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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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Owen, Beckham: it feels like growing old

Posted on 15 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Beckham out. Thus passes a generation of English players who came to prominence at the very end of my twenties. This is how the story ends, then: that group have indeed passed on without winning an international trophy. What Gary Neville feared, and perhaps expected, has come true.

Truth to tell, England’s teams since 1998 have always fallen well short. First France, then Spain, have produced better squads and performances. Holland have also just lost a generation – one which began with the astonishing Ajax European Cup winners of 1995 – but one that always seemed more likely than England’s to succeed.

Moreover, the best players of the 1998-2010 era have always been prone to injuries. Owen and Beckham were doubtful for both 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and weren’t fully fit at either. But for 1998 and the era of AOL, Freeserve and BoL, we’d never have seen either man playing at full tilt at the top level.

So much for a golden generation: England’s 1998 team, were, after all, the best of modern times. What would you give to have even an ageing Shearer now?

But these are the thoughts of someone for whom Owen, Beckham and co. were the last players to arrive when they themselves could still conceivably play.

For anyone now in their late 20s, the attachment to Owen and Beckham might not be there. Instead, each injury to the Old Guard brings Milner, Huddlestone, Lennon and now Adam Johnson closer to their destiny.

And there’s little doubt that Capello, for all his regret at losing players through injury, is capable of picking and organizing replacements. Only Wayne Rooney, of the 23-man squad, lacks an equivalent, although there are other capable goalscorers. Unlike in 2002, the injuries to Beckham and Owen make little difference to England’s chances. Beckham’s dead ball skills would have made him a useful substitute, but it is more than time that someone made the right wing their own and remade it in their own style.

It might not be over for either Beckham or Owen. Owen will play for another couple of years, and although at present it would take some real slapstick on the injuries front to knock over everyone who stands between him and the squad, it can’t be ruled out altogether. And Beckham was supposed to be gone after 2006. The man’s ability to dig himself out of the grave faster than his critics’ spades can bury him is a source of lasting entertainment and amusement.

But across the rest of the established squad, there are injuries, losses of form, ennui, niggles, an accumulating depression. Under any other manager, this would be worrying. It would prompt reflections that perhaps the time to rebuild the team is now: to use the World Cup to rebuild around the Huddlestones and Johnstones. But Capello doesn’t work like that or think like that.

So while Capello gets on with the job of seamlessly closing the gaps opened by injuries and turning James Milner into a kind of calm Paul Gascoigne, let’ s reflect on how Owen and Beckham will be remembered.

Not, I dare say, like Shearer and Adams are remembered. At his peak, Shearer gave England the sort of security you feel when you’ve been trapped by freak weather in a millionaire’s pantry: that feeling of infinite backup. Both he and Tony Adams had a football fan’s sense of priorities (which Shearer comically rehearsed all over again in this Smalltalk interview). I approve of footballers having hinterland – Owen’s racing, Beckham’s… skiing. But I know that most fans would rather their heroes be as obsessed as they are.

There’s some chance that Beckham will morph into something Charltonesque: he’s already to some extent a go-to-guy when it comes to competing for Olympics and World Cups. He’s good at being an ambassador, and if English football needs anything, it needs a sunny exterior to show the world. Beckham will not be wasted as Bobby Moore was wasted.

Owen’s own future is already well mapped out. A bit more football, then training racehorses. He’ll pop up on television now and again as a contemporary, relevant figure in a different sport, one which some suspect he prefers. His relatively closed personality will leave him with an enigmatic air around him: a man who appeared very suddenly, scored 40 goals for his country, and then went away again little older than George Best.

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