As a thousand budget flights to Benidorm might attest, it is from Luton that all great adventures begin.
Holding the announcement of England’s World Cup squad at a car factory on the outskirts of London may well sound like a deleted scene from Mike Bassett: England Manager, but that is in fact where Roy Hodgson confirmed some of the biggest decisions of his managerial career on Monday.
Hodgson may well have a contract until after the European Championships in 2016, and somewhat diminished expectations for England’s performance this summer in Brazil, but his selection nevertheless has much riding on it both for him and his country.
It will inspire debate for many weeks to come, but the early consensus is that bar one or two disputed inclusions, Hodgson has broadly got it right.
In the film mentioned above, Bassett ended one particularly pivotal press conference (albeit by the standards of a parody movie) by stating, “Ladies and gentleman, England will be playing 4-4-f-----g-2.”
Hodgson’s squad, at least, has been picked in such a way as to enable an altogether more vibrant and modern approach.
It remains to be seen how the pieces are actually arranged in Brazil—Hodgson, as much as he has embraced different methods since returning to international management, perhaps remains a conservative coach at heart—but the possibility is there for some exciting lineups.
In qualifying Hodgson showed himself to have a penchant for switching between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 as the situation demanded it, and the squad he selected on Monday seemed to give him numerous options to fill out either formation.
With Steven Gerrard a certainty in the holding role he has played so well for Liverpool this term, Hodgson now can choose the likes of Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling to place around him.
If experience becomes a concern—none of those players mentioned have more than eight caps to their name—then Frank Lampard can slot in, while James Milner has also been to a World Cup before. Put those options around Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney, and surely—surely?—England will be able to play some attractive football.
Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica will provide contrasting challenges in Group D; Hodgson has at least given himself the tools to tailor his side to each opponent. The squad is young—only six players have previously been to a World Cup—but the first XI does not necessarily have to be.
“I think the balance is quite good,” Hodgson said on Monday, as reporters fixated somewhat on the youthful nature of the 23. “It would be wrong to focus totally on the fact some are young and inexperienced.
“I think, in some games, you might see teams that are right up there with the opposition in terms of caps.”
Of course, few will remain convinced the squad has the ability to go on and win the World Cup—"Yes, of course I believe this squad can win the World Cup, otherwise what’s the point of going? But those are empty words," Hodgson said—but that was going to be the case whoever he picked.
At least this squad creates possibilities: From the midfield forward, England can now be more defensive for some challenges and more creative for others. It is the sort of extra dimension that has not always been available in the past.
Most of the squad was known even before the 2 p.m. official announcement, with the media covering all sources to get the scoop before the event. It was perhaps no surprise, however, that Ashley Cole’s omission was the first decision to drop—it was and remains the most controversial decision, and getting it out hours ahead of the event was almost certainly no coincidence.
With the story spreading on Friday evening, the opprobrium was nicely defused before Hodgson sat down behind a wall of microphones.
When the time came to face the media the 66-year-old faced only a few questions about the decision to choose Luke Shaw over Cole, as many had already adjusted to the decision having known about it for a number of hours.
“It was an unbelievably hard decision,” Hodgson said, essentially repeating the statement he made on Sunday evening. “Circumstances will prove whether or not the decision to take the younger player was the right one or not.”
Why then, did Lampard get the nod—when many expected the 36-year-old to make way for Michael Carrick?
“Frank Lampard is a very important part of our setup. In midfield you have many more positions to choose from, and the qualities you are looking for in those positions vary. He’s been my captain and my vice-captain, and we think his leadership qualities and the help he will give us all make him a man who fully deserves his selection.”
That was a reasonable justification, even if the lack of a more orthodox defensive midfielder to back up Gerrard may come back to haunt England as the tournament progresses.
It is important to note that, while realistically the squad is not going to change unless there are injury issues, Hodgson’s selection is not yet set in stone. At this point four years ago, after all, Fabio Capello was still a few weeks away from making a desperate call to Paul Scholes (a player not even in the Italian’s provisional 30-man list), asking if he might come out of international retirement.
There is still room for change, although Hodgson does not strike as a man likely to second-guess his own decisions.
The one doubt he has is over Phil Jones’ shoulder injury, but Hodgson already has a plan in place should the Manchester United defender fail to prove his fitness in time.
"Everyone tells me, and my own research points to the fact it is a three-week injury, but we cannot guarantee that—so as a result I will be taking John Stones and Jon Flanagan on this trip [to Portugal],” Hodgson revealed. “John Stones will be his replacement if Phil Jones is not fit.”
Stones will only add to the callow nature of the squad, but Hodgson—who can occasionally be the first to get defensive when probed by the press—was assertive in his explanation of his decisions.
"They’ve imposed themselves upon me," he said at one point. "I didn’t set out to take them, but they’ve played so well and been so effective with their club teams that they imposed themselves on my thinking."
In a way, the most high-profile absentee from Hodgson's 23 was also the best evidence of his convictions. Cole, after all, had just eight senior caps to his name when he started every single one of England’s games at the 2002 World Cup—proving himself one of his country's best performers in Japan and South Korea, and more than good enough for the occasion.
If you are good enough you are old enough, as the old adage goes, and the 33-year-old has been gracious enough to admit Shaw is ready for the highest level, even if he perhaps remains adamant that he also can still do a job.
Hodgson seemed to acknowledge as much, saying:
If I had to pick a squad in October it might have looked somewhat different, but a lot of water has passed under the bridge between October and now. You can’t ignore what people are doing with their club sides.
This tournament means everything to us. I would refute any suggestions that these players were selected for [the Euros in] 2016.
But, of course, if one of the things we get out of it is that some of the players got more experience, then in two years’ time or four years’ time hopefully they will be even more experienced, then great.
As the press conference progressed, the Bassett-ian feel eventually began to creep back in. In the bowels of a car plant, Hodgson was asked whether the squad he was unveiling was a sports car or a family saloon.
“I think I’ll allow you to decide whether it’s a sports car or a family saloon,” Hodgson demurred. “All I’ll say is that I’m very happy to drive it.”
The challenge now for Hodgson is to get his squad into as high a gear as possible. The former Liverpool, Lazio and West Brom manager has long had a reputation as a training-ground boss, someone who likes to work closely with his players and get his tactical ideas and approaches across on the practice pitch.
Getting his chance to do that from next week, it will be how Hodgson fares in that regard that will have a far greater bearing on how England do this summer.
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