Gareth Southgate wanted Wilfried Zaha for England role but was too late

Daniel Taylor
Wilfred Zaha in action for Ivory Coast against Russia last week. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Gareth Southgate has revealed he made a late attempt to persuade Wilfried Zaha against choosing Ivory Coast before England but said he will not pick anyone unless they have an “inherent desire” and has reservations about following Sam Allardyce’s idea of selecting players merely through residency rules.

Southgate said he was so keen to stop Zaha switching countries he made it a priority after taking the manager’s job full-time at the end ofNovember but could not dissuade a player who had already won a senior England cap during Roy Hodgson’s time in charge.

Zaha scored a brilliant individual goal against Russia last Friday and Steve Parish, the Palace chairman, has expressed his frustration that the Football Association did not do more to stop the former Manchester United player cutting his ties with England.

However, Southgate said there were valid reasons why Zaha had been overlooked in the past and defended himself from the criticisms. “I know the chairman has quite a vociferous view on it,” he said. “I know Steve’s an intelligent guy who’s done a fantastic job for that football club but I’m not sure it’s helpful [for him] to comment, like I wouldn’t comment on his decisions.”

Southgate also cited the example of Liverpool’s Ben Woodburn, who was born in Nottingham and raised in Cheshire but has chosen to play for Wales despite training with England’s schoolboys. “Woodburn had a training camp with us, two training camps with Wales and you run the risk, when you leave players out, of them going across to another country. But in the end I have to focus on players who are desperate to play for England.

“For me it’s different from a club. If you don’t feel that internal 100% passion for England, then I’m not sure it’s for me to sell that to you. It should be your desire to do it. Although I’m always willing to sit down with players, it should be them coming to us. I get that we are competing against other countries and players want to feel valued at all times. But the inherent desire of wanting to play for your country is the most important thing.”

Allardyce had explored the possibilities of calling up Steven Nzonzi, citing the player’s six-year spell in English football with Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City, until Fifa blocked the move on the grounds the player had won a France Under-21 cap. Southgate said the FA still had a department looking at who might be available but he seems less keen on the idea.

“Jermain Defoe is a classic example. His whole life has been a desire to play for England from Under-16s all the way through. I don’t think if you’d approached him to play for someone else he’d have done it. That’s where I was with it too – I didn’t get capped until I was 25 and I had no interest in playing for anyone else. I’m English and proud to be English and I think part of your identity as a national team has to be pride in the shirt. So, for me, the commitment has to come from the player.”

Of Zaha’s switch Southgate said: “I went to meet him before Palace played at Hull, at the team hotel, and we had a good chat because he was a player I’d picked for the Under-21s. I’ve never questioned his talent and it’s nice to see him play with a smile on his face and having an impact.

“He [Parish] is passionate about his football and his players. I spoke to him during the process and he was keen to push that forward [Zaha for England] and I totally understand it. But the first opportunity I had as permanent manager I did go and speak to him [Zaha].

“I don’t think anyone would have questioned Roy for not bringing him in last season. And in September [when Allardyce was manager] it would have been similar. I had three days to pick a squad in October and then in November I had the chance to look a little bit further but we’d won the game in October and I was pleased with the squad.

“I didn’t really appreciate there was this disappearing egg timer on him going to the Ivory Coast. He was the first player I went to see when I got the job permanently but he’d already made his mind up. The Ivory Coast had been talking to him and his family for a long period of time and obviously it had been a couple of years that he had been out of the England fold. We hoped to have him as an option for us but there was nothing we could do about it.”

Southgate went on to express sympathy for Ross Barkley whose last seven call-ups have not brought a single minute on the pitch. Barkley has not started a game for England for almost a year and Southgate acknowledged that the Everton player might have expected some involvement in Sunday’s 2-0 win against Lithuania.

“I’ve had a good chat with Ross because he will be a bit frustrated not to get on. But we like him, he’s a talented player and he’s just got to keep playing well. It’s the first time I’ve actually had the chance to work with him. I never worked with him with the under-21s so I think it was good for him to get a feel of how we work, how we want to work and he’s just got to keep playing well for Everton.”

Luke Shaw, an increasingly peripheral figure at Manchester United, has also been invited for a chat with the England manager over the international break. “I think he’s enjoyed his week,” Southgate said. “It’s good for him to feel that we are still thinking about him. We’ve got some pretty good left-backs, with Ryan Bertrand and Danny Rose, so it’s great to have that competition. Now he’s got the challenge of trying to force his way back into the Manchester United side.”

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