The World Cup Finals kick-off in Brazil in just 8 days’ time and England manager Roy Hodgson has boldly selected a squad with a blend of youth and experience which may serve to stand the “Three Lions” in good stead for future tournaments.
A circus of hype has surrounded England at previous competitions. Faith-healers, “Beckham-mania”, partying “WAGs” and inter-squad rivalries stood in the way of a so-called “Golden Generation” of Beckham, Owen, Ferdinand, Cole, Terry, Lampard, and Gerrard from reaching their full potential. Following a gradual changing of the guard, Hodgson has been able to shape his own squad free from the pressure to name high-profile players.
The inclusion of striker Rickie Lambert, 32, a former non-league player released by Liverpool at the age of 15, who once worked in a beetroot factory to make ends meet; re-joined his boyhood club this week and represents a squad of players who have often followed a different route to the top of their profession.
Midfield playmaker Adam Lallana is another such player. An exceptional example of a player working on his game and learning through experience; the 26 year-old Southampton captain has played for his club in 3 different divisions. Initial relegation and subsequent back-to-back promotions have shaped the character of a footballer admired for his technique, vision and movement having been described as the “English Iniesta” by former manager Mauricio Pochettino. However, Lallana has overcome challenges on and off the pitch having been diagnosed and treated for an irregular heartbeat at the age of 18. After just four caps, he has established himself in Hodgson’s squad and is rumored to be joining former colleague Lambert at Liverpool next season.
Frank Lampard and captain Steven Gerrard are now the elder-statesmen in a squad with an average age of just 26 years. Their big-game experience can help players who are as yet unheralded internationally including teenagers Luke Shaw and Raheem Sterling. Everton’s Ross Barkley, Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Jack Wilshere, and Manchester United pair Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones, are all players in their early 20s who could conceivably form the nucleus of an international side for many years to come.
With a settled defence, England’s major selection decisions come in forward positions. Daniel Sturridge is building an international reputation following last season’s exploits at Liverpool, and should partner Wayne Rooney up-front. Behind them, Hodgson has a youthful, exuberant set of players brimming with pace and capable of scoring and creating goals to choose from.
However, past tournament experiences and a challenging group including previous winners Italy and Uruguay, have led pundits and FIFA rankings to suggest England can best consider themselves “dark-horses.” The pressure to emulate the heroes of 1966 has been a burden on past England teams and has led to some degree of apathy towards the national side. This year’s tempered expectations suggest that space may be afforded to Hodgson’s young players to grow.
Hodgson, 66, has managed clubs across eight countries and has international tournament experience having guided Switzerland to the 1994 World Cup and Euro ’96 before taking England’s reigns at Euro 2012. His appeals for more appreciation of his full squad in contrast to the “obsession” with the form of Wayne Rooney hints that Hodgson understands the importance of a united dressing room.
With the percentage of English players playing in the Barclays Premier League just 33.6% (compared to 73.1% in 1993), youngsters who make it have often risen to the challenge of competing with international colleagues to attain progress within the game. As the FA builds plans for the future, they could do well to look to Southampton’s approach as an example to follow having produced Lallana, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Real Madrid galactico Gareth Bale in recent years. Coaching and investing in potential stars is one aspect, experience through playing the game at a young age is crucial; something to have eluded many English players at top clubs in recent years.
This year’s squad knows that they can go some way to restoring pride and recapturing the public’s imagination. As captain Steven Gerrard did before them as a teenager at Euro 2000; Roy Hodgson’s talented young team can grow from tournament experience and go on to have flourishing careers.
As the FA reviews its plans for youth development, what can be learned from the examples of Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana?