Ross Barkley has risen quickly into the England frame
Given England’s less than comfortable hold on a World Cup qualification spot, it is encouraging to see so many players already pressing their cases for consideration for next summer’s showpiece tournament.
With injuries still to be accounted for, Roy Hodgson may nevertheless already know 95 percent of the squad he will select for next month’s two crucial Group H qualifiers against Montenegro and Poland, games that will decide England’s immediate fate.
Two wins, and the nation will be looking ahead to a few weeks in the land of the Copacabana.
Two defeats, and they will be reflecting on another missed international tournament.
Something in between, and the proverbial purgatory of an additional play-off may be required to decide this Three Lion vintage’s future.
Hodgson likely already knows who he will rely on to fight those battles, but, assuming England do progress to next summer’s showpiece (and it is an assumption we should be careful not to jump to), the former Fulham and Liverpool manager will then oversee a near-eight-month audition process (take that, X-Factor!) to decide the 23 names he will then take with him to South America.
That squad is far from defined.
The prospect of injuries hitting senior players, along with rich veins of form dragging previously fringe players into contention (and vice-versa), means many players can still harbour viable World Cup ambitions.
The recent past is littered with encouraging examples for players of varying stages in their career.
The then-17-year-old Theo Walcott’s 2006 World Cup call-up will serve as food for thought for uncapped youngsters with big hopes (although, admittedly, Walcott did not go on to play in Germany), while the likes of Danny Mills and Trevor Sinclair (who both played significant roles in the tournament) in the 2002 iteration will be pointed to by more established Premier League faces as reasons why you should never say never.
One fringe England candidate who has impressed so far this season is Tom Huddlestone, proving himself the driving force in a Hull City team that has started the new season with some impressive results.
Huddlestone was last called up by Hodgson nearly a year ago while he was still an irregular presence at Tottenham, but he seems to be finding a higher (and more consistent) level of form since moving to the KC Stadium for regular first-team football.
When on the ball, Huddlestone is one of the best midfielders in Britain and, at 26, is reaching an age when he should really be finding his best form.
"Why not? I don't think there's a better passer of the ball in today's game," Huddlestone’s manager, Steve Bruce, told The Guardian at weekend when asked about the midfielder’s England prospects.
"He has great players ahead of him—the [Steven] Gerrards and [Frank] Lampards and [Jack] Wilsheres—but he's a scarily gifted footballer who is only getting better by playing week in, week out.
“He likes the style we play, he's settled far quicker than he had a right to, and maybe it suits him being a big fish in a small pond too."
Huddlestone’s hopes are perhaps diminished by the fact that Michael Carrick, one of the most influential players of Manchester United’s recent history, cannot seem to force his way into this England side—even if Hodgson has shown him more meaningful consideration than managers past.
There is also the threat from the likes of Ross Barkley and Jonjo Shelvey, who have become first-team regulars at this club this season and thrived on the added responsibility.
Shelvey, since moving to Swansea from Liverpool for regular starts, has proven less consistent than Huddlestone—but his role as a key creative pivot in a more fashionable side may turn Hodgson’s head.
Barkley, meanwhile, has already been handed his England debut and, as a more attacking central option, would give the Three Lions an impetus off the bench that makes him a particularly strong candidate for World Cup inclusion.
“It’s difficult [progressing to senior level] because you have to be mentally tough,” Barkley told the Sunday Times last week.
“You have to work hard and not give up. You’ve also got to have a manager who trusts you, plays you and believes in you. When you’re not getting that, some players can’t take it.
“Players my age need to get chances. There’s a lot to play for in the Premier League. [Managers] think about mistakes but if you put confidence in [young] players, they can play.”
Playing regularly and orchestrating a side that has so far exceeded expectations will only improve the chances of Huddlestone’s name being raised in England meetings. The same too goes for Shelvey and Barkley.
At the other end of the spectrum, West Brom youngster Saido Berahino is making astronomical progress at club level that could yet see him edge into the senior international frame.
Berahino, Burundi-born but raised in England from the age of 10, is already reaping the rewards of an offseason spent working vociferously on his game—scoring a hat-trick in his side’s Capital One Cup opener against Newport County, a feat that persuaded Steve Clarke to integrate him into his first-team squad rather than loan him out.
A goal on his England under-21 debut against Moldova followed before this Saturday saw the peak of his career to date with an emphatic winning goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
"I can't believe how the last month has gone,” Berahino told Sky Sports. "The gaffer believed in me. I don't want the journey to end now, I just want to carry on for many years to come."
The 20-year-old has made a flying start to the season, although breaking into the England squad may admittedly take some doing.
Daniel Sturridge, Daniel Welbeck and Wayne Rooney may feel relatively comfortable about their World Cup prospects, but beyond that there is competition for a possible two further forward berths—Andy Carroll (if fit) or Rickie Lambert is likely to occupy one of them, but any number of players capable of forcing themselves into the other.
Berahino’s ability to play out wide—offering cover for the likes of Theo Walcott—may play in his favour, but that can be said of a number of other players.
Aston Villa’s Gabriel Agbonlahor is six years older than Berahino and yet is nearly four years removed from the last of his three England caps—perhaps a reminder that many players show flashes of international quality, but only a fraction sustain it.
But he has started the season in fantastic form, sparking talk of an England recall (what is this, the third or fourth time he has found a vein of form to lead to such discussions?) that only the harshest critics would say lacks merit.
Elsewhere, Norwich winger Nathan Redmond has taken to top-flight football with aplomb, suggesting he may be worth keeping any eye on for the rest of the season.
International tournaments are not like club squads—impact substitutes are a valuable, often necessary commodity—and Redmond fits the profile of an attacking change Hodgson would like to have.
Norwich and England goalkeeping coach Dave Watson, while ostensibly passing on progress reports about the Canaries’ John Ruddy, might just be keeping Hodgson apprised of Redmond’s development also.
Looking further around the league, Southampton’s crop of intriguing English talents has been well covered in recent weeks, but they continue to develop at encouraging rates. Then there is the likes of Steven Caulker, Gareth Barry and Wayne Routledge—players from all ends of the footballing spectrum.
Hodgson, for all the criticism he has taken as Three Lions head coach to date (the backlash after the recent draw in Ukraine seemed to take him by surprise), has shown a great willingness to scout all ends of the spectrum for players.
That has not always translated into successful first-team integrations—Lambert’s starts, through necessity more than form, worked, but other call-ups have sat on the sidelines for matches and then returned to their club not to be picked again—but it does seem to have created an atmosphere of players striving to impress.
While what Hodgson is looking for is something only he knows, it appears regular football at the highest level is a prerequisite.
"When we're talking about players who could play for England, we're talking about starting players for their clubs' first XI,” Hodgson told the Daily Telegraph at the start of this month. “Or players like Ross Barkley or [Liverpool’s] Raheem Sterling, who are already so good that their coaches are pretty keen to get them onto the pitch.”
Others, however, have seen Hodgson’s willingness to look far and wide as evidence of a lack of cohesive thought.
Having seen Caulker, Huddlestone and Jake Livermore called up and then discarded last season, Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas used the recent naming of Andros Townsend in an England squad to raise his concerns.
“If there is continuity to the future of Andros in the national team, it’s a great step for him,” said Villas-Boas.
“If there is no continuity in the future, if his performances change in some way or if the player doesn’t get involved in Tottenham and, in the end, he gets dried out then it’s a big surprise for me, because I think a player who gets called up for the national team after two games should have respect and continuity towards the future.
“So I assume from this moment that there will be that belief. I can recall, last season, we had Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone, Steven Caulker, called up for England. At the moment, it doesn’t seem to have any continuity there.”
AVB's point about players being discarded by England is interesting. Livermore starts for Spurs since Swe-v-Eng in Nov: 2. Huddlestone: 9.— Neil Ashton (@neilashton_) August 29, 2013
Whether Hodgson’s approach is borne out of open-mindedness or blind panic is one to be debated another time. Same too for the discussion about whether he will revert to the tried and tested when the time comes to make the biggest decisions.
Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see so many unlikely players trying to step up and allow Hodgson the chance to indulge his whims in many different ways.
If England qualify for the World Cup, that is.