Ivan Toney’s stellar start to the season for Brentford has earned him a call-up to Gareth Southgate’s England’s Nations League games next week.
The next time Southgate names an England squad, it will be his World Cup squad. So what are the omens for Toney? Which other uncapped players have come into England squads at this late stage before a World Cup and have they gone on to great things? Or even to the World Cup?
In the unlikely event Ivan Toney is reading this, a quick message: Ivan, don’t read this. It… it doesn’t look good.
Disclaimers and caveats time: obviously this season’s timings make things a bit different but all those below were uncapped when named in the final in-season squad before a World Cup summer. Usually around March or April, which is basically where we are now on the Qatar timeline. So it kind of works, yeah?
April 2002 – Matt Jansen
The England squad selected for a 4-0 win over Paraguay is dominated by the birth of a legend. A week before the game, three days before Sven-Goran Eriksson names a 25-man squad and 51 days until the World Cup begins, David Beckham is given a booting by Deportivo La Coruna’s Pedro Duscher in a Champions League quarter-final. His foot is bruised and bleeding. The following day, an X-ray confirms he has broken the second metatarsal in his left foot. “What the f**k is a metatarsal?” asks a confused and concerned nation that will never again have to ask that question and is about to embark on a period of widespread collective insanity that feels strangely apt 20 years on.
All we’re saying is that if there was a queue to pay your respects to Beckham’s bust foot, it would have been at least 12 hours long. Tabloid front pages encouraged readers to pray for the injury to recover. It was the biggest story in town from that moment until Beckham, whose narrative arc appeared to have been completed with that crucial goal against Greece, was confirmed fit and would complete the actual end of this particular redemption story with the winning penalty against Argentina after a genuinely hilarious dive from Michael Owen. Then he jumped out of the way of a tackle in the build-up to a Brazil goal in the quarter-final. Was he thinking about his half-healed foot? We’ll never know. What we do know is that the man who initially benefited from Beckham’s injury was, to general surprise, Blackburn’s Matt Jansen.
A stomach bug forced him to withdraw from the squad and, despite being measured for his suit, he was omitted from the final 23 for Japan and Korea and never won a full international cap.
February/March 2006 – Darren Bent
Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney are Sven-Goran Eriksson’s clear first-choice strikers ahead of his second and last World Cup in charge of England, with Peter Crouch earmarked as first reserve/point of difference from the bench. An injury to Owen offered a chance to in-form Charlton striker Darren Bent in the squad for a friendly against Uruguay, setting up what appears to be in a shootout with Tottenham’s Jermain Defoe for the fourth and final place in the squad.
Bent starts against Uruguay, with Crouch and Defoe coming off the bench as England come from 1-0 down to win 2-1. Crouch, wearing the number 21 on the front of his shirt and shorts but 12 on the back for some reason, scores a 75th-minute equaliser before Joe Cole gets the winner deep into injury time.
Then, come May, when Eriksson has to name his World Cup squad he leaves Bent out altogether, pops Defoe on a standby list and decides to pick 17-year-old Theo Walcott who has yet to make a Premier League appearance for Arsenal.
“I only decided finally this morning,” chortles a demob-happy Eriksson at the announcement of the squad, which also includes a very first call-up for Tottenham teenager Aaron Lennon which while still a gamble is at least one based on some available first-team evidence.
Asked how he made the decision to pick Walcott over Bent or Defoe, Eriksson said: “Probably not too logically. Sometimes you do it on feelings as well and I am excited about Theo Walcott.”
Walcott was taking his driving theory test when the announcement was made. He passed.
February/March 2010 – Ryan Shawcross, Stephen Warnock, Leighton Baines
With a laser-guided piece of timing, Shawcross is named in Fabio Capello’s squad for a friendly against Egypt literally hours after being sent off for snapping Aaron Ramsey in half with one of the Premier League’s most infamous challenges. Having left the pitch in tears at what he’d done, Shawcross at least ended the day with some good news.
He was joined in the squad by fellow uncapped duo Stephen Warnock and Leighton Baines, who found themselves in direct competition for the all-important role of understudy to undisputed first-choice left-back Ashley Cole after Wayne Bridge announced his international retirement.
Warnock would ultimately win that battle and in the process become the scourge of Sporcle quizzers from that day until the end of days.
As for Shawcross, he was an unused substitute against Egypt and had to wait until November 2012 to finally make his long-awaited England debut. He came off the bench with 16 minutes remaining of a friendly against Sweden that Roy Hodgson’s side were leading 2-1. Sixteen minutes and three Zlatan Ibrahimovic goals later – including a ludicrous 30-yard overhead kick – Sweden have won 4-2 and Shawcross’ England career had, in his own words, “ended before it started”.
February/March 2014 – Luke Shaw
By a wide margin, the most successful uncapped player to emerge from these squads. One of only three men to score for England in a major tournament final, Shaw got his first call-up as an 18-year-old Southampton prodigy for a March friendly against Denmark as Roy Hodgson finalised his plans for England’s trip to Brazil.
It was a slight surprise, not because Shaw’s form for Saints didn’t merit international recognition. It was more the fact Cole and Baines were also there meaning Shaw’s presence made it three left-backs in a squad that also contained only three recognised centre-backs. And those three centre-backs were Gary Cahill, Steven Caulker and Chris Smalling.
Shaw was ultimately named in Hodgson’s final 23 for Brazil along with Baines, prompting the end of Cole’s England career.
Nineteen-year-old Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling also earned a recall to Hodgson’s squad to face Denmark having made his debut 17 months earlier in the Shawcross-Zlatan Game. There’s frankly a whole story to tell about the six players who debuted for England that night in Stockholm: Shawcross, Sterling, Leon Osman, Caulker, Carl Jenkinson and Wilfried Zaha.
March 2018 – Alfie Mawson, Lewis Cook, Nick Pope, James Tarkowski
It would be easy reading this lot to think that England were something of a shambles until Gareth Southgate came along with his calm and logical thinking that, no matter what your views on his often pedestrian and staid brand of sufferball, has at least provided England with some consistency and brought an end to this sort of late pre-tournament chaos.
And then you look at a squad three months before the 2018 World Cup and see James Tarkowski, Lewis Cook and – what, wait, Alfie Mawson?
Yes. Alfie Mawson was among four uncapped players named for March friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy.
He would never make an international appearance for England and is currently playing for Wycombe in League One.
Cook had in fact been called up the previous year for a friendly against Brazil and earned his one and (so far?) only cap against Italy before being named on the five-man standby list when Southgate’s World Cup squad was confirmed. Tarkowski played in both games before joining Cook on the standby list, only for a hernia operation to rule him out altogether.
Pope remains very much part of the squad now despite never having managed to unseat Jordan Pickford as Southgate’s first-choice. Easy to forget now, though, just how murky the England goalkeeper situation was before that World Cup.
There were four goalkeepers in the March squad, with the experience and leadership qualities of Joe Hart seeing him retain his place despite the collapse of his club form. It’s not hard to draw the Harry Maguire comparisons here. is it?
Hart wouldn’t make it to Russia in the end, Southgate instead preferring to select three keepers in his final squad who mustered only 12 caps between them. And eight of those were Jack Butland’s. England’s opening game of the World Cup against Tunisia was Jordan Pickford’s fourth cap, which seems really quite mad now.
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