Gareth Southgate’s 23-man World Cup squad has been the source of much debate. There have been some surprising choices, most notably the decision to include Trent Alexander-Arnold, given he has never played a game for England at senior level before. But it got me thinking about other able players who, for whatever reason, have never made the cut. The first name who came to mind? Mark Noble.
Not how you play, but who you play for?
Having represented England 47 times at youth level, including captaining the U21 team, one would expect the natural progression to be for him to do the same at senior level. This hasn’t been the case. Despite the fact he has played 376 league games for West Ham, he has still not received a call-up at senior level.
This seems farcical when you consider Roy Hodgson called up Jesse Lingard after he’d played just 169 minutes of football and scored only one goal for his team, while players such as Zaha were ignored at his expense. This was something noticed by former West Ham midfielder Paul Ince, who pointed out that Dele Alli was signed by Tottenham and soon after, got his first call-up, whilst Noble had been at West Ham for years, but went unnoticed.
There’s certainly something to be said about the bias given to players of ‘bigger’ clubs, with the top 6 teams’ English players seemingly getting preferential treatment. For example, Noble’s West Ham teammate Aaron Cresswell has only had 3 England call-ups, despite being widely regarded by some as one of England’s best defensive talents. Former Man City defender Micah Richards drew attention to the idea of biased selection policies in the national team under Roy Hodgson, and cited Swansea player Nathan Dyer as a prime example of a perfectly capable player, missing out.
Potential and talent, rather than form?
Gary Neville, a member of Hodgson’s coaching team later revealed the team was picked on ‘talent, not form’. He said that once you pick younger players and “invest” in them, you can’t then drop them for someone older, even if the more senior player is in better form. Surely form should be the biggest criteria when picking a team, not just on whether they have ‘potential’ or have a bright future? He captained his side to 7th that season, with a passing accuracy of 86% and arguably his strongest season in a West Ham shirt. Ahead of the 2014 World Cup, he had won more tackles and had made more interceptions than Henderson, Wilshere and Lallana.
Some might reject claims that such bias has continued into Southgate’s reign, because he gave call-ups to players like Ward-Prowse at Southampton. To an extent, he is less inclined to favour top 6 clubs, and some might argue that aged 31, Noble has missed the boat. But given that Kevin Davies made his England debut at 33 in 2010, and Rickie Lambert made his at 31, in 2013, this is a flimsy excuse.
Is he what England needs?
Noble has shown his qualities as a leader, and whilst he isn’t, by his own admission, the most technically gifted player, his work rate, passion, and experience can’t be faulted. There is arguably a void of experience and leadership in Southgate’s squad. Players like Rooney and Hart didn’t make the grade, and some are arguing that Cahill was only called up for this reason. His leadership style is, to me, very similar to that of John Terry, who perfectly embodied what it meant to play for England – a never say die spirit, on and off the ball.
Mark Noble also shares another value with the ex-England captain. Loyalty. Despite two loan spells, Noble has only ever played for West Ham at senior level. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more devoted to his club, and many suggest he’s one of a dying breed of one club men. But unfortunately, at a time when clubs outside the top 6 get overlooked, his unwavering loyalty and devotion to West Ham means his senior international career has suffered.
What more does Noble have to do?
Noble could technically play for the Republic of Ireland if he wished, due to his Irish-born Grandparents, but I’d much rather see him in an England shirt. His grit, determination and old-school style is something the England squad is missing at present and has been lacking for quite some time. He’s already iconic around the East End of London, but he deserved so much more than to be pushed aside by successive managers of the national team. For a team as mediocre as England to completely ignore possibly one of the most consistently hard-working players in recent years is a travesty. He has shown that he can adapt to the playing styles of different managers at his club, fitting into their plans and seamlessly blending with whoever he plays with, whether that be Kevin Nolan or Ravel Morrison. Indeed, he might have even been instrumental in solving the issue of Lampard and Gerrard being “unable” to play together!
No one is suggesting he should have kept players like Lampard or Gerrard out of the first team permanently, but Nolan is certainly better than other midfielders who have been given call-ups (think Tom Cleverley and Jake Livermore). It’s apparent that at his prime he was good enough to play for England – but there doesn’t seem to be a valid reason he was kept from contention. Until the England squad is picked based on work ethic, commitment, form and not just reputation or the club the candidate plays for, I fear there will be many more players in Noble’s position in years to come.