Tuesday November 16th, 2010

After England's dismal showing in the World Cup, there were the usual calls for blood. Fabio Capello clearly wasn't going to go, so after lamenting the Football Association's curious decision to remove the release clause from the coach's contract shortly before the tournament, the media focused on which players could usefully be sacrificed. It was a stance in part rooted in embarrassment at the widespread acceptance of the myth of the "Golden Generation," and in part just because the rules of the tabloid game insist somebody must be blamed.

Capello, though, proved too cussed to be swayed. Steve McClaren began his reign by dropping David Beckham, only to end up crawling back to him; Capello wasn't about to make the same mistake. He never revealed his reasoning, but his stance is perfectly logical. As he has pointed out, only 38 percent of players in the Premier League are eligible to play for England; there is not a huge pool from which to choose (which is not, incidentally, to reiterate the hackneyed line that there are too many foreigners in the English game). To ostracize a clutch of experienced players in order to fulfill the media's desire to "give youth its chance" and "build for 2014" would have been senseless.

There can be arguments about individual cases -- trying to persuade Emile Heskey to come out of retirement for one game seemed regressive -- but a general policy of balance and the gradual integration of younger players is surely sensible, and certainly not, as has been alleged, evidence of Capello's caring only for his own reputation rather than the future of English football. After all, the worst thing for English football would be for a group of talented young players to be burdened with the scars of failing to qualify for Euro 2012. Nor is Capello's refusal to turn wholesale to youth indicative of a lack of emerging players. Amid all the hand-wringing about English youth development, it's often overlooked that the only nation to qualify for each of the last three European Under-21 championships is England.

That's not to say that everything is perfect, but it certainly indicates that the garden is not as barren as the doom-mongers would suggest. That Arsenal has provided more players to Capello's latest squad than any other club suggests that English football is finally feeling the benefit of club academies, professionally run and designed to yield a profit -- and thus less prone to pursue a zealot's philosophy, as the Centre of Excellence at Lilleshall, the last national academy, did under long-ball theorist Charles Hughes.

For Wednesday's friendly against France, Capello made more of a concession to the untested, and called up four new players. One of those, 21-year-old Newcastle United forward Andy Carroll, has since suffered a groin injury, which is a shame because he is a player who could genuinely have hoped for regular inclusion in an England side. He is raw and inconsistent, and a string of off-field incidents suggest serious work needs to be done to keep his temper in check, but as a player, when on song, he is terrifying.

Kevin Keegan has described Carroll as one of the best three headers of a ball he has ever seen, and he is big, brave and willing to take a whack (as well as dish them out), all of which you expect from a target man. But he is also frighteningly fast over short distances and has a powerful shot. In his range of attributes he is reminiscent of Didier Drogba, and both Aston Villa and Sunderland found him difficult to handle.

England's medical staff will assess Carroll, but Carlton Cole has been called up as a replacement -- and that is where Capello does seem to defy logic. Kevin Davies became England's oldest debutant in half a century against Montenegro last month, and he has been in superb form as Bolton Wanderers has climbed to fifth in the table. And yet Capello prefers an out-of-form Cole, who can barely get on the field at bottom-of-the-table West Ham United.

In Carroll's likely absence, the most interesting newcomer is probably Jordan Henderson. He was a promising right winger when manager Steve Bruce switched him to central midfield on Sunderland's preseason tour of Portugal in 2009. There, he has been a revelation. Although the game rather passed him by when he made his first Premier League start, at Birmingham City, he learned quickly and became a regular by the middle of last season. As Bruce points out, he regularly runs more than eight miles in a game, rarely gives the ball away and, at 6-foot-2, has the bulk to impose himself on others.

Henderson is not a spectacular player, scores only rarely -- although he did volley a magnificent goal for England's Under-21s in their European Championship qualifying playoff against Romania -- and while he can certainly cross, he often frustrates with his delivery from set plays. The $27 million fee Manchester City is purportedly ready to offer for him sounds inflated, but what he does have is the ability to shape a game. Against Tottenham last season, for instance, Sunderland led 2-1 despite having missed two penalties. It had played superbly, but was just beginning to wobble when Henderson seized possession, advanced, laid a pass forward, made a long, looping overlapping run, got the return on the right wing and crossed for Boudewijn Zenden to score a brilliant volley. Zenden, understandably, took the credit for an acrobatic finish, but just as significant was Henderson's role.

The other two new boys are a little more surprising: Chris Smalling and Jay Bothroyd. At 20, Smalling is at least young and has been a regular in the Under-21 setup for a year. He played just 13 league games for Fulham before being signed by Manchester United, and there is a sense he is very much a work in progress. He has played only twice for United, and one of those appearances came against Aston Villa on Saturday when he was an auxiliary forward.

Bothroyd's call-up, though, is hard to explain, not least because he is 28. He has been in undeniably impressive form for Cardiff City in the Championship, has scored 13 league goals in 14 starts this season and was voted the division's player of the month for October.

"He's not an out-and-out big target man," his club manager, Dave Jones, said. "He can drift, he's got good ability, good pace."

Whether that makes him more worthy of a place in the squad than Davies is another matter. The wider point, though, is that having steadied the ship after the World Cup debacle, Capello is now assessing what other options he may have. There are those who would like the changes to have been more rapid and more radical, but Capello's preference is for a gradual evolution.

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