So that was that. With curiously little fanfare, and certainly minimal revelation, England’s World Cup squad has been announced to a collective shrug.
On first glance, the squad looks curiously imbalanced. A spluttering cut-and-shut of doe-eyed ingénues ballasted with greybeards Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney – the three remaining stragglers of England’s ersatz ‘Golden Generation’, with all the baggage that entails. And yet, in many ways, this is the most exciting squad England have taken to a tournament since Euro 96 – and certainly the one with the greatest capacity for unpredictability. Back then, only three players (Shearer, Platt and Pearce) remained from Euro 92 and only four had been tainted by inclusion in the final game of Graham Taylor’s disastrous qualifying campaign for USA 94. Like those bound for Brazil, that squad fulfilled a cyclic need for not-quite-realised reinvention. A bright new future, albeit one that featured Steve Howey.
This squad, then, is the latest stab at a well-worn process of lapsed evolution. For eleven of the twenty-three, Brazil will be their first senior international tournament, whilst only six remain from the last World Cup (though, to add a note of depressing caution, five of those started the debacle in Bloemfontein). Much will, rightfully, be made of the trio of Southampton players, but the quartet from Merseyside – Barkley, Sterling, Henderson and Sturridge – may prove to be the boldest and most significant of the new recruits. Barkley, in particular, is an astonishing blend of anachronistic barrel-chested surges and fearsome lunges, and ultra-modern athleticism. If Barkley clicks, it is not hyperbole to suggest he is capable of defining England’s tournament.
Amongst those selected, there is also a refreshing lack of easy narrative – the asinine fuel that turbo-charges much mainstream football coverage. In previous years, pre-tournament injuries, suspensions and agendas have led to a wealth of tedious Homeric tropes about returning heroes and flawed demi-gods – the Fates conspiring against our brave boys yet again. Lampard and Gerrard may be heading to their last tournament, but are doing so in a manner pleadingly undemonstrative (Gerrard, in particular, reciting the Peters-inspired mantra about “the group” on an endless loop). None of the youthful contingent have the capacity for self-combustion of a 1990-vintage Gascoigne, or Wayne Rooney in the midst of his 2006 metatarsal-funk. Indeed, the only member of the squad who lends himself to such conceit is Rickie Lambert – and even then, that’s likely to be restricted to a swathe of “From Macclesfield to the Maracana” headlines than any attempt to cast Kirkby’s finest as a latter-day Hector.
Perhaps the most significant aspect about England’s squad, however, is that this is the first time in a generation a significant percentage of those selected began their career outside of the self-appointed elite. Eight of the players heading to Brazil have worked their way up from Leagues 1 and 2 – a refreshing and necessary antidote to Greg Dyke’s risible notion that player development is linear and uniform, a conceit central to the disingenuous “elite player development” doublespeak behind the deplorable League 3.
If there’s one gripe to be had about this squad, then it is that it represents the type of bet-hedging occupancy of the middle ground that is so euphemistically referred to in both the sporting and political spheres as “pragmatism”. A propensity to position itself nervously between ideological stalls cuts to the core of English football’s longstanding struggle for self-identity. Much has been made in the media about the youthfulness of this squad, yet Hodgson has been reluctant to shake off the midfield comfort blanket of Milner, Gerrard and – perhaps most bewilderingly given the relative poverty of his season – Frank Lampard. Likewise, the squad is split between diminutive tika-taka droids like Wilshere, Sterling and Lallana, and big lads who can run quite fast. Cahill and Smalling, talented players though they are, are not naturally conducive to a policy of playing out from the back, whilst Phil Jones seems to have forged a career largely out of the ability to bench-press a wildebeest rather than any genuine technical fluency. The fear remains that, faced with adversity, any progressive aspirations will be ditched in favour of the well-worn comforts of The Big Diagonal.
In this regard, the squad is perhaps representative of where English football currently finds itself. Faced with a Premier League ‘product’ that long ago lurched into self-parody, the egalitarian Germanic model of fan ownership is lauded with increasing volume. Simultaneously, the governing bodies’ (and, depressingly, large number of fans’) weirdly deferential and destructive infatuation with a perennially-doomed model of 20th Century American capitalism – the market will fix it, because the market must fix it – continues to strangle the prospect of culture-change at birth. This squad has the potential to either define a new direction for English football, or to lurch back towards the worst of old habits. Whether it does so will depend primarily on the courage and conviction of the manager. Over to you, Roy.
Posted by Ron Hamilton