With the news emerging yesterday that Rio Ferdinand has officially called time on his England career after two years of bobbing in and out of Roy Hodgson’s plans, the Three Lions manager has responded firstly by paying due homage to the Manchester United defender’s achievements for the club and country over the years, but also to announce that it is finally “time to move forward”.
The former Liverpool boss continued to explain that ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, he will be looking to use younger members of the squad as much as possible, in a bid to form a tight-knit group ahead of the international tournament. And with centre-back being the priority position in the England set up where there is now a glowing vacancy, he is widely expected to give either Chris Smalling, Phil Jones or Steven Caulker, a key role in the side – at least for the summer friendlies.
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But considering neither Ferdinand nor John Terry have actually been involved in an international fixture for quite some time, the former having not played for England in two years and the latter announcing his retirement after his controversial court trial last September, shouldn’t it have been the plan all along to search for a new, young and sustainable solution at the heart of the England defence?
You can’t beat experience. It is understandable that considering Roy Hodgson has only been England gaffer for just over a year, that behind the scenes he’s been doing his utmost to get either Ferdinand or Terry on board ahead of his first World Cup. The two centre-backs are a throw-back to our recently deceased golden generation, and with the exclusion of Ashley Cole, are the only two English defenders who can claim to have reached the highest height within the realms of club football – a flurry of domestic titles and cups, in addition to lifting the Champions League trophy.
Yet it has hardly been a secret that getting either of the two back into the England fold would be a task easier said than done. The Terry/Ferdinand racism scandal may have stopped the two from ever working together again, but it also created a rift between the United defender and Ashley Cole – the Three Lions’ most permanent fixture, having racked up 101 international caps since 2001 and his position at left back not coming under serious challenge until Leighton Baines’ excellent form during the course of this current season.
Similarly, with the exclusion of Ferdinand from the England squad for Euro 2012, and further comments made by the Three Lions manager on the London Underground, I find it unsurprising that he’s been giving Hodgson the run-around over the past few months, making himself unavailable for Qualifying matches against San Marino and Montenegro citing fitness reasons, only to fly out to the middle east to work as a pundit for Al-Jazeera, followed by announcing his retirement ahead of England’s next batch of fixtures.
Hodgson has known for some time that neither star defenders would likely don and England jersey again, and even if they were, by the time of the World Cup in Rio, Ferdinand would be 35 and Terry 33. You can’t beat experience – unless the experience is so aged and grey that the youth can gallop past it with ease, a recurring trend of the Chelsea man’s season, having made just seven Premier League appearances since the appointment of Rafa Benitez.
In the mean time, the void at the back for the Three Lions has been filled on the most part by Joleon Lescott, another old head who will be edging on 32 at the start of the tournament next summer. You can argue a case for the seniority rule, or even point to the veteran’s accomplishments since arriving at City, including an FA Cup and league title, but like Terry, Lescott has undergone a campaign of sliding down the pecking order, in part due to his age and in part due to his quality, making 16 Premier League starts this season.
Club selection is clearly out of Hodgson’s control, but his now most experienced defender available, with 26 caps, has prematurely entered the tail-end of his career, whilst England’s most balanced centre-back in terms of age and ability, Gary Cahill, 27, has only 16 caps to his name. Surely the Chelsea man, who was an obvious talent from his days at Bolton, and has gone on to win two European titles, including the Champions League, in addition to an FA Cup since arriving at Stamford Bridge, should have been the focus in the heart of defence from the get-go of Hodgson’s appointment, rather than being part of a rotation process, along with Lescott and Phil Jagielka.
But Hodgson should be credited for not making the same mistakes again, or those of his predecessors. The failed golden generation, in which the Three Lions were privy to a surplus of central defenders, including Terry, Ferdinand, Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate, disallowed for the likes of Michael Dawson, Jagielka, Cahill and co. to receive the international exposure their form often deserved, and it has in many ways limited their progression as footballers, with Dawson currently only having four caps to his name.
With the chances of England winning a World Cup seemingly slimmer with every tournament passing by, the former West Brom manager should take the opportunity of unavoidable early elimination to build for the future. Currently, his prized youngster is Manchester United’s Chris Smalling, picking up six caps so far during his international career, four of them under Hodgson. However, I’d argue that Phil Jones and Steven Caulker, who have six caps between them, deserve equal recognition considering their potential, with the former already having performed well enough on the big occasions -including an exceptional display against Real Madrid in the Champions League – to claim a place over his fellow clubman on merit alone.
Hodgson is certainly correct that now is the time to be looking forwards rather than backwards, but that should have been the tagline of his tenure from the start of his appointment rather than a year down the line. He made the controversial decision to drop Rio Ferdinand for rather infamous ‘footballing reasons’, and hanging onto a slim hope of the United man one day returning, or for John Terry to reverse his decision in time for the World Cup was naive, short-termist and wasting of the opportunities to give talented English youngsters an opportunity to shine, with Jagielka and Lescott performing stop-gap roles.
He’s done it in all other areas of the pitch – using Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck in attack, making Tom Cleverley a mainstay in midfield and regularly calling upon Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jordan Henderson, with all improving as footballers in the process – and the ageing defence should have undergone a similar process, rather than relying upon a batch of 30 year olds whom in the past were judged as not being good enough.
At least now it seems the concern for Hodgson is the future. Rather than shamelessly pursuing unachievable goals, such as tournament finals and winning every qualifying match, the England boss will look to build up a new generation of average talent into one that at the least has a wealth of experience on its side – the shortcomings of the group of players that fell by the wayside during the previous era. Hopefully he can find through Cahill, Smalling, Jones and Caulker, a partnership of good quality and strong understanding that will be a part of the foundations of the next successful England side. It is a shame however, that they are now left without any considerably experienced internationals to learn from, and only have a collection of our ‘best of the rest’ defenders to look up to and work with.