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World Cup focus

On-song Lennon stakes England claim

October 9, 2009
By Kevin Palmer
(Archive)

David Beckham's fine England career has been drawing towards a conclusion for the last three years and yet the natural successors to his crown have tended to stumble when attempting to leap onto his pedestal.

Aaron Lennon
GettyImagesAaron Lennon could be keeping David Beckham on the bench.

David Bentley, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Ashley Young and Theo Walcott have all had a stab at ending the glorious international career of England's very own 'Mr Showbiz' with limited success and so the plane carrying Fabio Capello's squad to the World Cup finals next summer is likely to include a 34-year-old who refuses to surrender on his final sporting dream.

Walcott looked ready to step forward to replace the icon who has worn the England shirt with distinction on 114 occasions when he smashed a memorable hat-trick in the 4-1 World Cup qualifying win in Croatia last year, before the return leg of that fixture threw up another candidate in the race to succeed the future Sir Dave.

Aaron Lennon's emergence as an England star in the making was confirmed when, as a raw 19-year-old, he made a successful late bid to sneak into Sven Goran Eriksson's England party for the last World Cup finals, but the years since have been a story of indifference for the Tottenham flier.

Indeed, Lennon was threatening to book a permanent residence in the graveyard of the unfulfilled talents a year ago as he struggled to finish a full 90 minutes for his club side and lacked the confidence to make the most of his natural assets.

Fitness and form issues were blunting a player whose has been blessed with the sort of raw pace that terrorises any defender and it needed the arrival of Harry Redknapp in the Tottenham dug-out for Lennon to escape from the shell that had seen him slip down the England pecking order.

Now, after he starred in England's emphatic 5-1 victory over Croatia last month, Lennon is an international star all over again after finding the father figure who has put his career back on the map.

"We have given Aaron that little shot of confidence since I came to the club," begins Spurs manager Redknapp. "I have tried to encourage him from the first day I arrived because everyone can see what a talent he could and should be.

"For whatever reason, he was not producing the performances Tottenham would have wanted from him at the start of last season and we needed to work on his self-belief to get him firing again. We have also got him in great shape and that is helping his game massively.

"I often say to the lads, 'give the ball to Aaron as much as you can and let him do his damage'. That is music to his ears as he is a lad who likes to be given a bit of boost now and again. As we all know, he has the ability to tear sides to pieces when he is firing."

Redknapp, more than anyone, can take credit for Lennon's return to the international front-line and with the countdown to the World Cup finals now fully under way, his adopted son may just be a couple of decent performances away from securing a starting berth in the England side for South Africa 2010.

As far as his club captain is concerned, Lennon is worthy of a regular spot in a national team that has finally discovered how to win under Capello. "Aaron is on fire at the moment and no defender will fancy facing him," is the view of in-form Irish striker, Robbie Keane. "England are lucky to have him and he will be a big asset for them at the World Cup.

"The sprint training we do at Tottenham is not really an even contest because one man tends to have a little advantage over the rest of us and we have seen a maturity in his game over the last year as well. Harry Redknapp has been great for Aaron and we are starting to see how good he could be now."

Rumoured interest in Lennon from Manchester United and Liverpool last summer came to nothing and it may be that he is better off staying at a club where his talents will be given time to flourish naturally.

Antonio Valencia's struggles at United and Ryan Babel's disappointments at Liverpool confirm that joining a 'big four' club early in your career is not always a wise move and Redknapp believes his little gem is still very much a work in progress.

"I still think Aaron has a hell of a lot to learn, but the basics of what we are seeing from him shows how good he can be," says the Spurs boss, who was a winger in his own playing days. "I often tell him that beating a defender is not the most important aspect of your game on the wing. You want to get into the best position possible to deliver a cross and the important aspect is always going to be the quality of the ball you put in.

"Maybe Aaron was more interested in going by a defender in the past, but it is often more difficult to deliver a cross when you are running at top speed. You look at David Beckham down the years and he is a master of putting great balls into the box without beating anyone. Aaron can learn from a great professional like Beckham.

Harry Redknapp
GettyImagesHarry Redknapp: Has got the best out of Aaron Lennon.
"For me, Aaron wasn't making the right sort of runs when I came to the club because a winger needs to work hard to get into space and all too often he only came alive when the ball came in his direction. If a defender got tight to him, Aaron didn't really have an answer, so he needs a bit of space when he gets the ball to get a head of steam up.

"He has taken on board all the advice we have given him and what we are seeing now is a player who has a little bit more to his game that he might have had a year ago. What people forget is he still learning the game and that's often a problem when boys make their mark early in a career.

"Aaron has been around the Tottenham side for a few years and the expectations on him were high from a very early stage, but he needed to work on a few areas of his game before we could get him performing consistently and I think we are getting there now."

There will only ever be one King David in English soccer's Hall of Fame, but the pretenders to his throne are gathering at his feet. Arise Aaron and Theo.