Written by Akshay Kulkarni (@ImpatientPedant). This article first appeared in Nerve Magazine issue no. 2, and has been modified.
England’s 2018 World Cup run was a breath of fresh air in more ways than one – the country fell in love with the Three Lions again and Gareth Southgate’s selection policies may ensure they may never fall out of love again.
Southgate’s gutsy selections showed that getting called up for England was an honour, not a tedious formality like it appeared under previous regimes.
Southgate has always picked his team on merit, whatever the age or experience of his players, and it paid off as the third-youngest team in Russia went all the way to the semifinals. The most successful squad in a decade would, arguably, have looked far less vibrant under previous England bosses.
Since Steve McClaren’s reign, the English team always seemed to pick itself. Big names like Wayne Rooney, Glen Johnson, and Joe Hart seemed always assured of a place. This was all regardless of club or international form, and England never looked like serious contenders because of this very reason. Subsequent England bosses all tried to fit square pegs into round holes, and the squad suffered as a result.
The height of this malaise was seen at Euro 2016 under Roy Hodgson. Hodgson picked over 10 of the same players from the 2014 World Cup disaster.
Wayne Rooney went into the tournament as captain, despite a meagre eight goals in the preceding season. And the results showed –their loss to Iceland was one of the worst England performances ever.
But Gareth Southgate’s philosophy has changed that. Since his arrival in 2016 following Sam Allardyce’s infamous departure, Southgate has been resolute in his attitude that only players who play regularly, and play well, get in the squad; regardless of club, age, or experience.
Harry Maguire and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, both of whom made appearances in Russia, would never even have been close under Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello, or Roy Hodgson. But they were rewarded for excellent seasons at Leicester and Crystal Palace respectively.
Gone, too, were the big names. Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere, and Jermain Defoe all had poor seasons in 2017-18 and they were rightly omitted. Their long list of accolades, and their marketable names, meant nothing for overall squad health.
This philosophy has shown no signs of stopping after Russia. Southgate’s most recent squad is one of his youngest yet, with only one player born in the 1980s. One of the three teenagers called up, Jadon Sancho, became the first player born in this millennium to play for England when he featured against Croatia.
Not only is that a testament to England’s rich vein of young talent, but Gareth Southgate’s desire to ensure that England operate as a team instead of merely a collection of star names.
Southgate’s recent selection of an aged Wayne Rooney two years after his retirement, however, is a major deviation from this policy. It is unknown whether this was forced on Southgate or whether he came up with the idea himself. Nonetheless, it goes against a lot of his previously laid out philosophies.
True, it is only a friendly, and it benefits Rooney’s own charity. But England’s record scorer, as revered as he is, still occupies a squad place that an in-form youngster could and should take.
Hopefully, Rooney’s selection is a one-off and not a return to the blundering previous regimes. England, more than ever, need to look forward and not back. Southgate has shown that he’s willing to do that so far, and hopefully Rooney’s selection does not tip him the other way.