Richards and Johnson unlucky to miss out
This post won’t attempt to cover the most salient socio-political issue looming in the background of Roy Hodgson’s England squad selection, namely the omission of Rio Ferdinand and the inclusion of John Terry, currently the subject of a police investigation for alleged racial abuse of Ferdinand’s younger brother Anton during a match between Chelsea and QPR last year. Hodgson will be able to defend himself with that important tenet of English law that stipulates that one is to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. Like it or not, we must accept that John Terry, according to the letter of the law, should be eligible for selection until the courts have done their duty. The largest dereliction duty in this regard was in the insistence that the trial be postponed until after this summer’s European Championships.
It is quite possible that Ferdinand might not have been picked regardless. Hodgson will not have failed to notice how Fabio Capello’s selection of another injury prone central defender effectively reduced the England squad by one two years ago when Tottenham Hotspurs Ledley King failed to re-emerge from the tunnel at halftime during his country’s first group game at the South African World Cup. Ferdinand has had a strong finish to the season, but has also spent enough time in the treatment room in the past few years to suggest that he’s been sharing King’s sicknote. Let’s not forget that the forty-five minutes King lasted in Rustenburg were forty-five more than Ferdinand himself managed, having had to withdraw shortly before the tournament through injury.
I shall however not try to argue Hodgson’s case, in large part because, had I been in the new England manager’s shoes, I would not have called Terry up to the squad. Of course I might not have called Ferdinand either, but that is another matter altogether. Two players I probably would have included on my list, though, are Micah Richards and Adam Johnson.
Both Richards and Johnson can justifiably feel aggrieved at being considered surplus to Hodgson’s plans, at least for this June’s impending tournament. Both players were also overlooked two years ago by Capello, though given the farce into which that campaign descended for the English, the psychological scars of missing out altogether were probably much closer to the surface than those suffered by the players who actually went.
Johnson did play 26 times this season for the newly crowned champions of England’s top flight, though 16 of those appearances were from the bench. Johnson seemed to be behind David Silva, Samir Nasri, Mario Balotelli and, at the beginning and end of the season, Carlos Tévez, none of whom is the natural winger that Johnson is, but all of whom are encouraged to take up positions out wide, leaving little room for Johnson in manager Roberto Mancini’s plans.
Which is a shame because Johnson offers the sort of creativity and invention that have all too rarely been evinced by Englishmen in recent years. Much is often made of the positive impact that various waves of technically expert overseas arrivals have made in English football since the creation of the Premier League twenty years ago and the great rivers of money that started flowing into top-flight clubs coffers thereafter. However for all that the Cantonas, Bergkamps, Zolas and Henrys have improved the English game and offered us countless moments of wonder and admiration, we mustn’t labour under the assumption that English football has always had a scarcity of riches. Johnson hearkens back to the three great Geordie talents of the 1990 World Cup squad, Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne, and Chris Waddle, all of whom had a genuine touch of genius about them and all of whom offer proof that England was not a footballing backwater before Sky rebranded the sport in 1992.
Wither the great footballer of the north east in 21st century football? A talent like Johnson’s surely deserves to be embraced and held up an example of one sort of player England needs again to start producing more regularly. There are very few other players eligible for the squad so comfortable in tight spaces and so relaxed under pressure with the ball at their feet. Even as a substitute, whether coming on to unpick a doughty defence or as an outlet ball as the rest of the team instinctively retreats into its shell to protect a lead, a player of Johnson’s combination of touch, balance and pace is surely an asset for any team, let alone an England squad largely devoid of players sufficiently well schooled in the fundamentals of ball control.
Johnson’s team-mate Micah Richards must also be feeling disheartened. He has eight more league appearances to his name this season than his only serious competition for the right fullback berth, Pablo Zabaleta. Richards may not have quite the degree of comfort on the ball as Johnson, but he is a far cry from the likes of Sol Campbell, who at times seemed to regard the ball as though it were one of those Danger Mouse-style cartoon bombs with a lit fuse so eager was he to boot it as far away from his penalty area as possible. Richards’ claims were consistently ignored by Capello, and in fairness his omission from the World Cup squad probably raised few eyebrows, but since then he has pressed his claim to be considered one of the best English fullbacks around.
The early clamour for his inclusion in the England set up seemed to be based largely around
his impressive physique, perhaps a function of a peculiarly English (if not British) obsession with power and pace, both of which attributes Richards has in abundance. Since then Richards, in addition to proving his technical prowess, has also shown that he is tactically aware too. However perhaps Hodgson has been impressed by the fact that when the stakes were highest, such as in the Champions league matches against Napoli and the run-in to the domestic league, Mancini opted for Zabaleta.
For Johnson the solution would seem to be an exit from the club. A move abroad might suit him well; another thing that we seemed to see more of in the late 80s and early 90s, in addition to skilful midfielders and attackers, was English players plying their trade outside the British Isles. Gascoigne and Waddle were hits in Italy and France respectively. Joe Cole may be the only high profile Englishman outside England, let alone Britain and Ireland, and by all accounts he is enjoying his football like never before. Alas an addiction to the Premier League’s preposterously high wages and perhaps no small degree of insularity seems to keep many a British player who might profit from the experience from taking the plunge. Even Cole apparently has his wages subsidised by Liverpool, from whom he is on loan.
Richards might also profit from football in another country, but with only Zabaleta to dislodge and the manager’s trust to earn, he seems to be on securer footing than his fellow England pretender. Doubtless this most recent snub will only serve to fire him up, as will the emergence of Tottenham’s Kyle Walker, who had to withdraw prior to the squad’s announcement with an injury. Still many would surely think that Richards had already done enough to leapfrog Glen Johnson, and his ability to slot in at centre-half would have made the decision to leave both Terry and Ferdinand at home much easier. Indeed, if blood-and-guts heart-on-the-line defending still remains the cornerstone of the trade of the English centre-half, then one need only cast one’s mind back to Richards terrific block from Shola Ameobi in the penultimate match of the season, when, up by a mere one goal to nil, the Newcastle forward seemed certain to equalise with a sweetly taken volley that was destined to beat Joe Hart in the city net to his right, only for Richards, brought on to shore up the centre of defence, threw his body in the way and the ball rebounded to safety.
It was a moment that both Ferdinand and Terry would have been proud to claim as their own.
Richards and Johnson do have time to force their way into future England squads. Spare a moment’s thought for 31-year-old Grant Holt, whose 15 league goals weren’t considered to be of a higher standard than Andy Carroll’s 4. Holt is currently surely the most in-form English striker and must have deserved a place on the plane to the Ukraine.