Summer recruitment hurting England duo

September 10, 2007
(Archive)

As scouting duties go the England manager's job has traditionally offered more glamour than, say, that of his Northern Ireland counterpart, trawling through the lower leagues, and less arduous than those of his Scandinavian contemporaries, whose players are scattered across the European continent.

Joe Cole
Empics / AdamDavyJoe Cole fires home the opening goal against Estonia, but hasn't started at all for Chelsea this season.

The plush seats of the Premier League, in contrast, are no hardship, especially when many are conveniently close to home (hence regular sightings of Steve McClaren in the North East and, before him, Sven-Goran Eriksson at Charlton and Tottenham).

Such easy afternoons may become part of the past. Few demurred when McClaren named Joe Cole and Peter Crouch in his squad to face Israel and Russia yet, to assess their form this season, the England manager may find himself not at Stamford Bridge and Anfield but in Brentford and Warrington.

Griffin Park and the Halliwell Jones Stadium, otherwise known for lower-division football and rugby league respectively, are also home to the reserve teams of the Premier League powers. As Crouch's league campaign has entailed a mere seven minutes and Cole is yet to start for Chelsea, McClaren may have to become a regular at these otherwise obscure haunts.

For some, the decline of the England team can be traced through the marginalisation of two established internationals; for others, it is indicative of the pernicious impact of the foreign invasion of the Premier League. More realistically, it is the consequence of summer recruitment drives.

Cole can consider himself the more unfortunate. Two seasons ago, he was shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year award, deserved recognition for the best campaign of his career. Last year, Chelsea lamented his regular absence, resulting in a lack of flair and a preference for the predictable.

It was anticipated then, that Cole would be welcomed back into the team, yet a combination of the arrival of Florent Malouda and a change of tactics has sidelined him. Jose Mourinho's new-found enthusiasm for wingers, rather than a player such as Cole who tends to drift inside and defy such obvious categorisation, has enabled Shaun Wright-Phillips to enjoy a belated renaissance on the right flank.

If, in the 4-3-3 Mourinho favoured in his first two seasons and briefly reverted to at Aston Villa, Cole and Malouda would be the most natural support acts to Didier Drogba, while 4-4-2 can benefit players with a greater affinity for the touchline. Cole, in contrast, made his sole start of the season for Chelsea as an auxiliary striker in the Community Shield. While McClaren, given his striker shortage, has pondered playing Cole behind one forward, although even he has not deployed him to lead the line.

That, of course, is the role Crouch craves. Suspension denied him it against Israel and Emile Heskey's unexpected resurrection of his international career may ensure he has a watching brief against Russia. But there is a greater obstacle in his path at Anfield: Fernando Torres. It is pertinent that Crouch is yet to start alongside Liverpool's record signing and it indicates that Rafael Benitez wants him as the Spaniard's deputy while Andriy Voronin and Dirk Kuyt, each offering greater athleticism than the Englishman, orbit around Torres. Moreover, Torres' excellent start, along with his hefty fee, effectively guarantees his presence in major matches.

While Crouch's defenders cite his 18 goals last season, with his hat-trick against Arsenal prominent among them, in his case for a place, not to mention his excellent scoring rate in international football, a collective failure in Liverpool's attack necessitated Torres' arrival. If there was the theory that Crouch's height, Craig Bellamy's explosive pace and Robbie Fowler's proven finishing ability meant diverse options were available to Benitez, it left them craving whatever they lacked at any precise moment.

GettyImagesCrouch: His lack of starts may harm his England career.

Torres, deceptively quick and with both aerial menace and three Premier League goals already, provides a complete package. In addition, Crouch's case for inclusion is reduced not just by his inconsistency but by his tendency to produce ineffectual cameos; it was telling that not one of those 18 goals came when he was a substitute.

And while Cole's encouraging displays against Germany and Israel should secure his place, Crouch ranks among a group of sidelined and suffering strikers who inspired doom-laden predictions for the English game. Whatever the merits - or otherwise - of club academies, it is worth remembering that talent is often cyclical.

Nor can the current malaise be attributed solely to imports. With far fewer foreign players, there was a period of the 1990s when Julio Salinas, very much a fringe player at Barcelona, was Spain's main striker while Italy used Pierluigi Casiraghi, never prolific at any of his many clubs, to lead the line, albeit augmented by an exceptionally gifted fantasista in Roberto Baggio.

While Micah Richards is proving that young English players do still emerge, as a whole generation did on the other side of Manchester a decade ago, and David Bentley displays that it is far from disastrous if a player is cast aside by the big four, it is simplistic to assume that a quota would be the answer to England's problems.

Protectionism, whatever the short-term gains to players such as Cole and Crouch, rarely benefits sport. One interpretation of Social Darwinism - only the strongest survive - could result in England's failure to reach Euro 2008 and McClaren's exit. Implementing it at club level will impact upon Cole and Crouch.

The former has the skill to prosper at Chelsea, but the latter may need to continue his itinerant career elsewhere. In the meantime, however, McClaren may need to visit the Halliwell Jones before announcing his next squad.


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