England manager Roy Hodgson’s decision to recall Manchester United centre-back Rio Ferdinand to the national side in time for the World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro in the coming weeks signals the latest chapter in an altogether complex and deeply political affair, but should this decision be seen as something of a publicly humiliating turnaround in events or a logical consequence of circumstance and a prevailing of common sense?
In October last year, Hodgson found out what it was truly like to be England manager, when a casual conversation with a tube commuter was revealed to millions when he practically ruled out Ferdinand of future national team selection. It served as a stark reminder of the all encompassing nature of the role, with the sort of scrutiny Hodgson struggled with while at Liverpool beforehand. Media relations, aside from his Dickensian turn of phrase and wry smile, have never been his strong suit.
This led to a mealy-mouthed apology of sorts from the 65-year-old when the Daily Mirror’s story was confirmed and the FA, never one to be slow to condemn criticism against them, was noticeably silent. The handling of the whole situation was bundled from the very start. Hodgson had left Ferdinand out of his Euro 2012 squad for ‘footballing reasons’ while the impending case involving his brother Anton and Chelsea captain and England international John Terry was set to take place after the tournament finished, with nearly every major authority trying to pass around responsibility for the situation like the political hot potato threatening to turn into a national time-bomb that it so obviously was.
Back then, with question marks continuing to haunt Ferdinand’s long-term future in the game and rumours of his place at United under threat in the summer, his form alone and his inability to play the sort of games required and in such close proximity as is mandatory at an international tournament seemed a completely legitimate argument, even if the wording behind it could have been better phrased and it wasn’t particularly a view that I fully subscribed to.
There was always a doubt that the national team would struggle to find four better centre-backs over a longer period than just Euro 2012, though. Hodgson stated that it would be insulting to call Ferdinand up to simply make him sit on the bench, which is exactly what he did to Frank Lampard during the friendly against Brazil last month. Hodgson’s thinking has been extremely muddle throughout this whole process, not least helped by Terry’s international retirement after the FA charged him.
Flash forward nearly a year later and there is an overwhelming case for Ferdinand not only to be included in the squad, but feature as one of its major players. He has currently represented the runaway league leaders 24 times from the start this season, which is more than many of his main rivals, with Joleon Lescott missing out of the latest squad due to his decreased playing time at Manchester City and Gary Cahill finding a consistent run in the Chelsea team hard to come by. With Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones injured and Chris Smalling returning via an U-21 game for his club, the ‘footballing reasons’ that Hodgson fell back on before are either no longer there or are no longer applicable and he’s been backed into a corner by a lack of alternatives and strength in depth in what was once a position of real quality for England.
Hodgson stated of the call-up in his press conference: “He has missed very few games this year and the one or two he has missed is because Sir Alex [Ferguson] has decided to give someone else a run-out rather than injuries. Rio has, in actual fact, played an awful lot of games, a lot more than any other centre-half. So I don’t have any fears about his fitness at all.
“I have selected him because I think he is the right man to do the job. That’s the bottom line. I’m hoping he will be pleased. I am hoping he plays so well that he plays every single game England play from now to eternity but I don’t have a crystal ball.
“I’ve been following him for quite a while now. I must have seen United play at least four or five times in the last few weeks. He’s obviously playing well and his team is doing extremely well. I just think this is the moment to select him. He certainly deserves it on his current form and I hope he will help us in these two matches. That’s the most important thing.”
Of course, Ferdinand has not helped himself with matters in the past, putting to bed the idea that he had ‘matured’ from the man that was banned for eight months for missing a routine drug testing back in 2003, with his ‘representative’ Jamie Moralee guilty of some seriously bad advice and public protestations on behalf of his client which soured relations even further. It seemed even with a moral argument in his favour, Ferdinand was struggling to come out ahead . His relationship with Ashley Cole and the infamous ‘choc ice’ incident over Cole testifying as a character witness on behalf of Terry during the trial against his brother Anton means that not only does the relationship between Hodgson and Ferdinand need addressing and sorting out, but so does the one between Cole and Ferdinand.
Hodgson sounded rather worried about what sort of regard Ferdinand holds him in now, telling reporters: “It is a concern, yes. But I can’t do more than I am now, giving him the chance to come back, asking him to come back, making it clear I would like to use him. I can’t do more than that. If he has a grievance and does hold it against me because I haven’t selected him previously, there is not much I can do about that.”
You can tell Hodgson is not a man that thrives on conflict and he simply wasn’t prepared for what lay ahead on his first day in the job, a mistake compounded further by seemingly backing the wrong horse in Terry over Ferdinand. The common sense approach which he has prided himself on during his managerial career was missing and a divisive issue was allowed to rumble on for no other reason than he had no real idea how to handle the whole situation; rather than dipping his toe gingerly into the water he attempted to avoid it, which is never been a path towards any sort of definitive and satisfactory outcome.
Ferdinand has earned his recall and Hodgson has shown a return to his senses. With the ‘footballing reason’ excuse finally put to bed as little more than a charade to avoid putting the England manager front and centre behind a racial scandal, the side finally has one of its best and most senior members back, but the messy fall-out for all concerned and the subsequent way in which Hodgson has had to flip-flop on his position is not a vindication of his methods, rather a rebuttal of his flawed and muddled approach.
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