If years of following England in World Cup tournaments teach you anything, it is that predicting the worth of a wildcard in the final squad can be a tricky business.
For every Paul Gascoigne of 1990 or Michael Owen of 1998 who sparkles, there is a Theo Walcott of 2006 or a Kieron Dyer of 2002 who struggles. It is the law of the wildcard—some sparkle, some struggle.
But as the time when Fabio Capello culls seven names from his list of 30 draws near, the surprise inclusion could well be Manchester City’s Adam Johnson, and England fans will hope he certainly turns out to be the former.
For the former Middlesbrough man it caps a remarkable year where he has gone from understudy to Stewart Downing to World Cup wannabe in 12 months.
His early performances for the England Under-21 side marked him out as something special, and this was reinforced by his form for Middlesbrough during the first half of the year, where he dazzled in a side struggling to adapt to life outside the top flight.
While it was no surprise that he joined Manchester City in January, it has been remarkable how quickly he has adapted to life at Eastlands—where he has become a fixture on the right side of midfield, even at the expense of fellow England squad-mate Shaun Wright-Phillips.
The question now is whether he has made enough of an impression on Fabio Capello to force his way into the final 23.
The Italian is clearly a fan of the winger, and when asked about him after naming his provision squad, Capello said: “Adam Johnson is a really interesting player, he played very well in the second part of the season with City.
"He is one of the most interesting young players in England, in the Premier League, and I want to check him out during the training camp."
When the Italian chooses to weigh up his individual candidates, it could be about worth within the squad, as well as their ability to make an impact in bigger games.
As a true left-footed winger, Johnson has an edge because Capello’s squad lacks genuine left-footers, bar Gareth Barry, Ashley Cole, and Leighton Baines.
The options on the left-side of midfield are typically right-footed plays such as Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon cutting inside. Here Johnson’s ability to keep the width down the left as a genuine left-footed winger could be vital as Capello explores every option.
So too, is Johnson’s remarkable ability to run at people with pace, which has led some, including some influential people in Capello’s inner circle, to liken him to the king of left-footed wingers, Ryan Giggs.
As England assistant manager Stuart Pearce said: “He is probably a Ryan Giggs of his time. You watch him running at people, jinking in and out.
"I saw some footage of the West Ham game and it reminded me of Ryan Giggs 20 years ago when he first started the game.”
The main problem for Johnson will be the quality of competition competing for spots in England’s midfield.
With Aaron Lennon, Steven Gerrard, James Milner, and Theo Walcott all likely to go, it leaves a straight race between Johnson, Joe Cole, and Wright-Phillips to clinch the remaining spots.
While each has their own individual merits, the issue is that none make a decisive case for inclusion.
Though Wright-Phillips and Cole have an edge on experience and know-how, Johnson’s qualities remain unknown to many of the opponents England could face in South Africa.
Here Capello could learn from the experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson, who all-too late realised the usefulness in deploying the then-much unknown Aaron Lennon on the wing, and then watched as the Tottenham man nearly saved England’s way against Portugal.
It is a lesson which the Italian would be worth remembering when he comes to decide who should fill the final spots in his World Cup squad.
Given his record on England selection, Capello’s pragmatic approach means that unlike Eriksson he will eschew risks in favour of what has worked for him in the past.
Yet on the very periphery of his squad, the risk of selecting one gamble could do England’s chances more good than harm.
And while selecting Adam Johnson would certainly represent a gamble, it is one which could ultimately pay off handsomely for both Capello and England in South Africa.
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