Tottenham's Jermain Defoe and Manchester City's Shaun Wright-Phillips, two of the smallest players in the Premiership, can expect to be granted the chance to make a big impression in this season's World Cup qualifying campaign by playing in England's undersubscribed friendly against Ukraine at St James' Park on Wednesday.
In Defoe's case at least, it may even be more than half a chance; Sven Goran Eriksson will be forced by one of Fifa's better directives to use no more than six substitutes instead of his normal 10 or 11 and it would make sense to have a prolonged look at the Spurs striker, who was on standby as 24th man for Euro 2004 before being released after playing for seven minutes in the final warm-up match against Iceland in Manchester.
Three months earlier, he made his international debut as a replacement for Darius Vassell away to Sweden, impressing with the eye for goal and quickness of feet that characterise his game. Had Vassell not recovered from another injury later in the season, it could have been Defoe appearing as a sub in all four games in Portugal, perhaps inspiring something more than familiar anti-climax at the quarter-final stage.
Depending on Wayne Rooney's fitness (doubtful) and Emile Heskey's form for his new club Birmingham (to be confirmed) there will be at least one and possibly two strikers' positions vacant for the qualifying games away to Austria (4 September) and Poland (8 September).
Michael Owen will barely have settled into his new life with Real Madrid by next month, let alone Wednesday, although Eriksson believes a change in Spain could offer the benefits David Beckham initially seemed to enjoy last season.
"I think it's good because he might need another challenge," the England coach said. "To play for Real Madrid is a huge challenge and Michael needs big challenges. To have two English players is very good, they know each other well and Michael will have David there to help him settle. I can't think they are buying him to put him on the bench. He will have a lot of good footballers around him and Madrid dominate most games so maybe he will have even more crosses coming in there than at Liverpool. When you are at a club for a long time it's the same routine every day, the same stadium, nothing new. You're eating spaghetti every day and suddenly it's potatoes and you say 'It's good, this'." Or vice versa.
The games in Vienna and Katowice form the first of five double-headers over the next 15 months that will decide whether England qualify for the 2006 finals in Germany and whether Eriksson stays in a job. Despite having lost support in high places following Mark Palios's resignation and David Dein's demotion from FA vice-chairman, he was adamant yesterday that only football considerations would influence his decision about when to leave: "I will quit maybe if we don't qualify for the World Cup but for no other reasons. I will not quit because of intrusions into my private life. I feel that if we lose football games, then my position can be different. If you lose games then you are always weak."
As for the players and public: "I feel I have the players' support. If you don't then it's impossible, whether in a club job or England. I would be extremely surprised if one football player was interested in my private life."
Concern was expressed in some quarters in the middle of last week when only one third of the tickets for Wednesday's game had been sold. A combination of summer lethargy - abruptly ended by the return of the Premiership yesterday - and lack of marketing may have been the cause; a Newcastle season ticket-holder told a phone-in programme that he did not even know the game was taking place at St James' Park. On the other hand, a certain disenchantment was also expressed on the programme with Eriksson's mass substitutions in friendlies. If disappointment at England's performances in Portugal is reflected in the attendance, those members of the FA's executive board and council gunning for the Swede will have further ammunition.
A good sprinkling of bright young faces and local lads is sound policy in those circumstances. So with Paul Scholes turning down Eriksson's appeal to postpone his international retirement, Defoe, the uncapped Wright-Phillips and Alan Smith, now of Manchester United, should be joined by Newcastle's Jermaine Jenas, Kieron Dyer and Nicky Butt.
Butt's return would mean Frank Lampard moving further forward and Steven Gerrard filling that familiar gaping hole on the left, which Joe Cole is clearly not trusted to do. As Eriksson says, after the FA's summer of love: "It will be interesting to see the fans' reaction on Wednesday."
- More about:
- Michael Owen
- Premier League
- Real Madrid
- Shaun Wright-phillips
- Stephen Carter
- St James' Park
- Sven-goran Eriksson
- Tottenham Hotspur
- Wayne Rooney