Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad can be described as many things, and the players within it as even more. For the record, I think he is working towards a better England and I like the connection between youth and senior sides. I don’t think England will win the World Cup, but neither will another 31 teams, so I can’t come down too hard on them for that.
Careers on a silver platter
There is a stick that is often used to beat England teams with, and a sentiment that pervades, that the players are not in touch with football; that they have been given their careers on a silver platter. It is the same thinking that comes into play around FA Cup upset time – that Spurs will be scared to play at Rochdale because none of their blue riband squad will have experienced anything like Spotland. It is alien to them.
Yet it is not so very long since Dele Alli was playing and winning a League One match at Rochdale with his MK Dons side. He even got an assist (you can see him wearing the number 14 on the third goal, admittedly not looking too dynamic).
Alli is not alone, and this is one of the more interesting things about the England squad. A lot of the players who will be going to Russia have had apprenticeships in the lower leagues, and not all that long ago. The goalkeepers, particularly, have covered almost the whole Football League between them.
Jordan Pickford has more League One clean sheets, from his time with Bradford City and Carlisle Utd, than he does in the Premier League. Jack Butland will need to leave Stoke City to make sure his record of having played more Championship games than Premier League is not extended. Nick Popes senior debut was for Cambridge Utd against Woking.
Jamie Vardy’s rags to Russia story
Admittedly, most of these games were as loanees, but the youngsters were still part of the match squads and will have travelled and trained together. They might have felt better than their team mates, but they will not have been allowed to act that way. When Harry Kane scored his first goal, against Sheffield Wednesday, it was as a Leyton Orient player, at Brisbane Road.
He scored against Huddersfield that season, too, in a game that further illustrates the way players can be upwardly mobile. While Kane may have gone on to the biggest things out of those squads, he shared a John Smith’s Stadium pitch that day with Benik Afobe (then on loan from Arsenal), Scott Arfield (building his career after moving from Scotland) and Charlie Daniels (he would be loaned to Bournemouth later that year). Personally, Dean Cox was probably the best player playing that day, but that’s another story.
A lot has been made of Jamie Vardy’s rags to Russia story, and rightly so; no other England player has come from so low to reach so high, but the Leicester City striker will be on common ground if he starts talking about games at Lincoln or Mansfield. As a matter of fact, only one of last season’s 92 haven’t seen at least one of the England squad for Russia playing a league game on their pitch at some time or other.
Given the changing of divisions, and the level the 23-man squad are at now, that’s a stunning record and speaks of the development they have done. Be it Harry Maguire, whose first career goal came at Boundary Park in August 2011, a predictably booming header, or Fabian Delph, who was booked in both his appearances against Stockport County in 2008/09.
Welbeck & Rashford
Not all the squad served their time in the lower leagues, of course; Danny Welbeck and Marcus Rashford both came flying out of the traps at Old Trafford. Mind, Welbeck had time to squeeze in a few games with Preston North End (as David Beckham did before him), which included a visit to Peterborough Utd and a goals against Ipswich and Barnsley. Rashford barely had chance to feature in United’s youth teams before he was thrown into the action with the first team.
Perhaps it was inevitable Southgate would do this, though it is worth noting he only played for three clubs himself, none of whom dropped to the lower leagues. Just as there is a common cry that England players are detached from reality, there is a consensus that young English players don’t get the breaks they need to establish themselves in top level first teams.
There might be more truth in this one. Going out on loan has a number of advantages for the younger player. It gives you vital experience of competitive football, and allows you to work alongside different players and managers (even if they might he selected by your parent club because of their suitability), but perhaps most of all, you get to prove what you can do.
Next cab off the rank
If you put together a collection of positive performances, even if it means working your way upwards (like Pickford and Butland) then eventually clubs at the highest level will see you not as a risk, to be avoided using, but as a legitimate next cab off the rank. From there, you just have to ensure that the biggest game of your life is a good one. Simple, really.
This England squad have done that. They’ve travelled a long way to get to where they are today and in doing so, they’ve been everywhere. Wherever you watch your football, the chances are that you’ve seen one of Southgate’s squad at some stage. Wherever, that is, except Barnet. By quirk of fate, none have played there in a league game.
Keep your eyes on future squads, though, because that might soon become history, too.