There is nothing more difficult in football than scoring goals – that is why of all the players on the pitch it is the strikers who are paid the most money. It's not a difficult formula; strikers win matches.
There is only one thing that matters to them. How well they are playing is immaterial – it is purely and simply about goals. A defender or a midfielder can disguise a dip in form if they are part of a strong, cohesive unit, but the closer you get to either end of the pitch, the goalkeeper and the strikers, the more exposed the players become. They are judged on what they keep out of the net and what they put in it.
Darren Bent has been doing it for some time now. Five goals in the Premier League this season – and one for England – following on from 24 last season for Sunderland make a strong case to put before a manager who has always said he will select players according to club form. Some would argue that he does not have what it takes to step up to the next level, but he has made a strong case for getting a go alongside Wayne Rooney in the absence of Jermain Defoe next week. What more can he do? I have analysed him on a regular basis for television and he has all the obvious skills – there is nothing to stop him becoming a success in an England shirt.
Ian Wright was the best goalscorer I played with. He would make 10 runs into an area and the ball wouldn't reach him on nine of them, but on the other – goal. Bent has that knack, getting into the right place. It is no coincidence how many last-minute goals are scored by top-rate strikers, as Bent did against Arsenal this season. It is nothing to do with luck that he was in position to score.
Forwards thrive on service and the relationship they develop with the rest of the team. At club level that is nurtured over day after day on the training pitch and then game after game. I got to the stage with Dennis Bergkamp where his body language signalled where he wanted the ball played. He would make a run towards you and I would just know whether he wanted it to his feet or whether he was ready to spin and look for one over the top. That sort of relationship is rare at international level, which puts the onus on communication, and Bent is fortunate that if he plays it will be alongside Wayne Rooney, who is such an instinctive performer and has the ability to gel with anybody. I could see a Rooney/Bent or a Rooney/Kevin Davies pairing working. Bent can run the line, while Davies brings runners into play and Rooney is intelligent enough to adapt to either.
There may have been a clamouring for young players to be given a chance, but Fabio Capello is not the sort to be influenced by that – as his selection of Davies shows. The England manager gets round plenty of games, as he should for £6m a year, and I can't see anyone he has missed, whether old or young. He appears to have an open mind when it comes to picking players.
I've always liked the look of Davies and I would rather see him in the England squad than Emile Heskey. At 33, Davies is no long-term solution but he has plenty of attributes that can help the cause. Like Bent, he deserves his chance. There are the obvious things, like his willingness to push himself in every minute of every game and his physical strengths. Every player should follow his example – he works at it and he still wants it which is why he is getting his call-up at this late stage of his career. He can take a battering and hold the ball up and has a better eye for goal than perhaps people appreciate. I am surprised that he has never been taken on by a bigger club.
Playing against Montenegro is not in itself a step up from playing in the Premier League – you wouldn't expect them to beat too many top-flight teams. So what's the difference? It is all about the jersey you are wearing. The expectation and the pressure suddenly carry much greater weight. Pull on the Three Lions and it is not 40,000 Sunderland fans hoping you deliver, it is a nation expecting you to. You are representing your country and you have to have the self-confidence to believe that you belong there.
When you first get in the team, euphoria carries you through. I won my first cap against the Czechs, we won 4-2 en route to qualifying well for Euro 92. Everything was great. I was injured in the build-up to the tournament and as it unfolded in Sweden it was difficult not to feel a little fortunate to have missed it. I came back into the team as qualifying for the 1994 World Cup began – we were under huge pressure after having flopped at the Euros and it just grew worse. It got to the stage where you were relieved to get back to the safe haven of your club. It became very difficult meeting up, trying to stay positive – especially when the manager's head was being pasted on to a vegetable. When the squad was announced and you were in, it was, "Right, tin hat on". It all spiralled towards failing to make the finals in the United States.
That is why the friendly win over Hungary in August was so important, as is the good start to qualifying, even if the opposition may not have been the most testing. Everyone was waiting to pounce after the World Cup, instead there have been positive signs although it has to be balanced against what happened in the last campaign.
Capello seems to have softened slightly, to be more willing to compromise and adapt. There is a more positive vibe around the camp. The manager still seems to prefer 4-4-2, but at least Steven Gerrard is no longer marooned on the left. The hope and, inevitably, expectation will build as what is not the most challenging group is negotiated. Then it will be... hang on haven't we been here before.
For that reason it is impossible to really judge England, and Capello, until we see what happens in the finals (presuming they qualify). Since the World Cup they deserve a six out of 10. They sunk so low at the World Cup that I would be reluctant to mark them any higher ahead of the Euros whatever they do between now and then. The two qualifying performances have been good – but after the summer you cannot take them in isolation.
1. A World Cup on home soil – a player's dream
One of the greatest regrets I have as a player is not being part of Euro 96. I used to speak to David Seaman on the phone during the tournament and often felt envious of the experience they were enjoying. I went to watch a few of the games and the atmosphere was amazing. Terry Venables had this juggernaut going for a few weeks – I remember David telling me that they felt like they were being carried along by the country. Imagine then what it would be like to have the World Cup finals here in 2018 – as a player there could be nothing better than playing in a World Cup on home soil, and the same applies to supporters.
2. France have a crunch match with Romania...
I have a lot of time for Laurent Blanc and admire him as a coach, but he does have a job on his hands at the moment. Blanc has a very different way of doing things to his predecessor but it will still take some time for him to sort this mess out.
3. Anelka and co had to go, no question about it
France had such a poisonous World Cup that banning Nicolas Anelka and co was a must. There was no other choice – it is unacceptable for players to behave as they did whether playing for club or country. There is no point looking to fine players these days, so a suspension is the only thing that can have an impact.
4. Players enjoy working with Roy Hodgson
At any club there is a three-way relationship – the players, the fans, and the board or the owners, and it is impossible for the players not to be affected if the other two are at each other's throats. Liverpool are third bottom in the table despite having a decent squad and a good manager, so you have to suspect the off-field problems are taking a toll. Seeing and hearing the fans protesting does rub off on players. If – when – new owners come in, they must give Roy Hodgson time to sort things out. He is a really good coach and I know players enjoy working with him on the training field. At the moment, with all the insecurity and confusion, he is effectively working with one hand tied behind his back.
5. Beware football golfers claiming their handicap
Yesterday was Gary Lineker's big charity golf day, although the man himself doesn't play that much any more, whatever Stan Collymore might think, as he has a bad back to add to the bad toe that ended his playing career. I've been playing golf since I was five. Being a footballer, with all the free time you had during the day, gave me plenty of time to work on my game. One word of advice – never play golf with a footballer (past or present) unless they produce a handicap certificate. They are bandits.Reuse content