The good ship England football team is in ‘there be dragons territory‘. The old certainties of the Golden Generation are being shredded – Terry is gone, Ferdinand is in the wilderness, Lampard is increasingly a side-lined figure. Gerrard, in the twilight of his international career, is finally playing where he’d like to play. The sad irony is that his legs aren’t what they were at his peak. The only thing that continues and should give us reassurance in turbulent times: Ashley Cole will get booed with every touch in the upcoming games. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The twin rocks that England built there team on for a generation are crumbling. John Terry has retired from England duty. His game is a bogey. Terry’s relationship with England is a complex one. Managers seem devoted to him. Devoted to the point they will sneak around behind the backs of others to please Terry.
His brother-in-arms, Ashley Cole, is somehow in the England squad despite calling the FA ”twats” a few days ago and who seems to find himself in hotter soup as each days goes by.
Roy Hodgson, the likeable enough and respected manager of England (well, outwith the red half of Merseyside), was spotted last week on a tube saying that Rio Ferdinand’s England career is over. This is on the back of Hodgon’s bizarre behaviour in the summer when he argued that Cahill, Lescott, Terry, Jones, Jagielka and Kelly were all ahead of Ferdinand regards ”footballing reasons”. We all suspect that Hodgson didn’t want Ferdinand and Terry in the same squad and most of us would have respected Hodgson more if he’d said as such. This was compounded by Ferdinand’s allegations that it was never explained to him exactly what those footballing reasons were.
How we got here is complex and reads like a cross between something from Renaissance Italy and a CP Snow novel. The question ‘Where we go next?’ is more interesting.
Talent and the future
The Golden Generation is fading out. Ferdinand, for all the things that have been said about and – even – for his ”Choc Ice” tweet, is still one of England’s finest centre-backs. He is, at his best, still a Rolls Royce centre-back in an era of Trabants. He was imperious against Newcastle at the weekend and is still a finer player than the likes of Lescott or Jagielka. He played more games than most of us thought last year and managed, for large chunks of the season, to keep Phil Jones and Chris Smalling out of the side.
Given form, competition, and the fact that by the end of this year Parker, Terry (who would be eligible bar his retirement) and Cole will be 32, Gerrard already is and Frank Lampard is 34, it seems odd to discount the 33-year-old Ferdinand on account of his age. There were even rumours that Hodgson wanted to call up the 37-year-old Paul Scholes for the Euros. Hodgson has recently recalled the sumptuous 31-year-old Michael Carrick to the England squad presumably with the view that he will make a contribution for the next couple of years.
There are genuine questions about when players should retire or when they should be put out to grass. There is a good argument to say that better players should be dispensed with to allow younger players to be blooded and gain experience over time. There is a better argument to say that England need a player at the centre of their defence who will still be there in two years time.
Will Steven Gerrard, the England captain for the qualification campaign, be in the England team in two years time? Will Scott Parker? Will Frank Lampard? Some will, fairly, claim that the World Cup 2014 team – assuming qualification – needs to be a team that blends youth and experience and that a meaningful transition takes place. It isn’t about picking all the ageing players or all the youthful ones. It is about picking the right players and getting the right blend. That may mean dispensing with Ferdinand even if they stick with Lampard and Gerrard. I’d pick Ferdinand in the squad even if he were only a bit part player.
England, however, are not in a position – especially now Terry has retired – to discount defenders players as gifted as Ferdinand. As talented as Cahill is, and as good as Jagielka can be, it would be a brave soul to argue that Shawcross or Lescott are in Ferdinand’s class. It remains to be seen whether Caulker, Smalling, Jones or Kelly can step up. Would they be better off with the support of a player of the class and standing of Ferdinand? My guess would be yes.
Rio in Rio?
It is difficult to feel sorry for a multi-millionaire footballer but I sometimes think Ferdinand has been given a raw deal by England. Too often big decisions concerning him haven’t been communicated with him. He hears via the rumour mill or via people twittering from a tube.
He is probably the best England centre-back since Bobby Moore – certainly in an all-round footballing capacity – yet he seems to have been dealt a cruel hand at times by his country (especially considering how the FA have often overlooked Terry’s behaviour and how managers have indulged him). All that aside, Ferdinand has always seemed enormously keen to play for England. He has always seen it as the pinnacle of the game. He is right. Smaller men would have spurned England this summer. He was one of their loudest supporters even as the man he believed had racially abused his brother wore the shirt. Even though the manager was calling up second choice right-backs from Liverpool to the squad ahead of him for footballing reasons*.
I think we need that attitude in the national squad. It just so happens that he is still, on form, worthy of being in the England squad. It is a shame that Mr Hodgson feels otherwise.
*I think Kelly will be a massive player for Liverpool and England but I’m not sure even I, as one of his cheerleaders, I can claim he was ahead of Ferdinand this summer.