Traditionally, the England national team’s biggest strength has always been at the heart of defence. At the 2010 World Cup, Fabio Capello took John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ledley King, Jamie Carragher and Matthew Upson. A few years earlier, Jonathan Woodgate and Sol Campbell would also have been added to that high-quality list.
Yes, for a country that hasn’t claimed an international accolade in two years short of half a century, we’ve been spoilt rotten when it comes to talented central defenders. Glenn Hoddle once claimed England have been at their best over the last thirty years when playing with three at the back, and you can certainly understand why that might be the case.
But that option isn’t open to Roy Hodgson right now, due to the fact that only three centre-backs he’s used in an England capacity over the last twelve months have represented their country on twenty occasions or more, and one of those – Joleon Lescott – has made just seven Premier League appearances since the summer.
Following that, the England boss has the likes of Steven Taylor, Steven Caulker, Michael Dawson, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling at his disposal, some of which aren’t even automatic choices at club level.
This will be the first World Cup since I’ve been old enough to remember that the centre-back department is decisively England’s weakest link in terms of experience, quality and depth.
When you consider the attacking prowess the likes of Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Germany possess, the partnership of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka could become a source of embarrassment for Roy Hodgson.
And that’s no disrespect to Phil Jagielka or Gary Cahill – two talented, if rather unmemorable England defenders. But rather, a testament to the fact the Three Lions’ most accomplished, talented and experienced centre-back is being left at home – John Terry.
This time last year, nobody particularly cared that the Chelsea captain’s Three Lions career had ended in scandal.
Stripped of his England captaincy by the FA after being enthralled in a highly-controversial racial abuse court-case saga involving QPR’s Anton Ferdinand, brother of England centre-back partner Rio, Terry decided to announce his international retirement at the beginning of the 2012/2013 season, following the FA’s punishment hearing.
Terry felt aggrieved – despite an independent criminal court finding no wrong-doing, he was still branded a racist by the British press, handed a four-match ban and removed from his post as Three Lions skipper, which swiftly lead to Fabio Capello’s resignation.
But little were prepared to listen. After returning from his Premier League suspension, Terry found himself out in the cold at Stamford Bridge under Rafa Benitez, and was used just 14 times in the top flight by the interim boss throughout the entire of last season.
Judged as crumbling at the knees, too slow and too negatively stigmatised, who would want him representing their country and antagonising divisions between the England camp?
But fortunes change quicker than the wind in football, and the re-arrival of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea in the summer has revived Terry in his twilight years.
Far from a ten-game a season man, brought on to marshal the backline against the likes of West Ham and Stoke but never really holding down a first team slot, the Blues veteran has played every minute of every game in Chelsea’s current Premier League campaign and featured in five of a possible six Champions League outings, finding two goals and averaging 7.2 clearances per match.
He may be slow, but he’s never caught out, and Terry remains by far the most competent defender in the entirety of the Premier League when it comes to defending the left-hand post – a centre-back slot only Joleon Lescott and Steven Taylor of all the current England defenders are naturally selected in at club level.
He’s also incredibly efficient on the ball, a part of the defender’s came that’s often overlooked, donning a pass completion ratio of 90% this season. The kind of quality in possession England desperately need this summer if they’re to handle the intensely humid atmospheres in Brazil.
Furthermore, should Terry be reappointed into the England fray, he would help forge a backline consisting of three Chelsea defenders along with Gary Cahill and Ashley Cole. At club level, the English trio have been regulars in a defence that currently dons the second-best defensive record in the Premier League, only bettered by Arsenal.
There’s certainly some weight to the argument that England shouldn’t be looking towards its past as a means to find success. Of all the philosophical problems England face ahead of the 2014 World Cup, being ropey at the back is pretty low down on the list, some way behind our inability to effectively keep possession in the middle of the park and our lack of penetration or craft in the final third.
Furthermore, there seems little point in giving a 78-times capped veteran another run-out in a tournament England will be lucky to reach the semi-finals in; failing to effectively transition between generations is why Roy Hodgson currently has three England centurions at his disposal but the rest of the squad couldn’t match that 300-cap total between them.
Regardless however, there’s no doubt Terry has been England’s most in-form centre-back this season, and one of the Premier League’s leading defensive performers. He’s got a ready-made partner in Gary Cahill, and has proved this term that he’s not the ageing footballing relic he appeared to be a year ago.
Despite Roy Hodgson implying the Blues boy wasn’t interested back in November, telling the press “It is time to keep moving forward rather than turning back,” my personal feeling is that Terry would find one last shot at World Cup glory an opportunity too big to ignore, After all, this is the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth we’re talking about, and doing the business for your country is the kid of Roy of the Rovers fantasy that occupies the minds of future professional footballers on a nightly basis whilst they’re growing up.
At the same time, the Chelsea defender’s issue appears to be with the FA rather than the Three Lions squad, best illustrated by his refusal to shake palms with David Bernstein at the Champions League trophy hand-over in April last year.
The former association Chairman who stripped Terry of his England captaincy in 2012 has now stepped down to make way for Greg Dyke, as has Rio Ferdinand, who announced his Three Lions’ retirement in effect last year, so the chances of dressing room divisions being revived by the 33 year-old’s re-emergence on the international scene are unlikely.
But it would still take some humble-pie on Roy Hodgson’s part that the England boss seems unprepared to masticate. He hasn’t attempted to reach out to Terry in the public eye for well over a year, but in that time has had sit-down talks with Rio Ferdinand. The Blues defender will want to know why it’s taken this long for to the Three Lions manager to get in touch, and there’s no guarantees the FA would back Hodgson if he attempted to issue Terry a call-up.
That shouldn’t detract from the fact if England get carved open this summer and their current defenders are found wanting, questions will be asked why arguably the greatest English centre-back of his generation, who is currently amid his strongest campaign since Chelsea last won the Premier League title, is watching the action from his living room, instead of making a difference in Brazil.