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An Ageing England Squad

Posted on 02 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

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…

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England, Scotland and World Cup Ennui

Posted on 02 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

I know I’m not the only one who isn’t really looking forward to the World Cup.  But your reasons will be different from mine. I don’t enjoy tournaments which feature home nations – too tense, too much hoopla. And I enjoy ones with only England in even less – the loneliness leaves them even more exposed than they already were. Oh, to be in 1998, in the summertime, with a beer.

There have been so many World Cups now, and they aren’t getting better. This is to contrast them both with the Olympics and the European Championships. World Cup piles onto World Cup and each one squashes flat beneath the last like the ingredients in some kind of ever-accumulating Double Whopper.

Scotland aren’t there, of course, and Craig Levein gets his tenure off to an unpromising-sounding start against the Czech Republic having had almost no time to gather his thoughts. He should, if he keeps things calm and relatively quiet, steer Scotland into a play-off place without too much trouble. His successors ten years down the line will have an easier time of it: this is the muddy bottom of Scotland’s lean period, and it’s Levein’s unenviable task to steer the team out of it.

The England situation is depressing for different reasons.

This is still Ericksson’s 2001 team in many respects. John Terry and Wayne Rooney have arrived, but – and this is just astonishing – with the sole exception of David Seaman, every member of the starting XI, and two out of the three substitutes, is still a regular Premiership player or playing in Serie A (or Owen Hargreaves would be, barring injury). Scholes and Carragher have retired from international football, sadly, and Nicky Barmby is no longer considered a serious candidate for selection. Otherwise, it’s very much the same names.

When you consider that 5-1 squad absentees Lampard and Barry had both made their England debuts prior to the Munich game, it becomes clear that for the core established squad, 2010 is the last chance to win an international trophy. I think 2004 and 2006 were the years for these players. It’s probably too late now.

Always with the injuries, England. Terry’s back problems, Ferdinand’s back problems, Ashley Cole’s broken ankle, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, Michael Owen.. Owen might not have been a major candidate for the plane, but this point is not about him. It’s about the way England have gone into tournaments with what would be a very serious team, if fit, but one in fact hastily recruited from the squad’s unfashionable outer regions. Sometimes it can work – Danny Mills was an effective stand-in for Gary Neville in 2002, and.. no, there weren’t any successful stand-ins in 2004 and 2006, were there?

Too many front pages: say no more, really. All that started with Lampard and Terry at the airport a week and a day after Munich (because the core of this team have been around more or less since the foundation of Blogger) and there’s usually been something or other on the boil ever since. Frankly, were the UK press less nosey, prurient and possessed of such peculiar priorities, we’d neither know nor care. But it’s still depressing.

The fringe players: I wish I didn’t count Jermaine Defoe in this bracket, but he’s only two years younger than Michael Owen, and the gap between the careers of the two men – to say nothing of other members of the squad – is impossible to ignore. His Spurs partner Peter Crouch is a little over a year younger than Owen, and the same comments apply. The main hope has to be that Defoe and Crouch continue on this dream-like season of theirs (surely the one which will define them) and carry all that confidence into the World Cup. And Crouch is no certainty to travel.  Injuries have robbed us of what might have been a thrilling season-long duel for Beckham’s spot on the right wing between Lennon and Walcott: all we can hope for now is that one or other of them is fit. Let’s skip over the goalkeeping situation.

The Good News: Carlton Cole has grown up, and is a kind of prozac every time one reflects on what’s happened to Michael Owen. Tom Huddlestone, but he’s injured, of course… And Capello doesn’t seem to understand the idea that England might perform less well when essential players are missing. It’s the kind of blind spot I don’t remember an England manager having in the past, save for Ericksson during his early, experimental line-ups (Chris Powell – remember his nutmegging Guardiola?).

No, the real good news is this: barring something from left of field, the rebuilding England will need to do will be done by Capello, whose contract, let’s not forget, continues until the end of the European Championship in 2012. Who, given how consummately well he has done so far (I called him a “More Than Mind Games manager” when he was appointed, and he hasn’t let me down) would you rather have the job?

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