refuses to panic. Like a government minister trying to instil confidence in the markets, he realises that fear itself is one of the biggest dangers facing England. Confidence will play a key role in these final four qualifiers, three of which are at Wembley. If the home crowd becomes restless, the players will get skittish and then, as in the doomed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, one could imagine England self-destructing.

“You were telling me [on Monday], that if we were to lose this game that we’d give ourselves a mountain to climb,” Hodgson said. “As it is we’ve got an important four to five weeks around the middle of September to middle of October, three matches at home and one difficult one away in the Ukraine so by at least not losing [against Montenegro] we keep it in our hands. We give ourselves a chance.”

But “a chance” is not what the other big European| nations have given themselves in 2014 World Cup qualification. Germany and the Netherlands are a racing certainty to be in Brazil next summer while Italy, Spain and Russia are all top of their respective groups.

Even when Hodgson took over in difficult circumstances last May, you felt that he was inheriting an England team caught between two epochs. One that still relied to a large extent on Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and, back then, John Terry, while it waited for the next generation to establish themselves. It showed on Tuesday night when Gerrard had one of his poorer games, to the extent that you wondered whether Frank Lampard might have been a better option.

Yet Lampard, 35 in June, is hardly the long-term answer. Once again, the thought presented itself that Hodgson might have been better off sticking with Leighton Baines than switching to Cole. England are turning to the same old faces, but those faces are not what they once were.

As for the new guard, it could be politely said that they are taking their time. Danny Welbeck was excellent in England’s first half on Tuesday night but his goalscoring return – two in 34 games for Manchester United this season, five in 16 for England – is a concern. Jack Wilshere is the vanguard of the new generation but injury means he has played in only three of England’s last 22 games.

Hodgson has tried to bring through these new players and he will hope that his faith in the likes of Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling will be rewarded. Certainly, at some point England had to be weaned off their reliance on the older generation and there is a good chance that those two will one day establish themselves as England internationals. But Hodgson’s reckoning is coming in those four qualifiers, starting with Moldova at Wembley on 6 September, then Ukraine (away) and Montenegro and Poland at Wembley.

Sven Goran Eriksson got the so-called golden generation in their prime, when they were capable of results like the 5-1 victory in Munich more than 11 years ago, and he benefited from the early blooming of Rooney. Fabio Capello was around for the late flowering of those players, with Steve McClaren’s injury-jinxed regime caught unhappily in the middle. What exactly does Hodgson have left?

He persuaded Gerrard not to retire after Euro 2012 to be his captain. He lost Terry, who would have been useful on Tuesday night, to a mess not of the manager’s own making. This summer, an Under-21 team full of promise, including the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilfried Zaha and Raheem Sterling, will play the European Championship in Israel. Should they prosper there, could Hodgson risk some of them in the autumn qualifiers?

England’s future is not as gloomy as some portray. There are some in that Under-21s side who will have good international careers, if not as many as the talent factories of Spain and Germany produce. But will they come of age soon enough for Hodgson, for whom the imperative of World Cup qualification is not a question of years down the road? Rather it arrives in six months’ time, which in football terms is no time at all.

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kellie Bright as Linda Carter and Danny Dyer as Mick Carter

EastEnders Christmas specials are known for their shouty, over-the-top soap drama but tonight the show has done itself proud thanks to Danny Dyer.

Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Sport
sport
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy
tvCall the Midwife Christmas Special
Sport
Laura Trott and Jason Kenny are preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow
sport
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth with Tess Daly in the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special
tvLouis Smith wins with 'Jingle Bells' quickstep on Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there