There should always be a reasonable helping of caution when dealing with outside names to make a late run for a place in the England squad. The impact of Theo Walcott’s injury in January stretched well beyond the boundaries of club football; Roy Hodgson had lost a regular a valued member of his England team.
There’s a danger of placing hopes and too much expectation on those who aren’t ready to deliver. The early part of the season was centred on Andros Townsend and what he could do for England at the upcoming World Cup, with little attention paid to how ineffective he was in the final third. At this point of the season, he is well out of the public eye and seemingly out of the running to replace Walcott.
Adam Johnson, too, has recently been talked up due to the Sunderland winger’s form in front of goal. And yet you’re forced to hold fire on committing to him, primarily because of his inconsistencies, which if ironed out could see him as a very good option for England.
But the player who is clearly heading the race to be a key member of Hodgson’s squad this summer for Walcott’s place is Raheem Sterling, who has been named the best winger in England by club manager Brendan Rodgers.
The Liverpool manager is well within right to offer up such high praise to the teenager, firstly because high-class, traditional wingers are in such short supply in England, but also because of the impact he’s made at Liverpool over the past two months.
And that’s the important factor in all this: two months. Prior to becoming a regular feature of Liverpool’s starting XI, Sterling was on the outside looking in, making sporadic yet unconvincing performances this season and last.
He burst onto the scene in a match against Manchester United in 2012 and rode that wave for a short time before falling away into the background, and Hodgson should be mindful of something like that occurring once again.
It is of course difficult to see Sterling dropping off in such a way again. An enormous amount of credit should be owed to Rodgers for getting this level of performances out of him, but also there should be some faith that the youngster can sustain this under a coach who has turned Daniel Sturridge into one of the most effective and consistent strikers in the league this season.
But it still is only February and England need a player who can prove that he is not only a step up from where he was before, but also a cut above the rest. As a natural winger, Sterling is that player now. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may come into the discussion, but the Arsenal midfielder is a versatile option for Hodgson who was in the England squad with Walcott in the past, not in place of him.
Sterling looks like a player who can frighten and cause legitimate damage to the best defenders in the league, as he has done when Liverpool travelled to Manchester City and hosted Arsenal.
There’s still some way to go in this season and Sterling’s form has given England something to be genuinely hopeful of. More than anything, his performances deserve serious consideration for him to be a starter for England and not just a squad addition.
But until the season finishes, there should be a degree of reservation. Being hopeful is one thing, but the inconsistencies of others so far during this campaign means we and England should hold off until the appropriate time before naming the replacement for Walcott in the World Cup squad.