Sometimes I dream of revolution, a bloody coup d'état by the second rank – troupes of actors slaughtered by their understudies, magicians sawn in half by indefatigably smiling glamour girls, cricket teams wiped out by marauding bands of twelfth men – I dream of champions chopped down by rabbit-punching sparring partners while the..."
(from The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard, 1968).
Sorry to cut you off there, Sir Tom, but we get the point. The role of the understudy is no picnic: it makes a man think irrational thoughts, especially in football, where you can wait for years as your legs grow slower, your stamina fades, while someone else, just that little bit better, denies you a place in the team. The curse of being the right person at the wrong time.
It is a curse that manifests itself in international football more than any other, where there is no escape route via a transfer. Wayne Bridge has moved from Chelsea to Manchester City to get past the roadblock that is Ashley Cole but when it comes to his England career he is stuck with his nationality and his place on the bench. It is not like Bridge can decide to jack in England and throw in his lot with, say, Bulgaria.
Chris Woods waited for years to succeed Peter Shilton as England goalkeeper and then lost his place prematurely to David Seaman. Bridge has been understudy for Cole for so long that it is starting to define him. But not all understudies in the current England team are destined to wait for ever. Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick have been second-best to Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard for years but now, more than ever, the gap has closed.
Barry and Carrick – or, in the fashion of that name synthesis now applied to famous Hollywood couples, "Barrick" – have introduced a new dynamic to the centre of England's midfield. For the first time since before Euro 2004, Lampard and Gerrard do not have to be the England manager's obvious choice. England no longer have to approach games praying that those two work – not now that the alternative is more than adequate.
At last in Barry and Carrick there are another two English midfielders playing crucial roles for clubs at the top of the Premier League. Gerrard is out of Wednesday's friendly against Spain but the absence of him, or the potential absence of Lampard, will no longer diminish England as much. In the win over Germany in Berlin in November, Lampard and Gerrard were injured and, as all understudies dream of doing, Barry and Carrick stole the show.
If Capello had to pick a squad for the World Cup finals tomorrow he could do so knowing that the key central midfielders in four out of the five best Premier League clubs would be on the plane. Barry has played as the fulcrum behind Lampard and Gerrard; against Germany, Barry played as a combination with Carrick in the middle of an orthodox four-man midfield. Either as individuals or a pair they are asking serious questions of the ruling consensus.
Lampard and Gerrard were effective together in the wins over Kazakhstan and Belarus and they have been their clubs' outstanding players this season, but the nagging feeling is that the fundamental problem of their compatibility has not been solved. Against Kazakhstan in October, Gerrard played on the left side of a midfield three with Barry and Lampard that was switched to 4-4-2 in the second half. Against Belarus, Gerrard played on the left of a four-man midfield. It worked then but it did not feel like a solution.
Lampard and Gerrard are the same kind of player. It is the problem that the last three England managers, including Capello, have wrestled with: how to deploy two men to do one job while somehow occupying the task neither of them likes doing? Gerrard has been pushed left but no one believes that he is a left winger in the long term. Eventually, Capello will have to ask himself whether he truly believes these two can operate together in the centre of a four- or five-man midfield.
The fear that Capello's predecessors have lived under is that if they drop either they leave themselves open to ridicule. Lampard and Gerrard are such stalwarts of the Premier League that leave one out and he is likely to put in a heroic match-winning performance for his club the following weekend. You have to be very brave to drop them. The beauty of having Barry and Carrick around is that there is a legitimate alternative to Lampard and Gerrard.
Barry has developed into a powerful ball-winner. Carrick passes the ball as well as any of his Premier League contemporaries. Both are competing at the sharp end of the league and proven in an England shirt. It is no disaster that Gerrard is not around for this week's game against Spain. He did not play against Croatia either and England did just fine in Zagreb. It will do him no harm to know that there is more than a serious contender snapping at his heels: there is a replacement.
That has been at the heart of the Lampard-Gerrard conundrum. For too long there just was not anyone else to turn to, however much we may have tried to persuade ourselves that Owen Hargreaves or David Beckham might have been an alternative in the middle. Now there is another way. "Stand-ins of the world stand up," as the character Moon says in the play mentioned above.
BBC equaliser to ITV own goal
ITV was not the only television channel to make a mess of its football coverage last week. The BBC News at Ten on Tuesday night carried a report suggesting the bubble might burst for Premier League football. The following morning The Independent among others broke the news that BSkyB had paid another £1.3bn for its first four rights' packages before the League exceeded the previous deal with the sale of the remaining two packages on Friday. Surely the clue for the BBC was that the corporation itself had paid the same amount for the Match of the Day rights the previous week?
Straight-talking Gazidis hits spot
Hard not to be impressed by Ivan Gazidis, the new Arsenal chief executive who did not resort to Garry Cook-style marketing babble in his first interviews last week. Gazidis has an Oxford education and an American business background, the same traditional-yet-modern combination that is such a feature of Arsenal. Unfortunately, we were left none the wiser as to why his ultimate boss, Danny Fiszman, keeps chucking his fellow board members out.
Moyes plays the blame game in victory
A momentous victory for Everton over Liverpool on Wednesday night was then soured slightly by David Moyes' accusations that the Goodison Park press room was full of Liverpool supporters "stunned" by the defeat of the team "you lot talk up all the time". Hmm. I would not call the coverage of Rafael Benitez and his team over the last month a case of talking them up – quite the opposite, in fact. Most managers blame their problems on the press in times of crisis – sadly, Moyes did in it his moment of triumph.
* Following my accusation last week that the banners at Stamford Bridge appeared to have been manufactured by the club's commercial department, Saturday's "Scolari Out Zola/Di Matteo Chelsea Legends In!" looked distinctly home-made.Reuse content