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So there it is, then. The provisional England squad for the 2012 European Championships. On what was at the time a slow news day, this was always likely to provoke a considerable amount of comment, but the hysteria yesterday morning and earlier this afternoon might have taken the most dedicated of frenzy-watchers by surprise. As one o’clock ticked over, the anticipation reached fever pitch. Five minutes later, though, the only sound really audible was that of slowly deflating balloons.
Quite what people expected from the announcement of the England squad for the 2012 European Championships is open to question. It would have been nice if an FA spokesman in a white coat holding a clipboard had stepped out and said, “We’ve been working on this for quite a while. After years of trying, we have finally managed to clone the Dutch team from the 1974 World Cup finals and kept them in hibernation so that they qualify to play for England under residency rules”, but the reality of England’s position is that any manager has a very limited palette in terms of who he has at his disposal.
As such, perhaps the reality of seeing that list of twenty-three names was a reminder to some that, for all the sunniness which followed the FAs decision to bring in Roy Hodgson rather than Harry Redknapp as the manager at this time, England remain distinctly in the “mediocre” ranking of football names. There were cautious reasons for optimism – it is encouraging to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain get an opportunity to sample tournament football – but on the whole this was an uninspiring selection, a sign that little will change in the England team for the time being. But it was always going to be this way and, perhaps significantly, perhaps not, there is little to suggest that Harry Redknapp would have done things much differently to Roy Hodgson. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, so it is that the football world is incapable of keeping its trap shut for very long and the criticisms of Hodgson’s selection seemed to fall into four categories:
- John Terry in the squad, while Rio Ferdinand is left out.
- Robert Green selected as goalkeeping cover.
- Stewart Downing included in the squad.
- Steven Gerrard chosen as captain.
There will doubtlessly be acres of coverage given to these decisions over the next couple of days or so, but the likelihood is that much of what will be written will miss out on one crucial, mitigating factor with regard to the team selection: that none of it really matters. That John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, both the wrong side of thirty years old and both arguably past their best, are still being furiously debated betrays the paucity of alternative selections that Hodgson has at his disposal, as well as serving to remind us of the low rumble of thunder in the distance that is Terry’s forthcoming court case. We could argue that the former captain should not have been selected on the basis of his previous indiscretions and alleged indiscretions, but football managers seldom make decisions on the basis of moral considerations and to wish that they would do so has more than an element of wishful thinking about it. This won’t stop criticism of the decision, though, and much of it will be valid.
If we accept that this is the way that team selections are made these days, though – and it worth pointing out that we shouldn’t have to – then we have to consider the rationale behind the decision from a purely footballing point of view. So, who’s better defender at the moment: England’s Brave John Terry or Rio Ferdinand? Hodgson’s reasoning behind the decision is understood to be concerns over Ferdinand’s fitness levels, and that this could prove significant when England are lining up to play highly skilled teams in June. As ever with these decisions, though, no-one will know whether the decision to select John Terry will turn out to be the right one for football reasons until it’s too late. At least, as those who are ambivalent or hostile towards the England team might consider, his selection will make it a little easier to fall back into their default position.
On the selections of Stewart Downing and Robert Green, there are differing degrees of concern. Green will surely only be goalkeeping cover for Joe Hart, and his selection is one that will only develop any significance should Hart get injured or sent off before during the tournament. As such, this decision - even taking into consideration the fact that Hodgson himself admitted earlier today that his goalkeeping options are very limited – can be filed in the storm in a teacup category. With regard to the captaincy, well, the best that we can say about this is that the identity of the captain shouldn’t matter. It is a singularly English trait, however, to invest so much importance in this essentially ceremonial position and this is not something that seems likely to change soon. Critics might even argue that the most troubling aspect of this decision is the fact that Gerrard will be guaranteed a starting place in the team.
Then comes poor old Stewart Downing. Downing has endured a torrid season for Liverpool and his end of season statistics of no goal and no assists in the Premier League has become one which has been thrown around with derision by some. Downing can be a lumpen footballer in some respects and his selection does carry an air of mystery about it. However, we should perhaps consider that Hodgson’s previous record on team selection involves a rigid system which must be adhered to. Downing, a player who plays with the air of a World War One private, may fit his bill as a player that will follow the sort of instruction that he intends of give. Again, though, his inclusion in the squad is perhaps best considered as a reminder of the paucity of options available to any manager of this squad when it comes to left-sided players.
So there it is, then. A squad that is impossible to love, has a couple of questionable inclusions in it and is likely to play with the fluidity of porridge. Plus ça change. But it is in this familiarity that the heart of this team lays. This is a team that might crawl through the group stages and can them come home with its dignity reasonably intact for as long as it doesn’t utterly impode in the same way that it did against Germany in Bloemfontain two years ago. That so many of this squad were there that day and that it is difficult to say with confidence whether many of them have learnt from what should have been a very chastening experience is a cause for considerable concern. But we should have already been aware that this was likely to happen and that this will not change until England changes its coaching structure from the bottom up. Perhaps this will now start with the completion of the St Georges Park development centre near Burton-on-Trent, but any fruits of this will probably not be seen for several years at the absolute earliest. Until then, Roy Hodgson is stuck with what he has got and, on today’s evidence, that doesn’t amount to very much at all.
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