It’s that time of the quadrennial again. Having qualified, literally, by the skin of their enamel-revealing teeth, England supporters-including me-are fervently hoping for the impossible: Steven Gerrard holding aloft the World Cup, a la Bobby Moore. The draw hasn’t even been conducted, England are not even seeded, but can hopes be doused? No, not so early, not yet. If anything, they will be bolstered over the coming months, as Daniel Sturridge continues to improve his goal-scoring record at Liverpool, Wayne Rooney finally emerges out of Robin van Persie‘s shadow, Joe Hart starts looking more and more like a goalkeeper, and the injury-list shortens. Hope, as they say, is a dangerous thing.
Supporting England is rather similar to supporting the Indian cricket team, and has nothing to with having a colonial hangover. Sky-high expectations before any tournament, the pressure from a multitude of knowledgeable followers of the game and past success, all add to the burden that comes with being a sportsperson of international stature. While recent dominance of the game fuel the average Indian’s conjectures and anticipation, the flourishing domestic structure play a similar role for the English.
But football is, well, a different ball-game altogether. And Roy Hodgson knows the real task is yet to start. Qualification would have generally been a given for Gerrard and co, but for the unfortunate regime of Steve McClaren. The year 2008 was a dark period for English football, and would have scarred the careers of many players as they watched Torres score the only goal in the final of the European Championship.
Bygones may not be bygones, but half a decade later, things have changed for England. The Gerrard-Lampard conundrum does not seem to pose as many questions for Hodgson as they did for Capello, McClaren,Sven-Goran Eriksson, and Kevin Keegan. One does not have to fear the two giants of the modern English game getting into each others way anymore, as Hodgson seems to have gotten through to them, with Gerrard being asked to sit back and dictate the flow of the game from a deeper position in the occasions he plays with Lampard. The Liverpool skipper has been heckled all his life for not displaying the same level of commitment and performance in the Thee Lions shirt as he does when in the red of his hometown club. But if there were any doubts over his passion for the national team, they would have been suitably removed by his celebration after scoring against Poland yesterday. Gerrard’s cup final goals against AC Milan and West Ham were followed by a mixture of steely determination and belief. Tuesday’s was all about joy and…well, joy.
England have not been blessed with too many world class players for the same position, but left-back isn’t one of them. With Ashley Cole out injured, the usually fragile back-line would have been wondering what else could go wrong after having lost Glen Johnson on the right side too. But trust Leighton Baines to put Cole’s spot in the starting eleven a major question. It’s been an open secret for long that Baines was the superior player and an asset to any team with his delivery on set-pieces from his frighteningly good left foot. Does Hodgson let his new, attacking persona dictate his team selection and Baines’ inclusion ahead of Cole? One can only hope that the England manager’s answer is in the affirmative.
Ever since Michael Owen career went into decline in early 2008, the English front-line has suffered. Andy Carroll, Emile Heskey and Peter Crouch have tried to lend support to Rooney without much sustained success, while Jermain Defoe does not inspire confidence for managers to start him more regularly, be it for England or Tottenham Hotspurs. Hodgson, finally, has managed to settle on to a bunch of number 9s and 10s. Sturridge and Welbeck, with more opportunities for their clubs, have shown that the international stage holds to fears for them. Add the more-than-significant presence of Southampton’s Rickie Lambert, and your typical centre-forward is not missed either. However, to be fair to Lambert, his touch and technique are more refined than those of a lumbering front-man. In essence, Rooney is not alone in the goals department anymore. He may carry the tag of being the team’s go-to man, but that will changes as the latest inductees into the England squad start asserting themselves on the playing field.
What differentiated England’s last two World Cup qualifiers against Poland and Montenegro from the previous ones was the loss of Hodgson’s usual inhibitions. No, the England manager did not get rid of his dour face and run the length of the Wembley touchline in his pants. Instead, good ol’ Woy managed to make his team play with abandon, as debutantes like Andros Townsend showed Messi-esque tendencies, cutting in from the right on his left foot and unleashing thunderbolts. The last debut to have been met with such acclaim probably belonged to Rooney, and Townsend backed his first-match display by running at the Polish defenders like there was no tomorrow. And to think that he was sent out on loan to QPR last season.
With seven months left before Brazil wakes up to the magic of World Cup football, Hodgson has the luxury to to concentrate on the fringe players in the upcoming friendlies. While that might give Sturridge, Smalling, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere and the rest some game time, there are others who could write their names on the few tickets Hodgson still hasn’t assigned names to. On the top of the list would be Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey, Ravel Morrison and Saido Berahino. While the first three have already played for the senior team, the latter two have caught people’s attention recently with their strong showing for their clubs and for the under-21s. Add Wilfried Zaha, Tom Ince and Nathan Redmond into the mix, and there is bound to be plenty of competition even within the youngsters.
Hodgson has a few months before zeroing-in on the the 23 men who will lead the charge for the British Isles in South America. Is it too early to have your say on the constituents of the squad? Probably, but an early look at the probables can give the chance to examine which player took the chance and which didn’t when Roy finally reveals his pick next year. Assumption: all players are fit. This might be a stretch, but fingers are crosses, aren’t they?
Goalkeeper: Joe Hart, Fraser Forster, Ben Foster
Defenders: Glen Johnson, Kyle Walker, Leighton Baines, Ashley Cole, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Michael Dawson, Phil Jones
Forwards: Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Rickie Lambert, Danny Welbeck
Stand-by: John Ruddy, Chris Smalling, Frank Lampard, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tom Ince, Jermain Defoe.
The days of Ramsey, Moore, Banks, Hunt and Charlton may not be around the corner, but try telling that to the legions of English supporters and one Indian, occupying his chair, eyes fixated on the television, pupils dilated. Football, more than ever, is the new cricket.Published 16 Oct 2013, 22:38 IST