England World Cup squad: Roy Hodgson opts for youth – but then talent pool left him little choice
England manager gets in muddle over Cole’s exclusion but otherwise cannot be faulted for his explanation of the squad
In the recent past the Football Association has chosen Café Royal or Wembley Stadium to announce the names of the men the England manager had selected to represent their country at a World Cup finals, but this time, Roy Hodgson was delivered to a quiet street in Luton. The sponsors are king these days so it was to Vauxhall Motors in a Vauxhall motor that Hodgson travelled for the 2014 World Cup finals squad reveal.
Hodgson’s commercial obligations to the FA have led him a merry dance at times, whether it is to Barnet to promote Mars Bars, or to Bedfordshire to the home of UK van production, although give him his due, his spirit never flags. There was a nice fit about Vauxhall, nobly maintaining one of the remaining vestiges of the nation’s native car industry, and a manager making the best of the dwindling numbers of elite English footballers.
As for the squad itself, this was not only the best way to go; it was the only way for Hodgson to go. Greg Dyke’s commission report into the falling number of English players in the Premier League will have given Hodgson a clear idea as to how reduced his options were in relation to his European counterparts. His squad list only confirmed that to be the case, its limitations expressed in some of the older generation with whom he filled his stand-by list, including the 32-year-old Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe, 31.
In their place, Hodgson went for the young players who have excelled this season, including Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling as well as, on stand-by, John Stones – as the potential replacement for the injured Phil Jones – and Jon Flanagan. If that nurtures a welcome feeling of hope for English football then Hodgson was at pains to point out he did not do it as some kind of gesture to the future; he did it because these players had been the best performers this season.
He was asked by one television reporter whether the squad was, like a Vauxhall car, “dependable, well-made, well-organised, full of energy but ultimately a little bit ordinary”, the kind of bear-trap from which there is no easy escape. Hodgson’s sidestepped it with as much good grace as possible. The FA’s German counterparts, the Deutscher Fussball-Bund are sponsored by Mercedes-Benz and one imagines no-one dares ask Joachim Löw the same questions about them.
As for the squad, it begs the question, who else was he supposed to select? France may be able to consider leaving behind Samir Nasri; Argentina can afford not to pick Carlos Tevez and Spain’s embarrassment of riches mean that Juan Mata might not make the squad, but that is not an option for the England manager.
He has taken a risk that he feels justifiable on the fitness of Jack Wilshere, who has played 27 minutes since cracking that navicular bone in his foot on 5 March. He has selected two uncapped players in his stand-by squad and a further eight outfield players who have 10 caps or less. It is a sign of the relatively inexperienced profile of his squad that Glen Johnson, with 50 caps, is his fourth most seasoned international.
Only on the question of Ashley Cole’s exclusion did Hodgson get himself in something of a tangle, conceding that were Leighton Baines to pick up an injury early in the tournament then that decision could backfire on him. Hodgson said: “I’ve heard this: ‘What if Leighton Baines got injured, wouldn’t Ashley Cole be the right answer?’ And of course the answer to that is ‘Yes, he would be, without a doubt’. But Ashley Cole isn’t really a cover player.”
Hodgson has been down this road before with his assumption that Rio Ferdinand would not be suitable to take to Euro 2012 on the basis that he would not be first choice, a train of logic that feels more convenient for the England manager to follow than a reflection of a player’s state of mind. One suspects that Cole would accept the odds of being Baines’ understudy at a World Cup finals, but it sounds like he never got the option.
Later Hodgson said: “If you’re going to take a very good young player like [Luke] Shaw without experience you really need to take three left-backs. You need two seniors because of injury and the other one. You can’t do that. Twenty-three players did not give me the luxury of three left-backs.” Asked whether that was a reason not to take Shaw, Hodgson cheerfully admitted, “I’m losing track here.”
The obvious answer to the doubts being expressed over Shaw’s capacity potentially to deputise for Baines was to argue that the 18-year-old, soon to become a Manchester United player, was ready, but Hodgson seems to harbour doubts over that. His ideal scenario is that Baines stays fit throughout, a fair assumption, and that Shaw gets enough of a taste of the action to launch his international career.
Hodgson was more sure-footed when it came to the question of whether England could win the tournament, always a tricky proposition in a nation that balances acute cynicism with a deep distrust of any manager who shares their own pessimism. “I want to win it. But if you’re asking me my minimum expectation I’m saying I don’t have one. I expect us to play well. I expect us to do well. I expect us to live up to the qualities I think we have but I am not going to quantify it in the terms you want me to quantify it.”
He has known his squad since mid-April, he said, and was hoping that nothing would change his mind after that. The statistics will have told him that, with the possible exception of Stones, the chances of a top English footballer emerging in the last few months were always going to be slim.
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