Domestic success for English footballers in the Premier League won’t be the only thing resting on the minds of players this season. In less than a year, English footballers up and down the country will be desperate to book their seat on the flight to Brazil World Cup 2014. Hopefuls know they will have to endure a successful domestic season, at least, to put them within contention of being selected.
In the lead up to the previous three or four major tournaments, there’d have been no prizes given out for naming the large majority of the 23 picked for the squad. If injuries allowed for it, the spine of the national team remained consistent for just short of a decade. Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Gary Neville and Ashley Cole were the evervescent stalwart at the back, whilst Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes and David Beckham were on top of the world in their respected fields throughout this era and rarely showed signs of surrendering their place in the starting eleven. Michael Owen, later followed by Wayne Rooney (with a fruitful yet brief partnership crossing over somewhere in the middle) provided England with at least one world-class striker since France 1998.
In consequence, the possibility of wresting a place into the starting eleven was painfully slim. There were two, maybe three positions that weren’t already secured and this often saw players moving out of position to accommodate the vacancy. A variety of Goalkeepers were tried and tested, most of who failed to make the number one jersey their own. Paul Robinson, Rob Green and Scott Carson all had substantial spells between the sticks. However high profile blunders from each saw them fall on their face. England’s forever weak spot – the left wing – provided hopefuls with a route into the team after Paul Scholes’ premature retirement following years of being squeezed out of position. Joe Cole was the first to stake his claim by also moving out wide and kept a firm hold of his place until inconveniently-timed injuries saw unconvincing fringe players, such as Stewart Downing, Adam Johnson and Ashley Young, share the spot.
The Three Lions have had four different managers at the realm over the past ten years, yet neither was able to find a winning combination up front. Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe have rotated the position alongside Rooney or Owen. The latter two can be proud of their contributions and both boast convincing goalscoring records. Reminiscent of a Rocky film, Heskey shrugged off a career worth of tedious ridicule and criticism to earn himself a spot in Capello’s 2010 squad in South Africa after formerly being a favorite under Sven-Goran Eriksson.
It is this consistency and solidity that has provided international hopefuls with a lackadaisical attitude towards national selection at the beginning of a World Cup year. Youngsters breaking through, as well as current fringe players, had little reason for optimism. The barriers to entry were set dauntingly high and it would take either a freak injury or an extraordinarily good domestic season to out-muscle a member of the old guard.
The Brazil World Cup is now hot on the lips of fans, and the team ironically dubbed ‘The Golden Generation’ is no longer. Gerrard, Rooney, and occasionally Lampard, are the only surviving members of the naughties clique – the other places in the starting line-up are well and truly up for the taking.
The ever improving Leighton Baines has provided Ashley Cole with the biggest kick up the proverbial backside of his career, and few would be surprised to see the Everton man oust Cole (who has massed over 100 caps in the position) in time for the kick off in Rio. Jamie Carragher, who failed to break up the complimented partnership of Terry and Ferdinand during his tenure, will be secretly bitter that he wasn’t born five years later. The current roster of centre backs available to Hodgson does not live up to England defences of the past. Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescott, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling all have an equally realistic chance of earning a spot and Hodgson will be likely to pick his partnership based solely on form. If this isn’t a beginning of season motivator then what is?
The battle for a place in the front seven will be as open as ever. Lampard, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, Defoe, Michael Carrick, Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott join tournament virgins Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley as the most likely contenders to earn a spot alongside pencilled-in starters Gerrard and Rooney. Although forgotten men James Milner, Aaron Lennon and Scott Parker won’t be ruling out their chances just yet.
Recent tournaments have seen the introduction of a wildcard entry into the 23 man squad. After the explosive effectiveness of Michael Owen in 1998, managers since have found the unwarrantable inclusion of an unproven youngster a risk worth taking. Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have been recent recipients of the golden ticket in recent tournaments, and despite both offering little justification for their inclusion, Roy Hodgson’s keenness for youth development and possible lack of options elsewhere is likely to see him throw in the surprise once more. Teenage stars Raheem Sterling, Wilfied Zaha and Ross Barkley all appear to be the raw, exciting candidate that the role requires and have emerged as early front-runners for the vacancy.
An upcoming fixture list of key qualifiers will provide regulars with a chance to tighten their grip on their shirt. As for the remaining hopefuls, an outstanding season is key. Players need games, so it’s imperative they first ensure they’re at the right club to showcase their ability — that’s the minimum. What will decide Hodgson’s final 23 is form and dexterity, which means turning those games into performances. Only then can a player begin to believe they’ll be expecting a phone call from the gaffer next summer.
Who do you think will be making their way to the World Cup next year in the England team?