Reda Maher

Colback call-up symptomatic of wider English malaise

Reda Maher

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Without getting into the merits of his England call, let’s get this straight – Jack Colback is a decent young midfielder.

Before this summer’s controversial free transfer move to hometown club Newcastle United, the 24-year-old played over 100 Premier League matches for Sunderland, plus 50 in the second tier for Ipswich Town. He works hard, is a decent passer of the ball (89.4% last season), and his form improved when his team were under pressure in the latter stage of the campaign.

Much of the horror at his inclusion in England’s squad for the matches against Norway and Switzerland emanates from Roy Hodgson’s supposed comment that Colback is the “ginger Pirlo”.

[ROONEY NAMED ENGLAND CAPTAIN]

Never mind the fact that Hodgson did not actually coin the phrase or claim Colback was as good as the Italy star and England’s nemesis – Hodgson merely commented that someone had used the nickname and that he “hope(s) that becomes true”. Never mind the fact that Hodgson is not building his team around Colback, who has been given a chance because the likes of Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana are injured, while a call for Tom Cleverley would provoke widespread derision. Never mind the fact Hodgson was laughing when he made the comment.

No, the inclusion of Colback PROVES that Hodgson is delusional and that he MUST BE SACKED. Because in this age of social media bluster and hyperbole life exists in binary and football is no exception.

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Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it would be helpful if the detractors gave a solution. As it stands, Colback is arguably the fourth-best available option to Hodgson: even if he is some way short of Pirlo, football is a squad game, England need 23 players, eight of which should be midfielders, and at least five of which should at least be able to play in central positions.

But is Colback good enough to play for an England side which, we are told, boasts a new breed of young player who has grown up with all the good habits of the global imports that grace our game?

Let’s compare. Excluding those already selected and players who have retired from international football, here are all the England-eligible central midfielders who started in the Premier League last week, in vague order of quality:

Jack Rodwell

Gareth Barry

Tom Cleverley

Jonjo Shelvey

Lee Cattermole

Joey Barton

James Ward-Prowse

David Livermore

Jordon Mutch

Tom Huddlestone

Steven Sidwell

Mark Noble

Craig Gardner

Ashley Westwood

Dean Hammond

Stuart O’Keefe

Dean Marney

David Jones

The top two, Jack Rodwell and Gareth Barry, stand out as players with higher reputations to Colback and Delph. However, the omission of both is not hard to justify: Rodwell has barely played for a year and needs to get used to a new club, while Barry is 33 and has not played for England since 2012.

Cleverley, meanwhile, is persona non grata to such an extent that his name was booed by England fans ahead of a pre-World Cup friendly; Shelvey has had his token cap and needs to prove himself a consistent stand-out for Swansea; the gifted but callow James Ward-Prowse is as raw as Demi Moore’s dinner.

With Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson England’s first-choice central midfielders, Colback and Fabian Delph are fair selections as back-ups. Both showed great spirit in the latter stages of a relegation scrap, with Colback particularly impressive as Sunderland somehow got results against Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea to avoid the drop. Both are energetic and technical, and both have superior disciplinary records to the likes of Cattermole and Barton, other names that were mentioned as options but who probably can’t be trusted by Hodgson.

[HODGSON HAS NO CONCERNS OVER CAPTAIN ROONEY]

Moving forwards, there are a few others who could enter the reckoning in the coming months. In addition to Rodwell and Ward-Prowse, Livermore and Mutch showed promise last season and will see themselves as just behind the more experienced Colback and Delph.

The rest have either had their shot, are new to the top flight, or simply aren’t good enough.

The selections of Colback and Delph highlight a wider malaise in English football, a malaise that is twofold.

First we can point to the lack of quality relative to the top national teams in world football. In January Manchester United spent £37m on Juan Mata, who is a bit-part player for Spain, and this summer shelled out £30m for Ander Herrera, who’s never even been capped; Germany left Sven Bender out of their World Cup squad, lost his twin Lars to an injury, and could still afford to play a half-fit Sami Khedira and win the bloody thing. And that’s just scratching the surface.

But England still have plenty of good players, as noted in the absences – which are chronic. A wider issue for Hodgson is that, at any given time, his players are rarely all fit. He is lucky to have two-thirds of his first choices available. Colback and Delph are only really in the squad because Barkley, Lallana and Michael Carrick are injured, and far too many cannot be trusted in their place.

Is this a function of the overly physical nature of the Premier League? Does the so-called ‘magic of the cup’ – which sees top flight teams take matches against lower league opposition more seriously than abroad – share the blame?

Or was Harry Redknapp right? The QPR boss got in a spot of bother for saying something a lot of us have always suspected – that some English players aren’t all that interested in representing their countries, or at the very least are happy to toe the lines of their clubs when withdrawn with mystery knocks or strains.

[ENGLAND ARRANGE PRESTIGE FRIENDLIES]

As with any problem worth solving, it is difficult to find one simple panacea for the broader sickness in English football.

One thing we can ascertain, however, is that things are – in spite of everything – improving. Some called for Hodgson’s head after the World Cup but, in general terms, England did not actually play badly against Italy and Uruguay. They kept and used the ball better than before and, if we’re looking at the long-term, the right habits have to be learned and executed.

There is also value in the pantomime villain that is Cleverley. He only has five caps for England. At the same stage of his career, Cleverley’s former incarnation, Jermaine Jenas, had four times that number of appearances. For Colback, meanwhile, read Sean Davis.

A small mercy, perhaps, but one worth noting when clamouring for the head of a coach whose options are limited by his resources.

Reda Maher - follow on Twitter @Reda_Maher_LDN

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