Baines will be his number one choice for the World Cup. No wonder. He is a player of real accomplishment, the modern full-back personified, as capable of defending as he is of attacking, a brilliant crosser of the ball, the country’s leading light when it comes to assists. Plus, when he stands 12 yards from a goalkeeper he never misses. If it came to a penalty shoot-out, you would rather have him in your side than, for instance, Danny Welbeck.
So what Hodgson is talking about is who he takes in reserve, in case Baines succumbs to injury. In which case there should be no argument. It has to be Shaw, surely.
Gibbs is a really good full-back, but not as good as Shaw, Baines or Cole. So it is a simple matter of mathematics that he can plan his summer on the beach. As for Cole, well of course he would not let anyone down.
He is hugely experienced, a serial winner, a Champions League medal holder, a member of England’s exclusive 100-cap club. But what exactly would he learn from being Baines’s understudy? More to the point, a man who appears largely focused on his own concerns, what would he offer the wider group?
Not to mention current form. At his club he has been largely deemed surplus to requirements, over-looked by a right-back who has good claim to be considered one of Chelsea’s players of the season. Yes, he has history. But at the moment it looks increasingly as though that is where he belongs.
Shaw, on the other hand, is the future. Yes, he is only 18. But anyone who has seen him play this season would recognise this is a real prospect, an athlete, already a presence belying his age. To take him would be a huge signal to the future. Whereas Cole would merely be a nod to the past.
This week at St George’s Park, the FA is running an elite coaches’ course, for those who work with players aged between 17 and 21 in the country’s leading academies. It is a hugely impressive course – academic, thoughtful and offering the opportunity to observe the England Under-21s and Under-18s at close quarters and to listen to presentations from everyone from a leading psychologist to Gareth Southgate.
Speaking to some of those enrolled on the course, what they all said was holding back English football was not skill or coaching or talent; they all said that technically English youngsters are now more than capable of matching their foreign contemporaries. What was lacking was opportunity.
Manchester City won the Capital One Cup on Sunday without a single academy graduate (or indeed Englishman) in their team. The Premier League is now so hugely financially geared that chances to the home grown are becoming ever rarer. And yet the most important thing in a player’s development was the chance to play with the big boys.
In which case, Hodgson could send out the most significant of signals with his selection of who stands behind Baines. Of course, he needs to pick on form and ability. But given those factors are equal, then the choice of Shaw would give huge encouragement to every developing young player: if you are good enough, you will get your chance. If he chooses Cole to fulfil a role in which experience is not a significant asset, then a huge opportunity will be lost.
One of the several mistakes Fabio Capello made ahead of the last World Cup was his decision to pick the old guard as his back up. As cover for John Terry at centre-back, for instance, he took with him to South Africa Matthew Upson, Ledley King and Jamie Carragher, a creaking Dad’s Army of the crocked and past-it. None of them are still playing in the Premier League, never mind internationally.
So what good did that do for the long term development of the England team? No one was blooded, no one learned valuable lessons for the future about tournament football, no one was gifted opportunity.
Like many Italians, Capello revered experience above all qualities. And when you watch Andrea Pirlo still running – well, walking – rings round opponents you can see extensive know-how is a most valuable commodity. But for someone likely to be held in reserve it is a much less necessary requirement.
Provided the quality is equal, then for the guy likely to be sitting on the bench, blooding them at the highest level seems a more useful use of the position. Shaw is the future, Cole the past: when all other things are equal that is the only equation that any coach should take into account.
Mind, perhaps in part to the lack of opportunity afforded in the Premier League, Hodgson’s dilemma is confined to left-back. Everywhere else his squad picks itself. Given that John Terry will remain in retirement, that Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick fall into the same category as Cole and that Theo Walcott will be in the television studio, here is my squad. Give or take a couple of players (centre-back looks particularly vulnerable) I imagine it is everyone else’s too.
GK: Hart, Foster, Forster.
DF: Johnson, Walker, Baines, Shaw, Jagielka, Cahill, Jones, Smalling.
MD: Gerrard, Wilshere, Barkley, Barry, Sterling, Townsend, Milner, Lallana
ST: Rooney, Sturridge, Lambert, Welbeck.
Stand-by: Caulker, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rodriguez, Henderson.
Starting line-up: Hart; Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines; Gerrard, Wilshere; Townsend, Rooney, Lallana; Sturridge
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