Well, that didn’t go according to plan. England drawing 1-1 at home to Ukraine in their first home World Cup qualifier. The euphoria the country has felt in the last few weeks after outstanding performances by the likes of Murray, Ennis, Farah and Wiggins could not be extended by the footballers who earn a damned sight more than their more successful fellow athletes.
Shorn of players like Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, Theo Walcott, John Terry and Andy Carroll, the England squad looked very thin indeed going into the game. Players like Livermore, Lallana and Sterling, hardly household names, had to be called up to fill a few gaps on the bench.
It was a point Roy Hodgson was quick to seize on before the match. Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling impressed many with his recent performance for the Reds against Arsenal but he is still 17 years old and has played just seven games. No disrespect to the player but it does seem that he was called up because of his passport and who pays his salary. Little else.
Hodgson knows the pool available to him is small and is getting smaller. The last time the Premier League teams fielded less than one third of the players used were British. Spanish sides, as a contrast, fielded more than 64 percent Spanish players.
The English premium doesn’t help. West Ham United recently signed winger Matt Jarvis for an estimated 10 million pounds from relegated Wolverhampton Wanderers. The 26-year-old winger should be at the peak of his career and has one England cap to his name. Yet Hodgson preferred to call up young Sterling, too young to vote, than recall Jarvis.
Hodgson has proved reluctant to break up the Steven Gerrard-Frank Lampard midfield engine. And for good reason. Lampard has scored three in the opening two World Cup qualifiers including a couple of penalties.
But Gerrard and Lampard have been together a long time at international level and have never really gelled. Yet a player like Mark Noble is not even given an opportunity. Noble is 25 years old and has been a consistent performer for West Ham United for a number of seasons now. Yet that does not seem to be enough to wear the Three Lions.
It does seem that when it comes to calling up players then players at certain clubs do get overlooked. Another West Ham player, Kevin Nolan, has been performing at the highest level for over a dozen years yet has been consistently overlooked by England managers who are content to just look at the big clubs.
Playing overseas doesn’t help get you noticed, which is a surprise given Hodgson’s experiences around Europe. One of the few Englishmen earning their trade is Michael Mancienne, a 24-year-old defender now in his second season with Hamburg SV in the Bundesliga. But despite having played at every level of age group football, and being called up once to the full squad by Fabio Capello as a callow 20-year-old, Mancienne, who started his career with Chelsea, has yet to make his full debut.
It is only natural that the best players will gravitate to the big clubs. Arsenal’s policy has long been to snare young players; Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain are testament to that. Manchester United are following the same road with their summer signing of Nick Powell. And champions Manchester City, feeling if it’s good enough for Arsenal and United it’s good enough for them, recently signed Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell.
The Premier League giants are also currently thought to be sniffing round young players at Leicester City and Southampton hoping to add to their rosters.
Perhaps the players at the clubs outside the big four – or is it five now? – are not as good as those at Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford or the Emirates. But perhaps they are hungrier. Playing at the big clubs, yes they get the regular exposure to Europe, but it doesn’t seem to have made our national team any better.
Perhaps it’s time the manager looked beyond the big four club of exclusivity, right and privilege, and stared considering good honest professionals who may feel a bit more pride in pulling in the Three Lions.