A bleak future

England has a hard task in hand to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil. Manager Roy Hodgson’s team selection has been baffling at times and it has definitely not helped the national team’s cause. By Brian Glanville.

An abject second half in Podgorica, against modest Montenegro, left England hanging on desperately to a 1-1 draw against a team which had seemed down and out at half time. Wayne Rooney’s sixth minute goal had arguably been a psychological blow to Montenegro and they could well have conceded other goals by half time. But then Montenegro sent on the tall and powerful Dejan Damjanovic, who plays his football in Seoul, South Korea, and the music emphatically changed. You could almost say that England’s bluff would be called.

Had England and their coaches done their homework on Damjanovic? It hardly looked like it. Before the match, all the emphasis had been on the threat posed by those two talented attackers Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic, both of whom play successfully in Italy for Fiorentina and Juventus respectively. England had contained them fairly well in the first half but once Damjanovic was on to run forcefully and dangerously at a defence without experienced centre backs — no John Terry, ever again and no Rio Ferdinand who preferred well paid television commentary in Doha — it was emphatically another story. True, Steven Gerrard, for whom the burden in midfield became increasingly heavy, did force a fine save from the home goalkeeper, Mladen Bozovic, close to the end, but victory by then would greatly have flattered England.

This leaves Roy Hodgson’s team still two points behind the group leaders Montenegro, who have punched splendidly above the weight of their tiny population, with Montenegro and Poland still to come to Wembley next season while Ukraine, who drew there and could well have won, due to be faced in Lviv or more probably Kiev. Poland and Ukraine have eight points each and a game in hand; they could yet overhaul England who have 12 to Montenegro’s impressive 14.

If England come only second then they face a playoff home and away test against who knows yet what opposition? By way of consolation, by the time next season and these fixtures come, they should be able to call on Jack Wilshere, injured yet again and embarrassingly enough the only English playmaker of any consequence, who missed the game in Montenegro through an injury in training and can always be a threat on the right flank with his tremendous pace. James Milner who stood in for him is a competent enough winger but pedestrian by comparison with Theo Walcott at his exuberant best.

What to do about the centre backs is sadly another story. Neither of those who figured in Podgorica is a first choice for his own club. Joleon Lescott, who looked confident in the first half and even a John Terry in the way he counselled his fellow defenders, was overwhelmed in the second half after flattering in the first. Young Chris Smalling, who marked Vucinic well in the first half, is in and out of the Manchester United team and like Lescott was floundering in the second. Ferdinand, though a veteran now, has had an excellent club season at Manchester United. He played ducks and drakes with Roy Hodgson over the Podgorica game. One moment he was ready to play the next he was seemingly unfit. Which didn’t stop him going on that five-hour flight to Qatar, which as a leading physiotherapist pointed out, would have done no good to this supposedly vulnerable back.

The truth is that both Ferdinand and Terry have had cause for complaint. Ferdinand years back of course got himself an eight-month suspension from the England team when he avoided a drug test due at United’s training ground. Last year after he and Terry had been at odds over Terry’s allegedly racist insult to the younger brother Anton Ferdinand at Queens Park Rangers, Hodgson picked Terry for the European finals and left Ferdinand out. Then more recently, in a strange moment of indiscretion on a London tube train, he told some fans, and was filmed in the process, that he felt Ferdinand was past his time as an England player. Both Terry and Ferdinand had the England captaincy taken away from one and given to the other. In the case of Terry the Football Association did so when he had been charged with racism, before the case even came to court where he was acquitted by the magistrate. Only for the FA, abandoning a rule which prevented them sitting in judgement after a court had given its verdict, “trying” Terry and condemning him. Hardly surprising that Terry, guilty or not of racism, should have resigned from international football; where he was still a powerful and influential presence in the England defence.

Of late, Hodgson has given up the 4-4-2 formation, much criticised in the European finals, but he hardly seems to have got things right. Until Ashley Young came on late in Podgorica there was no recognised left winger, Danny Welbeck who was deployed there being essentially a striker. With the midfield faltering there might surely have been a place for the experience of Frank Lampard in fine form lately for Chelsea. Rooney, used alone upfront, would arguably, despite his goal and a clear lob against a post, have been happier “in the hole,” just behind the striker.

There is hope on the horizon in the effervescent promise of Crystal Palace’s teenaged Wilfried Zaha, exceptional in England under-21’s recent internationals. But how much scope will he get when he goes next season to Old Trafford?