An Ageing England Squad

Mike Adamson, writing in the Guardian, points out that this is the oldest England squad to travel to a finals. It surprises Rob Marrs too. The squad’s average age is 28.7, older than England’s awful nadir squad of 1954. It could have been older. Over at Attacking Soccer, Anthony reminds us that Joe Hart has a real chance to become the youngest keeper to turn out for England at the World Cup. Anthony’s survey of Hart’s predecessors throws up something interesting: at their first Finals, most of England’s keepers have been 27 or 28. But the greatest performances – Banks in 1970, and Shilton twenty years later (plus a mention for David Seaman’s pre-2002 performances, especially Euro 96) – have come from men in their 30s.

It’s interesting too, because one story of the 2010 squad is of goalkeeping decline. No Robinson (aged 30), no Foster (aged 27), no Scott Carson (aged 25), no Chris Kirkland (aged 29). Hart is on the plane aged 23.

Of course, form (Foster), fitness (Kirkland, most regrettably) and luck (Robinson and Carson) account for much of this, and in any case, I’ve not heard any great outcry at England’s failure to pack 7 keepers in the bag. But the squad tells that story nonetheless, and there are others.

Survivors from 1998

For instance, who would have imagined, back in 1998, that no fewer than six of that squad would be plausible selections for the 2010 party? Having won nothing for their country in the meantime? Rio Ferdinand went to France as a young hopeful to gain experience, of course, and this is now his fourth World Cup. But Paul Scholes was sought out by Capello, Beckham is injured, and Gary Neville may have been only another right-back injury away from at least a squad place. Michael Owen is injured, and had he not been, there are those of us who can’t quite see why Defoe would travel in front of him. And then there is Sol Campbell’s extraordinary return to Arsenal, and some fine performances which must have at least brought him up in Capello’s conversation.

In 1998, and even more so in 2002, there was a feeling of youth breaking through: Joe Hart aside, there has been nothing of that this time. Adam Johnson has considerable support amongst both fans and journalists, more than SWP. But put up against the ’98 group of Scholes, Beckham, Owen and, but for injury, a 23-year-old Robbie Fowler, and the class gap becomes more obvious. Johnson is a good player. But no one would argue that he is in that kind of class, at least not yet.

It isn’t a failure of England’s young players. Both the U-21s and U-17s have enjoyed great success recently. Arsene Wenger has spoken warmly of the coming generation, now in their mid teens, and even Trevor Brooking has begun to change his tune. It’s more that for Huddlestone, for Walcott, for Johnson, for Carlton Cole even, 2010 is tangibly too soon. If Capello stays, and rebuilds England in time for 2012, their time will come. Don’t worry for Walcott: take comfort in the criticisms that Joe Cole and Cristiano Ronaldo had at one stage. He’s not the first talent to be accused, when young, of having no game or team awareness.

Unfulfilled Potential

A look at previous squads reveals that even in this most consistent and medal-laden of England cores, there have been drop-outs. What an exciting player Kieron Dyer once was – a match for Lennon and far superior to SWP. And how promising Jermaine Jenas too – possessed of a captain’s temperament and the energy of a Roy Keane. All he had to do, it seemed, was bulk out a little. There are others: Jonathan Woodgate, once considered worthy of a starting place at Real Madrid, but always, heartbreakingly, injured. In an alternative universe, somewhere, he has 80 caps and has partnered King at the heart of the England defence for the best part of six years.

Missing Front Men

And how many strikers – Michael Bridges and Alan Smith stand out, two men who looked the part at first, but were carried away by injury and bad luck as time went by. Dean Ashton, a man in the Alan Shearer mould, never got a chance. There are so many nearly but not quites: genuine Premiership strikers who look just a little lost in a three lions shirt. Will Bobby Zamora be one? Already paid-up members from the post-98 era: Darren Bent, Andy Cole, Kevin Philips, Andy Johnson, Franny Jeffers, David Nugent..

Reasons for optimism

This England squad would do superbly well by reaching a semi-final, but I’d settle for a quarter: Gerrard is already coming out with the “we can play better than this and we will” comments familiar to anyone who followed the 2006 campaign and the 2008 qualifiers. But Capello does seem to know what he’s doing – as has been pointed out elsewhere, Ericksson’s “first half good, second half not so good” has been usefully reversed. The United States will beat England and win the group, but beyond that – not banana skin, more landmine – there are only three teams who are really streets ahead (the two South Americans plus Spain) and if England can avoid them, find form and find goals, they’ve a three-week stay ahead of them.

And there is a story for the manager to tell them. There is still, just about, a narrative here. It’s one more thing that Capello has given England: plot. Once it was that a brilliant European manager would find his talents just a little too young and too soon for 2002, but 2004, 2006… and then 2006 came and went empty, to be followed by a kind of John Major interregnum, a downward spiral, corrosion, chaos. Now there are rumours of one last twist in the story, perhaps even a shot at redemption. Lampard will show his tiny grandkids that Ayia Napa video, chuckle, and say, but let me tell you how it ends..

When Capello was appointed, Micah Richards looked forward to hearing his new ideas for England…

The Passionate Sergeant-Major

After Hoddle, after Ericksson, came the calls for a manager who understood the players, who showed his passion: a traditional man who could motivate the team, a bulldog. And this we learn, like Micah Richards, from Capello: that there are no traditional bulldog managers left in England, that these, like so much else, we now have to buy in from abroad.

For all that, I do owe an apology to those journalists who called for this after Ericksson. They didn’t expect to get what they wanted quite in this manner, and neither did I. But, nevertheless, it does seem to be working, and by working, gives the lie to a lot of what I’ve written here in past seasons. But never mind. Anecdotes from the Capello days, when they finally start to leak out after 2012, will be worth that and more. I hear he won’t let them have tomato ketchup…

8 Replies to “An Ageing England Squad”

  1. I’ve been disappointed by the bile heaped on Walcott in the press – his injuries this season have robbed him of a lot of (needed) pitch experience and, crucially, form. Chris Waddle’s accusation of a lack of “footballing intelligence” seems hasty.

    Capello’s seeming ability to read a game and make good substitutions and tactical adjustments is a good sign – it’s an important part of cup competitions (unlike the league, there are no second chances). Still, he seems to struggle as much as anyone to get the players to improve concentration and ball-retention (perhaps there’s a link there?)

    Still, somehow he’s put some resilience in there – if the qualifiers are any guide it’s hard to see England failing against an average team (although luck can do any team in – that’s football) so I’d pick them to go through top of the group. Don’t see that they have any ability to live with Brazil or Spain though.

    Argentina are still enigmatic – but I feel they will come good – or at the very least I’m hoping that Messi, Aguero and Millito get on fire, because it should be great to watch.

  2. It was the age that first struck me. And then the absent friends, particularly Dean Ashton. I hope The Signor does not regret the omission of a left-footed attacker in Adam Johnson – so handy if you come up against a side with a weak right back. But he needs a large collection of central defenders because two of them are in doubtful health, as is the midfielder meant to proyect them.

    As for Young Theo – I think it’s not just his own shortcomings, but also the way that team-mates, especially at Arsenal, fail to use his strength i.e. pure pace. The best pass to him isn’t the professional footballer’s favourite, the somewhat delayed pass “to feet”, but the schoolboy’s favourite, the near instant pass in front for him to run after. In other words, to get the best use out of the current Theo, any midfielder receiving the ball should instantly look for Theo and release him if at all possible. The customary trick of rolling the ball sideways to a fellow midfielder, or rolling it back to a central defender, just wastes Walcott. If a manager could coax his team to look for that Theo opportunity, he could thereby drive his opponents to defend ever deeper, thus opening up the midfield and so make it easier for his team to retain possession on those occassions when they don’t try to release Walcott. Mind you, that’s why Lennon would be selected in the XI rather than Walcott – he offers more.

  3. I don’t think anyone really “disagrees” with the exclusion of Walcott, as such; the argument is merely whether he’s a less flawed selection than SWP. I would say he probably is, but I agree that it’s a judgement call, because neither man has really laid claim to the shirt. Or rather, Walcott did lay claim to the shirt, but then did nothing for a year.

    I agree that England can beat almost anyone – I’d say they could also beat Maradona’s Argentina, if they get them on a good day – but conversely, I believe it’s possible they could lose to almost anyone, too. Serbia or Ghana in the second round, France in the quarters: I’d bet on England, but I wouldn’t bet the house.

    If they get to the semis, where Brazil or Holland await, I would say it is game over, absent some extraordinary, Italia 90-esque momentum building over the next three weeks.

  4. Anyway, cheer up. Chelsea won the EPL with an ageing squad. Sir Odious pursued them with his ageing squad.

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