Roy Hodgson’s appointment as England manager surprised the seasoned hacks. They’ve responded with a curious detachment to the new man, talking up Harry Redknapp and raising quizzical eyebrows at his first selection, which also happens to be the squad that will go to Poland and Ukraine for the summer’s European Championships.
In search of a big story since most sane people lambasted the News International tabloid’s attempts to mock the new man, the media have talked up the Terry-Ferdinand choice into a statement on race relations. It patently isn’t. Neither player is the defender they were two years ago and Ferdinand clearly hasn’t been the same since his untimely knee injury on the eve of the last World Cup. There is quite clearly a problem between the two – as Terry’s alleged comments to Anton Ferdinand have understandably left Rio more than perturbed – and I wouldn’t have taken either. Hodgson might have well left both behind had Chris Smalling’s groin not played up. But that would have left a young England back five without the kind of dominant centre back you need at a major championship. Just a matter of days ago, Sir Alex Ferguson publicly questioned Ferdinand’s ability to play two games in five days. Perhaps the Manchester United manager wants his experienced centre back ready for the new domestic campaign, but Fabio Capello gambled on Ledley King’s fitness in South Africa and lost. It isn’t a risk worth repeating.
The choices Hodgson has made remind us of his pragmatism. Glen Johnson is picked ahead of Micah Richards – largely for his offensive ability and the manager’s confidence in him. Hodgson isn’t the first England manager not to fancy Richards, who can be impetuous, and obviously knows Johnson well from his ill-fated time at Anfield. He’s also gone with Andy Carroll up front, which is understandable given his penchant for a big-man, little-man partnership. Carroll may be much-maligned but he’s young, raw and has the physical attributes to pose problems for the three nations England will face in the group stages. Hodgson’s also been sensible and opted for Jermain Defoe – always likely to grab a goal or two – and the exciting Danny Welbeck as additional options given that Wayne Rooney’s petulance against Montenegro means he’ll be missing for the first two games.
Criticism has surrounded a couple of Hodgson’s midfield picks. Stewart Downing has been slated on the back of a difficult season at Anfield, but it’s hard to find a Liverpool midfielder who emerges with credit from Kenny Dalglish’s first full season. Downing’s a genuine left-footer, a precious commodity for England coaches past and present, and has excelled for the national side over the last eighteen months. He’ll cover every blade of grass, can play on either side and, the inclusion of Carroll, makes Downing a sensible selection. James Milner’s versatility and work ethic – another must for Hodgson – makes him a certainty for me, even if he might not have been a regular as Manchester City’s title chase went down to the wire. Aaron Lennon’s exclusion has been highlighted by many but the recently fit-again Tottenham winger would drive Hodgson to distraction with his lack of tracking back.
Credit should go to Hodgson for introducing a couple of new faces. John Ruddy’s inclusion is fitting reward for a fine season at Norwich and his calmness when he made his Everton debut back in 2006 after Iain Turner was sent off for deliberate handball nine minutes in marked him out as a strong character. Hodgson’s choice of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is more than a mere gimmick. Theo Walcott in 2006 this isn’t – Oxlade-Chamberlain’s had an impressive second half of the season for Arsenal and a coach like Hodgson will demand that the youngster fulfils every ounce of his potential. The new manager should also be commended for offering the promising goalkeeper Jack Butland, underused by Birmingham and a potential long-term successor to Joe Hart, a stand-by place.
Hodgson’s squad selection has also confirmed what sane football watchers have been saying for the last few years. England aren’t world-beaters and shouldn’t expect to make the semi-finals of major tournaments by right. There are perhaps two world-class players in the squad, with one unavailable for the two games that will shape England’s destiny. He has, in his own quiet way, managed to lower expectations. One senior football correspondent described this squad as ‘average’. What the self-styled experts forget is that Hodgson has been getting the best out of average sides for years. He took Fulham to a European final, lifted West Brom away from the relegation zone to mid-table and had been making waves on the continent for years away from prying English eyes. I’m fascinated to see what he’ll achieve with England.