Remembering the England managers: Kevin Keegan

It’s hard to believe it now but in 1999 Kevin Keegan’s appointment as England manager was a cause for national jubilation (not just in Newcastle). English Football had finally appointed its greatest hero to its biggest job. After the fractious ending of Glenn Hoddle’s reign here was the man to bring the nation together.

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It wasn’t just the cult of King Kev’ that got fans excited, Keegan’s management record to that point was outstanding. He’d taken Newcastle from the bottom of the second division to a whisker away from a Premier League title, more recently he’d turned Fulham around in both cases bringing a style of football rarely seen at either St James Park or Craven Cottage.

Almost everyone believed he could do it with England particularly given the quality of young players he had to work with; David Beckham, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Emile Heskey and Lee Bowyer. Keegan had always been a strong advocate of his ex England manager Don Revie, often stating England’s problems in the 70s were simply down to a lack of quality players, here there seemed evidence England might finally have the talent to succeed.

But those expecting a youthful reinvention of England were soon disappointed. It became clear very quickly Keegan favoured veterans. He retained Alan Shearer as captain having previously broken the World transfer record to sign him for Newcastle. The problem was by 1999 Shearer had lost a yard of pace and was embroiled in a difficult relationship with new Newcastle manager Ruud Gullit. Keegan also retained the spine of the Euro ’96 team- Davis Seaman, Tony Adams & Paul Ince all by now on the down slide of their careers. The youth of the side was again provided by Manchester United; right sided pair Gary Neville & Beckham continued their right wing/back partnership from club level in a 4-4-2 with right footed Phil Neville at left back and Paul Scholes playing attacking midfield.

The qualifying situation Keegan inherited was worrying. England had taken a poultry 4 points from their opening three Euro 2000 qualifiers. The group was headed by Sweden who’d beaten England in Stockholm and held a 2 point lead in the table with a game in hand, but Keegan projected his usual air of self confidence and insisted England would qualify.

In March 1999 Keegan strode out to the Wembley dugout chest puffed out for his first game as manager, ready to face England’s most familiar qualifying opponents; Poland. Scholes slid onto a through ball to put England 1 up after 12 minutes, 10 minutes later he headed home a Beckham cross and England were in charge. The Poles pulled a goal back before half time but England bossed the second half and Scholes completed his only England hat trick on 70 minutes to finish off the Poles in a 3-1 win.

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Keegan had to wait another 3 months for the biggest qualifier- a chance for revenge at home against Sweden. The Swedes arrived at Wembley holding a 100 percent record in the group.  Injuries dictated team selection and Keegan made the bizarre decision to include Tim Sherwood in his starting 11.

It was a turgid ill tempered match with Scholes making a predictably poor tackle and being sent off early in the second half. It ended 0-0 with England’s chances of winning the group disappearing down the Wembley tunnel with Scholes. It was now about finishing second and winning a play off.

Even finishing second started to look difficult when England drew their next qualifier later that week in Bulgaria.  When September came around England needed maximum points from their remaining 2 qualifiers. The first was easy- Luxembourg at home, the open goal was duly accepted and England won 6-0, leading to the regular event of an England qualifying campaign ending with the need to ‘get a result in Poland.’

The teams were level on points but crucially Poland had one more game to play whilst England’s campaign would end that night in Warsaw. Keegan went with tried and trusted a 4-4-2 with Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler partnering Shearer in attack and Fowler’s old pal Steve McManaman on the left. Poland played for the draw, England huffed and puffed but Fowler and Shearer weren’t a natural pairing and England struggled to create anything of note. In the 84th minute David Batty was red carded and Poland got more interested in winning but England held out for a 0-0.

England’s qualification rested on Poland losing their last game away to Sweden (who’d already qualified) and then getting it right in the playoffs, most fans consigned the campaign to failure and started thinking about the 2002 World Cup.

But it was at this point fate slipped Kevin Keegan an ace; Poland crashed 2-0 in Sweden, with Celtic’s Henrik Larsson injury time goal guaranteeing  England a place in the play off draw. At UEFA HQ the draw was made, the first team drawn from the pot of 8 was Scotland and there was something in inevitable about who was drawn to play them. It was an Auld Enemy clash to decide a place at Euro 2000 and all talk of 2002 was on hold, England suddenly expected.

The first leg would be held in Scotland, as an icon of English football Keegan made for a convenient target for the Scots as match day approached and Keegan seemed to revel in the atmosphere, for the first time he looked truly comfortable as England manager and it had the effect of taking the pressure away from his players.

Come the game Keegan made another odd selection decision- picking Sol Campbell at right back in the absence of Gary Neville and Jamie Redknapp in the troublesome leftwing position.

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50,000 Scots crammed into Hampden Park baying for blood like an Alex Salmond wet dream. But Scottish hopes for a Braveheart inspired pitch battle were quickly muted.  A rangey cross from Campbell found Scholes who nipped in front of Colin Hendry and put England 1 up after 21 minutes. Despite their imbalanced looking side England outclassed Scotland, with the second goal arriving before half time; One Beckham cross, One Scholes header 2-0. England controlled the second half and rode off to Wembley with what looked like an unassailable 2 goal cushion.

Wembley was a sell out for the return match 4 days later, most went to Wembley in party spirits with the Scots already beaten for Keegan’s coronation as England’s saviour. Keegan made only 1 team change with Gareth Southgate replacing Martin Keown, the gamble of Campbell at righback had paid off and Keegan stayed with the winning formula from Hampden.

But Scotland hand’t read the script, they produced a stirring fightback and after Barry Ferguson had missed a gaping early chance, a Neil McCann cross found Don Hutchison and Scotland were back in it 2-1 (on aggregate) after 39 minutes. In the second half the Scots pushed for an equaliser, England looked rigid and unable to find a response sat further and further back, they almost paid for it- A close range Christian Dailly header ws brilliantly saved by Seaman and England just hung on for an aggregate win but a loss at Wembley to Scotland. It was an odd sobering night for England fans, qualification which looked lost a year earlier had been achieved but it had been a constant struggle

In truth the campaign had been awful with England only managing 3 wins in the group (2 against Luxembourg) 4 draws and that opening loss in Stockholm, indeed England finished 9 points adrift of Sweden. They’d only made the playoffs because Poland had blown it and when drawn against an unfancied Scotland they’d done it by the skin of their teeth.

It wasn’t neccasrily Keegan’s fault, Hoddle had dropped him in it with a lousy start, his options had been hugely debilitated by injuries and ill discipline, but there was little to suggest England would play the champagne football Keegan had previously brought to Newcastle.

But the most obvious deficiency Keegan had to wrestle with was the shocking lack of left sided options available to him. In the era before Ashley Cole but after Stuart Pearce (not that being 37 stopped Keegan calling him up!) England couldn’t produce a single left footed defender and few natural left wingers. Keegan often played Phil Neville at left back arguing he’s played their successfully for Manchester United, true but at United Neville had the marauding Ryan Giggs in front of him, he had no need to run the left corner and cross, with England he always had a right footed midfielder ahead of him meaning England leaned to the right more than a Donald Trump rally.

Keegan now had some respite through friendlies and time to prepare his team for the finals ahead, he also had a draw ceremony to attend. Given how England had sneaked into the tournament the seeding in the draw was low and fears were raised of a tough group, but again fortune favoured Keegan and England drew Germany, Romania & Portugal. Germany were a fading force whilst the Portuguese had a talented side but one with a reputation for under achievement, Romania had beaten England at the previous World Cup but were seen as an ageing side.

The friendly results were middling, Keegan chopped and changed without finding the combination to unlock the kind of football his club sides had often played. In the final friendly he opted to give youngsters Steven Gerrard & Gareth Barry their debuts. Gerrard impressed but more importantly the left footed Barry offered a possible solution to the left side issue, left footed and able to play at left back or left midfield Barry could have been the missing piece Keegan needed to complete his jigsaw.

Gerrard & Barry made the squad as did the recalled Steve McManaman (fresh from scoring in the Champions League final) and fit again Michael Owen. Owen had been the star of the previous World Cup campaign but often injured during the Euro qualification campaign. England were ready to roll.

England would start against Portugal or to give them their official title of the era Luis Figo’s Portugal.  Keegan again opted for Phil Neville at left back with McManaman on the left wing, alongside Scholes, Beckham, Owen & Shearer this was a very attack minded side with Seaman, Adams & Campbell & the Neville brothers only screened by the ageing Ince.

England got off to a perfect start, a 3rd minute Beckham cross was headed home by Scholes 1-0. Beckham was the best player on the pitch and 15 minutes later he crossed again for McManaman to volley home. 20 minutes gone 2-0 up what do you do? If you’re managed by Keegan you push men forward for a third. But with England in the ascendancy the ball broke to Figo who ran unchallenged through England’s half and blasted home from 25 yards, 2-1. From then on Portugal had the upper hand playing in a flexible 4-3-3 England were simply out numbered in midfield, on 37 minutes a fine team move saw Rui Costa float a perfect cross for Joao Pinto to head home 2-2 at half time.

During the break Keegan sent Peter Beardsley of his coaching staff out for the interview who gave the insightful soundbite “2-0 is often a dangerous lead to have.”  The second half saw England unable to regain their mojo and Portugal got the winner on 59 minutes when Nuno Gomes slid home 2-3. England had blown it, they were too open too cavalier and got caught out whilst on top and Keegan faced a storm of criticism.

Next up were Germany, the game was hugely hyped and the fixture inevitably was the one England fans had circled. But this was not the Germany of old or more specifically it was an Old Germany. Incredibly Lothar Matthaus was captain aged 39, elsewhere they had Liverpool pair Christian Ziege & Didi Hamann, the dour midfield duo Jens Jeremies & Mehmet Scholl, giant striker Carstan Janker who had a turning circle bigger than an oil tanker and the deceptively slow Ulf Kirsten.

Keegan made 2 team changes dropping McManaman for the more workmanlike Dennis Wise and replacing the injured Adams with club mate Martin Keown. The first half was tepid, England went close when Owen headed a Phil Neville cross from the edge of the box but little else of note happened.

On 53 minutes a Beckham free kick found Shearer on the left of the box who headed a low effort past Oliver Kahn 1-0. Germany fought back and Keegan perhaps learning from his mistake against Portugal dug his side in replacing Owen with Gerrard who marked the occasion with crunching tackle that left Hamann “screaming like a girl.’ Germany had little cutting edge and England had done it!

1728275_w2Germany were beaten and a draw from the Romania game would see them into the quarter finals. Keegan again had a change forced on him- Seaman got injured before the game and Nigel Martyn played in goal. Romania made a fast start and Christian Chivu headed home from close range after 22 minutes. England laboured but won a penalty which Shearer despatched on 41 minutes, then on the verge of halftime a break through the centre saw Owen burst forward and tap home a second 2-1 at the break.

England had looked ragged, struggling with their passing and lacking the fluency of the Romanians. They needed an improved performance in the second half but got a poor start when a weak Martyn clearance fell to Dorinel Muntaneu who lashed in an equaliser. Romania swept forward, England repelled with Martyn partly atoning for his error with a series of fine saves. There was little tactical advice from the sideline with Keegan instead encouraging his players to stand tall, it was a disjointed performance but the result was enough so long as nobody did something silly at the death, enter Phil Neville. The young fullback committed a clumsy tackle in the box and the referee pointed to the spot Ionel Ganea put away the penalty and England were out.

article-2028286-002B588500000258-365_634x411The knives were out and England’s poor tournament was ridiculed, Keegan took the brickbats and prepared for the new season. Shearer retired from international duty that summer depriving Keegan of his captain, he was replaced with Adams.

Preparing for England’s first game of the new campaign (a friendly against France) Keegan gave an interview saying he’d needed time after the Euros to lick his wounds and then gave an odd analogy to his current predicament saying “Sometimes a boxer gets off the canvas to fightback and land the knockout blow, I want to be that boxer’. The unfortunate thing with that analogy is of course more often than not a floored boxer gets up just to stumble around in a trance, take more punishment and fall flat on the canvas as the referee decides he’s had enough. And here were Germany rocking up at Wembley to start World Cup qualifying.

Despite a credible 1-1 draw with newly crowned World & European Champions France hopes for Keegan’s side heading into qualifying weren’t high. On the eve of the game Keegan made yet another surprise selection- picking defender Gareth Southgate as a defensive midfielder, Southgate had only played that position briefly in his early career at Crystal Palace but had spent the last 5 years as a centre half at Aston Villa.

Wembley was sold out as usual but this was more than a qualifier, it was Germany and it was the old ground’s final England game. The German’s were little changed from the summer encounter but did have a new coach in Rudi Voller and the sides kicked off in a light London drizzle.

Germany won a free kick 30 yards from goal, Hamann stepped up and lashed a low shot that skidded around the wet surface, was fluffed by Seaman and squirmed into the England net 0-1.

England responded with chances falling to Andy Cole & Captain Adams before half time but to no avail. In the second half Keegan brought on Barry and changed shape to nearer a 3-5-2 but the second half was a turgid affair with England pushing, Germany hanging in and occasionally breaking forward, a couple of long range efforts from Beckham were as close as England got, the game ended 0-1 and as Keegan trudged down the Wembley tunnel he was heckled by a small group of fans, he looked up clearly hurt by it and disappeared into the dressing room. Soon after FA chief Adam Crozier was called in and after short delay Keegan faced the press declaring he’d resigned as manager.

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In his resignation speech Keegan gave a heartfelt thanks to the FA & his players for their support and effort but also declared he felt he just wasn’t quite good enough for international management. It was a staggeringly honest assessment of his reign and one few managers would dare admit but he was probably correct in what he said.

I like most were relieved it was over and that’s the saddest thing about Keegan’s time with England. Most respected his brutal honesty and accepted England should move on without him although there was criticism that he was leaving 4 days ahead of England’s second qualifier in Finland. The most surprised person at Wembley that day was probably Howard Wilkinson who arrived Under 21s Manager and left in temporary charge of the senior side.

Soon after Crozier crossed the Rubicon (quite literally) in appointing Lazio boss Sven-Goran Eriksson as England’s first overseas manager. England would go on to qualify for the World Cup, beating Germany 5-1 in Munich 11 months later. Keegan resurfaced the following year at Manchester City, a great name of English football fallen on hard times, a typical Keegan project. He took them to promotion and into their new Stadium but crucially left before the Abu Dhabi billions rolled in. His most recent management stint was an ill advised return to Newcastle in 2008 where he fell out with Mike Ashley.

Looking back on Keegan’s time with England the biggest problem seemed to be his pushing square pegs into round holes; Campbell at right back, Neville & Redknapp on the left, Southgate in midfield to name a few.

But also there was a lack of a defined team shape, like a lot of England managers he correctly identified the best 11 players and simple put them out on the pitch. In Michael Cox’s recent book ‘The Mixer’ Cox reviewed Keegan’s time at Newcastle pointing out their problem in that title near miss of 1996 was the team lacked a defined shape and scheme and Keegan simply fitted it around the best 11 players, a particular problem when they signed Batty & ‘tino Asprilla. You could certainly see a similar pattern in his England tenure.

There were also problems with his coaching staff, Keegan wanted Arthur Cox as assistant  but the FA refused on the grounds of Cox’s age. Notably after Keegan left Crozier recruited top coaches Brian Kidd & Sammy Lee to work with the as yet unnamed new England Manager. A similar policy when Keegan was in charge would have helped, I can’t help thinking had he had a top line coach to help with his own short comings (Kidd or Ray Harford say) things might have been different.

In a recent interview Keegan gave some interesting insight into his management at Newcastle. On taking the job he noticed the training ground was run down and decrepit so he immediately persuaded Sir John Hall to invest £40k in having the dressing rooms retiled, cleaned and out dated equipment replaced over the weekend. It had the desired effect lifting spirits amongst the squad and Keegan used such incentives to motivate his players as he rebuilt the club.

It was a great trick at a run down Newcastle but not the sort of thing that works with top level players at Wembley (where I”m sure the floors have a nice polish). And of course at international level he didn’t have the fantasy football chequebook of Sir John to back him up. Whilst his shortcomings in tactics and team shape came into far sharper focus at international level.

Kevin Keegan the England player is a legend, arguably the best his country as ever produced, as a manager he said it himself he just wasn’t quite up to it. He did however achieve England’s only tournament victory over Germany since 1966 and for one night only We Loved it when we beat them! LOVED IT!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

England’s fullback options

Probably the strongest unit England have at present there should be strong competition for places between now and the World Cup:

Leftbacks– One player is nailed on, but there’s a lot of competition behind him.
1. Danny Rose– Developed beyond anyones expectations last season with Tottenham, looks the best left back in the Premier League and unassailable for England. Will miss the September internationals but will be guaranteed the start on his return.

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2. Ryan Bertrand- Solid and dependable at club level, Bertrand has looked at ease with international football and remains England’s best left back going back towards his own goal. Not great with set pieces though.

3. Luke Shaw- Since being hailed as Ashley Cole’s heir apparent Shaw has endured a rotten time at Man United through poor form, horrific injury and worst of all the wrath of Jose Mourinho. Will miss the start of the season with injury but will be favourite for the left back slot at Old Trafford following a softening of his manager’s stance. If this season doesn’t work out a January transfer wouldn’t be a shock.

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4. Joe Gomez- Another young player who’s suffered with long term injuries, the difference being Gomez has the confidence and support of Jurgen Klopp. With only the more attack minded Andy Robertson as a direct rival Gomez should get plenty of starts this season, a first cap might not be far behind.

5. Aaron Cresswell- The good news is he finally got a game against France, the bad news is Southgate didn’t trust him with anything more than a cameo. At 27 it’s hard to see him improving much and the defensive concerns are not likely to go away. Has 2 caps though!

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6. Leighton Baines- Great going forward, useful with a dead ball, flawed in defence, only an injury crisis would see him recalled.
7. Ben Chilwell- Had a good tournament with the Under 21s this summer. Chilwell has a good chance of dislodging the wonderfully named Christian Fuchs at Leicester this season. Defensive work needs improvement but a fine crosser of the ball, more likely to stay in the Under 21s for now.

8. Ryan Sessegnon– The 17 year old was England’s star man in the Under 19s summer triumph. Sessegnon is a special talent but the World Cup will probably come too soon. Either through promotion or transfer Sessegnon will be a premier league starter in a years time, by which time he’ll have 70+ senior game behind him. A starter for England at Euro 2020.

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Right backs– in truth this looks like 2 from the top 3, but there’s plenty of young talent coming through the ranks.
1. Kyle Walker-  He’s worth £50 million! In reality he isn’t but he has developed into a top class right back. Walker will start at City and with England, has power and pace although does suffer the odd brain fart. A World Cup certainty.Kyle+Walker+England+v+Netherlands+International+7lnMl2Kgwiol
2. Nathaniel Clyne- Needs to improve after an underwhelming year at Liverpool. His last good game I remember was against Slovakia at the Euros! Currently injured and may have to fend off Joe Gomez to regain his Liverpool place. On uncertain ground.

3. Kieran Trippier– impressed on debut and usurped Walker at Spurs toward the end of last season. Has Superior crossing ability to Walker & Clyne but defensive concerns continue, will be under the microscope this season.

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4. Mason Holgate- Underwhelmed with his crossing at the Euro Under 21s but retains a strong chance of a regular start at Everton. Will stay with the Under 21s for now.
5. Jonjoe Kenny- Had a great summer with the Under 20s but yet to make a first team impression at Everton. May need a loan move to the Championship this season but looks a future star.

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6. Carl Jenkinson- Desperately needs a move having failed to make an impression at Arsenal, perhaps he moved up the leagues too soon, but there is a good player there for someone. Has been sat on a solitary cap for 5 years.

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7. Ainsley Maitland-Niles– It’s way too soon to be in line for a senior call up but could be a breakout player this season. His talent is clear to see but for now it’ll be Europa League group games and the league cup.

 

England’s attacking midfield options

The key department in the England squad, right now England’s senior team doesn’t have a central midfield unit to match the craft and guile of France, Spain or Germany. But the advanced midfielders and wingers provide a threat to worry the best with pace and skill.

  1. Dele Alli- A world class number 10 in the making although he’s yet to truly show his best at international level. If only England’s number 9 was on his wavelength like a club partnership, oh wait…England v Turkey - International Friendly
  2. Adam Lallana- far and away England’s most creative player, Lallana had evolved into a high tempo midfielder under Jurgen Klopp whilst England play him slightly further forward depending more on his creativity to unlock defences. Nailed on starter next summer.thumb_22527_default_news_size_5
  3. Raheem Sterling- Enjoyed a much improved second season at Manchester City (possibly because he had a manager who actually did done coaching!) Sterling faces challenges for his place at club level (more so if the buy Alexis Sanchez) whilst the likes of Gray and Redmond will be snapping at his heels for England. Must be mindful to keep his place.
  4. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain- Had a good run-in last season with Arsenal but still not guaranteed a place in the team after 6 years at the Emirates, where he’s scored a total of 9 League goals! For England the Ox is a great option off the bench when played as a direct attacking winger- evidenced by his goal against Scotland and that memorable strike in the Maracana) but clearly not a central midfielder as evidenced in the Stade de France.Englands-Alex-Oxlade-Chamberlain-celebrates-scoring-their-first-goal
  5. Jesse Lingard- A hard working winger with the happy knack of scoring in cup finals, Lingard has been schooled in the Alex Ferguson academy of ‘do a job’ players (previous graduates include Danny Welbeck, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Brian McClair). Hopefully he has a role beyond patrolling the flank for the final 20 minutes of a big game, but yet to show he can do more than that for England. The imminent arrival of Ivan Perisic at Old Trafford may push him further down the pecking order.
  6. Wayne Rooney– Is there anything left to say here? Southgate has handled Rooney well and the days of him being shoehorned into the England team look to be over. Should do well at Everton but their opening Europa League game suggested his rejuvenation has limits. In top form he may just get back in.
  7. Ross Barkley- Needs to move, now! Barkley is clearly done at Everton but where next remains unclear, would he get a regular start at a team better than Everton? Probably not. There is a great talent in there but needs a lot of coaching- if a move to Spurs is a realistic option he should camp outside Mauricio Pochettino’s porch.Ross+Barkley+England+v+Netherlands+International+M1JG7iZ-E3Gl
  8. Demarai Gray- Wonderful to watch in full flow, Gray is a player I’d like to see make the cut; tricky, quick and with a potent shot he could be the player to challenge Sterling for a place in the first 11. But first he needs to be in the first 11 at Leicester and that means unseating Riyad Mahrez. Craig Shakespeare has promised Gray more chances next season but I suspect he’s one of the players whose club future will be decided by the ripple effect of Neymar’s possible move to PSG (see also Coutinho, Mahrez, Sanchez & Lemar to name a few).
  9. Nathan Redmond- A Southgate favourite from the Under 21’s don’t be surprised to see him get a second cap this autumn, I suspect Redmond is a bit too one dimensional for international football but a strong season at Southampton and he could build a strong case for inclusion.England-U21-Nathan-Redmond-640x400
  10. Michael Antonio- How depressed will he have been at Big Sam’s England demise! Antonio has been in the squad, warn the tracksuit, not got a cap. Antonio’s strength and pace may yet get him a look in, may be better suited to playing on the right of midfield in a 3-4-3. Either way needs a good season at West Ham.
  11. Theo Walcott- It’s almost 9 years since his brilliant hat trick in Zagreb. Since then Walcott has scored 5 international goals and played at 1 major tournament (Euro 2012). Walcott’s disappointing England career provides an acute metaphor of England’s disappointing decade of 2006-2016, Southgate picked him for his first 2 internationals and has since rightly looked elsewhere. But a 20 goal season at Arsenal and…
  12. Ademola Lookman- A £7.5 million transfer and a World Cup win, it’s been quite a 2017 for the ex Charlton youngster. Has a club manager who’ll trust in youth and facing a long season (should they make it to the Europa League group stages). Lookman should get plenty of chances to shine, but the Under 21s look the most likely route for now.
  13. Josh Onomah- Could just copy and paste Lookman’s situation for Onomah, may find early opportunities this season at Spurs with both Erik Lamela & Son Heung-min injured, again this World Cup is probably a bit too soon for him.josh-onomah-england-12072016_19zrcqmej44qx1kpogipvm66g3
  14. Phil Foden- Amazing what a brilliant pre season appearance can do for a player. Foden is hugely gifted and may eventually replace David Silva, but the star of England’s Under 17s may have to wait for the League Cup to make a first team case at Citeh.
  15. Andros Townsend- We should finally be able to close the door on him as an England winger. Townsend made a great start to his England career in those final 2014 World Cup qualifiers but his club career has rarely measured up to that standard. Townsend has been a great Youtube player for England in 3 minute highlight reels due to his direct play and willingness to have a go from distance. But almost all his England appearances have been as an impact sub (brilliantly against Italy) or to make way for one after an ineffective 65 minutes. 13 caps & 3 goals is decent going but it probably ends there.

 

Ranking England’s centre midfield options

England’s biggest problem position going into a World Cup year is central midfield. Whether playing the default 4-2-3-1 or Plan B 3-4-3 the 2 in the middle remains a problem. We have plenty of options in the wide areas and a potentially great number 10 in Dele Alli, but holding and linking midfield roles are wide open, here are the runners and riders to solve the new riddle in the middle;

  1. Eric Dier– There are still concerns about Dier’s distribution when closed down and his two summer internationals were poor. But Dier remains England’s best defensive midfielder since Owen Hargreaves. Nailed on for next summer.4808794
  2. Jordan Henderson– An injury hit season raises questions about Hendo’s reliability. But he remains England’s best link-man between defence and attack. Needs a big season at Liverpool but in the squad at the very least.
  3. Jack Wilshere– When fit and firing England’s best midfielder, but Darren Anderton was fit and firing more often than Wilshere. England v Russia - Group B: UEFA Euro 2016Doesn’t look like he’s staying at Arsenal, of the potential suitors Sampdoria look the most appealing (playing in a technical slower paced league should work for him.)
  4. Jake Livermore- We can consider this season a failure for young English midfielders if Livermore is still 4th on this list in May. A solid defensive midfielder Livermore is for now in as the plan B Eric Dier, as I said-for now.
  5. James Ward-Prowse- The Southampton man had a good Under 21 championship, if he retains his place at Southampton under new boss Pellegrino he’s a shoe in for England this September, and Harry Kane will be pleased to knows he takes corners James Ward-Prowse Sweden Under-21
  6. Nathaniel Chalobah– finally plucked from the Chelsea loan farm, Chalobah picked smartly with Watford, a club with a dynamic young manager and where he’s already spent a year. Clearly on Southgate’s radar a good start to the new season should see a first cap.
  7. Tom Davies– Had a great breakout season last term, tellingly Everton requested he didn’t play for England this summer. But faces stiff competition in The Toffees new look midfield following the signing of Classen from Ajax. At 18 has time firmly on his side and may well spend next season in the Under 21s.3F0D077200000578-0-image-m-6_1491587755427
  8. Harry Winks– Tipped for a big season Winks faces tough competition in Spurs midfield but is working for the best talent developer in the game. Winks may eventually be the player that knits the England team together, but must be given time.
  9. Will Hughes– Finally getting his Premier League chance in tandem with Chalobah. Has power and a nice range of passing, having put his injury problems behind him will be one to watch.
  10. Lewis Cook- England’s World Cup winning captain (never get tired of saying that) endured a tough first season at Bournemouth mainly due to injury having previously racked up 85 first team appearances with Leeds. This season he should be more prominent, how much may determine how quickly he rises up England’s age group squads. Under 21s seems the logical step for this season but Cook may just be the most talented young midfielder England have got.
  11. Ruben Loftus-Cheek– Has enormous potential and wisely loaned out by Chelsea. At Crystal Palace he may find himself in direct competition with Jason Puncheon- so no guarantee he’ll start. Part of the problem with Loftus-Cheek is we just don’t know his best long term position, deep lying playmaker? Number 10? Or centre forward? We should get the answers this season.1368293-29359812-1600-900
  12. Fabian Delph– He was an England regular before moving to City. Delph had been unlucky with injuries and now playing for a manager who doesn’t rate him. Needs a move fast!
  13. Danny Drinkwater– Southgate doesn’t seem to rate him, needs a return to his title winning form to get back in, should be helped by the arrival of Vincente Iborra in Leicester’s midfield.drinkwater-england
  14. Michael Carrick- He’s 36 and has only accumulated 34 caps, but football’s Mr Marmite is guaranteed to get a mention every time England or Man Utd fail to pass the ball well (so pretty often last season). Surely his time has passed.
  15. Tom Cleverley- The Panda Cola Xavi is still hanging in there although his career trajectory tells it’s own story (Man Utd- Everton- Watford). But before he takes the next step in that sequence (Derby County), Cleverley will be the senior man in an intriguing Watford midfield with Hughes & Chalobah and if Marco Silva’s magic touch could work for Lazar Markovic then who knows?

6 England subplots to the new season

The Community Shield is a week on Sunday and thus starts a new season with a World Cup to finish it next July. Here are 6 England subplots to be played out in the club season.

England Number 1 battle

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After eight years as the uncontested England goalkeeper Joe Hart now faces a real battle to retain the England gloves. His move to West Ham should settle questions over his long term club future but Hart was poor during his loan spell with Torino. His shots saved percentage was notably lower than his England rivals (at 66%) and the mistakes that have dogged his recent career persisted.

Hart faces a battle on at least two fronts with Jack Butland back to fitness after his 15 month injury nightmare and £30million Jordan Pickford now playing for a rejuvenated Everton. Pickford's form last season was clearly superior to Hart and his performances in the Euro under 21's only enhanced his reputation. It's harder to judge Butland's form but his performance against France in June indicated he will be back to his best for Stoke this season.

Expect media interest in this contest to reach fever pitch in the opening weeks of the season as the date of England's qualifiers draws close. Right now I would back Butland to win.

Stepping Stones

Will John Stones improve in his second season at Manchester City? Stones was a huge disappointment last season, the mistakes piled up and then came the injuries. Meanwhile Gareth Southgate handed Michael Keane a debut and he quickly settled into the England team in the ball playing defender role.

Stones' cause will be helped be City buying an upgrade at goalkeeper , an entire personnel change at fullback and a fit Vincent Company. If Stones can't perform in that company he won't be playing in Russia next summer.

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World Cup winners to make waves?

Of all England's successful youth sides it's inevitably the Under 20 World Cup winners who'll garner the most attention. Dominic Solanke wasted little time this pre-season in opening his Liverpool account and with Champions League qualifiers making it a busy start to the season expect him to get early first team chances.

Elsewhere captain Lewis Cook will be expected to start for Bournemouth with The Cherries deciding against retaining Jack Wilshere. At Tottenham (or more accurately Wembley) winger Joshua Onomah could make an early impact with Erik Lamela & Heung-Min Son both injured.

England v Netherlands: U18 International Friendly

But it will be Everton's contingent that will likely make the biggest impression. Ronald Koeman has already shown he's confident in picking youngsters and Jonjoe Kenny may well get an early shot at rightback competing with Mason Holgate in the long term absence of Seamus Coleman. Kieran Dowell will find competiton fierce in the midfield department but Ademola Lookman will likely play early in the season on the wing and Dominic Calvert-Lewin may get an early chance following the sale of Romelu Lukaku.

Inevitably a lot of the Under 20 squad will be loaned to Championship clubs (lead my Freddy Woodman) and this stage of their careers that may be a good proving ground.

Rooney Rejuvenated?

I blogged earlier about the dangers of recalling Wayne Rooney. But his form for Everton could lead to a season long controversy over whether or not England take him to the World Cup. For this to happen Rooney clearly needs to improve on last season in terms of form and number of appearances.

One thing that should be come clear pretty early is where Everton will play him, with Lukaku sold there is a vacancy in the number 9 role but rumours persist of a heavyweight signing up front meaning Rooney may go back to playing number 10. Where Rooney plays for Everton should be the position he's considered for England not the crowbar him into the team policy we saw at Euro 2016.

His preseason performances have been encouraging playing as the main striker and bagging some nice goals, but the acid test will come when the season kicks off- particularly given Everton's tough start. This one could run and run.

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Foden to fly?

Despite spending a tidal wave of money the brightest preseason star for Manchester City has been England U-17 playmaker Phil Foden. Of course pre-season isn't the real thing but Foden has made enough of an impact for Pep Guadiola to make him part of his first team set up. Pep wasn't slow to give youth a chance at Barca nor Bayern and City will be itching to see a return on their £200 million academy investment.

Foden may well be a special talent but in his preferred number 10 role City currently have the brilliant David Silva occupying that position and spent £43 million on Bernardo Silva so the youngster faces an uphill battle.

I think Foden's first team chance will come in the League Cup and we'll see where he goes from there, but he might just be this season's Marcus Rashford.

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Chelsea kids finally let loose

This is the year we'll finally get to see Chelsea's all conquering academy make a mark in the Premier League, but of course it won't be with Chelsea.

Dom Solanke as mentioned earlier is now at Liverpool whilst Chelsea have loaned England under 21 stars Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Izzy Brown and Kasey Palmer to fellow Premier League clubs.

Loftus-Cheek in particular will be of interest to England having only seen glimpses of his talent over the last 2 years at Chelsea- notably the similarly aged Dele Alli was still at MK Dons when Loftus-Cheek made his Chelsea debut, he really needs to make up for lost time.

Lewis Baker also looks like getting his Premier League chance with, shock horror Chelsea! But he will be competing with Eden Hazard and Pedro, but with the added burden of the Champions League and so many players leaving Stamford Bridge he may get significant game time.

But most surprising was Chelsea's decision to sell Nathaniel Chalobah to Watford for a bargain £5 million. Chalobah is clearly already in Southgate's sights as a future star and must now be a serious World Cup contender if he impresses for his new club. Chalobah's case is helped by Watford also buying in his old Under 21 midfield partner Will Hughes.  Expect the England manager to be a frequent visitor at Vicarage Road in the coming months.

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Top 10 English players who didn’t make it with England.

A look back at the players who were sensations for their clubs but somehow never quite worked for the National Side, in no particular order here are the players who many expected to be England greats but barely figured and why.

1.Matt Le Tissier (Caps 8 Goals 0)

Le God to Southampton fans Matt Le Tissier was the most creative English forward of the 1990s. Blessed with skill, vision and a remarkable tendency to score spectacular goals Le Tissier never quite made it with England.

Le Tissier was named young PFA Young player of the year in 1990 but Bobby Robson overlooked Le Tissier for his Italia '90 squad largely on the grounds he already had one maverick young talent in the squad in Gazza and couldn't accommodate two. Sadly for Le Tissier, Robson was succeeded by Graham Taylor a man famous for direct long ball tactics and not a fan of creative strikers and in 3 years never called up Le Tissier.

Then Terry Venables rolled into Wembley, Le Tissier was in and surely this was the belated start of a great England career right, wrong! As Venables experimented to shape a more creative side he like Robson saw Le Tissier and Gascoigne couldn't work in the same team and he only had room for 1 luxury player. Le Tissier lacked Gascoigne's work rate and Venables soon hit on the stronger Teddy Sheringham in the deep lying forward role behind Alan Shearer.

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When Glenn Hoddle took over after Euro '96 many again expected Le Tissier to shine, after all Hoddle the player was cut from the same cloth and also struggled to make an impact in England teams who favoured industry over art. Le Tissier started a World Cup Qualifier against Italy at Wembley in the autumn of 1997 but again was frustrated and England crashed 1-0 and calls for Le God died down. But on the brink of France '98 Le Tissier was thrown lifeline, a pre tournament call up to England B to play Russia B- this time Le Tissier delivered a sensational hat trick. And with Gazza out of shape Le Tissier looked like getting his World Cup chance, Sadly it was not to be and Hoddle didn't bring him into his provisional 30 man squad never mind the final 22.  I've always thought Le Tissier should have gone to that World Cup after Gascoigne was excluded, England looked short on artistry in the centre and whilst Le Tissier was hardly the man to bring on having gone down to 10 men against Argentina he could have played a tournament role as an impact sub.

What did for Le Tissier was his lack of pace and work rate so he will always be known as a great English player (and Goal of the month's most frequent winner) but not a great England player.

2. Steve Bruce (0 Caps)

It represents a startling fall from grace to think England never called up Bruce but in more recent years had Chris Smalling, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott starting in central defence at major tournaments. Bruce formed one half of the best central defensive partnership (with Gary Pallister) in the early years of the Premier League, winning 3 of the first 4 titles.

So why no England career? Mainly because by the time Bruce emerged as a star defender (1991) Italia '90 stalwarts Des Walker & Mark Wright had enormous credit in the bank whilst Bruce's pacier partner Pallister & Arsenal skipper Tony Adams were also in the squad, by Euro '92 Martin Keown was also in contention and at 32 Bruce was considered too old to start an international career.

Bruce not the best defender in possession wasn't helped by the outlawing of the back pass rule which favoured defenders who were good in possession, at United Bruce had Peter Schmicheal in goal who's long throws upfield and (sometimes ill advised) attempts to play the ball with his feet meant Bruce didn't need to to be good on the ball, with England it may have proved more of a problem. Plus through the early 90's England managers liked the cohesion provided by an Arsenal dominated defence (Seaman, Adams, Keown, Dixon).

Still a trophy laden playing career and successful twin careers in football management and literature (smirk) aren't bad compensation.

3. Malcolm MacDonald (14 caps, 6 goals)

After Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer had taken Newcastle down in 2009, I really thought 'Super Mac' might be the next Geordie Messiah handed the managers job at St James Park, after Sting but before Jimmy Nail.

MacDonald was phenomenal for Newcastle in the early '70s, a staggeringly quick forward he scored 95 goals in just 187 games for the Magpies before moving to Arsenal where he racked up another 42 in 84 games.  But for England he never quite got going, first called up by Sir Alf Ramsey in 1972 he made his debut against Wales but made little impression under Ramsey or short term successor Joe Mercer. The reason being despite a lack of talented English players in that era one place England didn't lack was upfront with Martin Chivers, Alan Clarke & Mick Channon.

When Don Revie took over Super Mac was initially left out again but Revie did bring him in during a hot streak in 1975. MacDonald repaid him with his first international goal (against World Champions West Germany!) Next up MacDonald was retained for a qualifier against Cyprus and set a post war record scoring 5 goals, woof!! But great as that sounds it was the footballing equivalent of a batsman scoring 200 against Bangladesh (Greame Hick probably did that?!) Super Mac played 5 more games for Revie without scoring and England looked elsewhere.

Perhaps MacDonald deserved better particularly early on in his career, might he have been the sub to break through the Polish wall in that infamous 1973 match? You never know.

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4. Andy Cole (15 Caps, 1 goal)

The most device player of the Premier League era, some argue Cole's goal scoring statistics stack up against anyone but then there are those of us who watched him play.

For all the jokes levelled at Cole his scoring record for Newcastle was phenomenal; 55 goals in 70 games! Cole's club form earned him a call up from Terry Venables but he drew a blank and didn't make the cut for Euro '96.

But by that time Cole had moved to Manchester United where despite playing alongside Cantona, Giggs & Beckham he mustered 17 goals in his first 2 full seasons . Eventually Cole rallied to score 93 goals in his Man Utd career, but his misses were amazing most notably his barn door performance at West Ham that ultimately cost his side the 1995 League title.

His England career was acutely summed up by Glenn Hoddle who claimed he needed "6 or 7 chances to score." Predictably he never found the net for Hoddle or Kevin Keegan (for whom he'd performed so well at Newcastle) and he missed out on the '98 World Cup and Euro 2000.

Sven-Goran Eriksson offered Cole a fresh chance but predictably he missed it. Cole started in Eriksson's early World Cup qualifiers and actually scored (but it was only against Albania). By the time qualification was secured Cole was dropping down the pecking order. Finally Eriksson omitted Cole from his World Cup squad and laughably within an hour of the announcement Cole declared he was retiring from International football (only 60 minutes after Sven had thoughtfully done it for him).  Andy's record of 1 goal from 15 caps really does speak for itself, still he's got a nice medal collection though.

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5. Stan Bowles (5 Caps, 1 Goals)

There aren't many true facts in the 'Damned United' but the scene where Billy Bremner asks Brian Clough the game plan against QPR and Clough replies 'Stop Stan Bowles!' is at least a true fact (not necessarily that Clough said it).

One of the trio of English footballs '70s mavericks (along side Alan Hudson & Charlie George) Bowles star burned brighter and surprisingly longer than his peers. At QPR is outrageous skill made him a legend, with England it raised suspicion.  He made is debut aged 25 in Sir Alf's final game as manager. He went on to make only 4 more appearances and scored just once.

It's a shame given his undoubted talent but a maverick on and off the pitch didn't really fit with England or Don Revie, Bowles later recalled he and Hudson broke curfew on England duty much to Revie's annoyance and it's hard to believe he had much time for the managers dossiers on opposition players. Bowles eventually played for Clough at Notts Forest but the two fell out and Bowles only played 19 times for Forest (it seems Stan was the one thing Revie & Clough did agree on).

His liking for a pint didn't do Bowles any favours with England, never the fittest player Bowles' appearance on 'Superstars' saw him lose to James Hunt- a man who had sex for breakfast and sat in a car for a living! Maybe that's not the man you need to take on Franz Beckenbauer; sad but probably true.

Bowles is currently struggling with Alzheimers disease, every football fan with a heart must wish him well.

6. Lee Bowyer (1 Cap, 0 goals)

Bowyer emerged in the late '90s as a dominant midfielder with the work rate and skill to rival Steven Gerrard. Bowyer scored an impressive 6 goals from midfield in Leeds' unlikely run the Champions League semi finals as David O'Leary's young side turned heads around Europe. At the time England had a settled first choice midfield with Beckham, Gerrard & Scholes but behind them options were thin on the ground (even Kieron Dyer was called up!) Yet Bowyer remained absent.

The reason for Bowyer's exclusion was a controversial court case where Bowyer and teammate Jonathan Woodgate stood trial for GBH. Remarkably Bowyer played whilst the trial was ongoing and produced some of his best football. Bowyer was cleared of the charges but with his reputation stained (not helped by previous incidents in Leeds & London). Whilst the case was ongoing (and it lasted almost 2 years) the FA barred Bowyer from England selection, after the trial he was finally called up.

He was picked to play a friendly against Portugal and provided the cross for Leeds teammate Alan Smith to score, it seemed Bowyer had finally arrived with England. Unfortunately it turned out he was finishing off with them; in the aftermath of the trial Bowyer fell out with Leeds over a fine and was soon shipped out to West Ham and eventually settled with Newcastle. But Bowyer couldn't rekindle the form that made him one of the best midfielders in the country and his career sank into mediocrity.

One way or another it would seem that infamous night out in Leeds cost Bowyer an England career.

7. Dave Beasant (2 Caps)

Beasant's career was real Roy of the Rovers stuff. Starting at Edgware Town he moved to 4th division Wimbledon in 1979. He would stay for the whole Crazy Gang ride from the bottom of the football pyramid to the first division and finally FA Cup winners. And it was Beasant Wimbledon had to thank- making history by saving a penalty from John Aldridge as they ran out 1-0 winners at Wembley.

Beasant developed a reputation as a great penalty stopper and was consistently amongst the top 'keepers in the first division during the late '80s. Eventually England came calling and in 1989 Beasant aged 30 made his debut against Yugoslavia. He was initially left out of the Italia '90 squad but an injury to David Seaman meant he got in as the number 3 'keeper. Beasant spent the entire tournament (even the 3rd place playoff game) on the bench, after the tournament he never represented England again.

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The problem here was spending his early career in the lower divisions meant he stayed off the international radar and it took a few years in the top division before he was truly recognised as a top 'keeper rather than a lower league player got lucky. By that time Peter Shilton was unshakable as number one and Bobby Robson had Chris Woods earmarked as the long term replacement as early as 1985. It's a tough ask to break into a national side at goalkeeper and Robson was a man who rarely rotated in goal.

At the 2014 World Cup Louis Van Gaal took the odd decision to substitute his goalkeeper purely for the upcoming penalty shoot out. The move worked and Tim Krul saved a spot kick sending Holland to a World Cup semi final. I've always thought Robson should have done the same in that Italia '90 semi; Beasant might just have got to one and who knows- it couldn't have been worse than Shilton's cunning plan to wait until the German player fired his missile at the top corner before reacting!

8. Tony Cottee (7 caps, 0 goals)

Tony Cottee was hailed England's next big thing after emerging from West Ham's famed academy in the mid '80s. The problem for Cottee was his game was very similar to England's current big thing of the time; Gary Lineker.

In 1986 aged 21 Cottee was named PFA young player of the year following a prolific season at West Ham bagging 20 goals at the Hammers reached the giddy heights of 3rd place in Division 1. In the same year Lineker scored 30 for Everton who finished 2nd and reached the cup final. Lineker went to the World Cup won the Golden Boot and signed for Barcelona.

At the start of the following season Cottee made his England debut as a sub and he managed 22 strikes for West Ham in a deadly partnership with Frank McAvennie. But with Lineker almost never injured or out of form further England chances were thin on the ground.

Two years on Cottee finally left West Ham for Lineker's old gig at Goodison Park- surely his chance at the bigtime. Unfortunately he joined Everton a year too late and the Howard Kendall glory era was starting to fade. Cottee did score a respectable 72 goals in 6 seasons on Merseyside but it wasn't quite the prolific stay he needed. Cotten finally made his first England start in 1989 against Scotland at Hampden Park, but he didn't find the back of net, unfortunately for him England debutant Steve Bull did score that day and got the final forward's spot in the Italia '90 squad.

Cottee never played for England again, he did play on in the Premier League all the way until 2001 (aged 36) before dropping down the divisions and retiring. His last 3 premier league seasons were spent at Leicester City with Walkers Crisps emblazoned on his jersey, the irony.

9. Michael Bridges (0 Caps)

Some reading this will say Michael who? Bridges is on this for what he promised to be rather than what he achieved. Emerging in 1998 at then high flying  Sunderland, Bridges had the vision to play as a number 10 but the pace and finish to be a number 9 drawing early comparisons to Dennis Bergkamp.

His talent didn't go unnoticed and aged just 21 he was signed by David O'Leary's Leeds for £5 million. O'leary claimed Bridges was a long term project but after selling Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink that summer Bridges was in the first team and immediately bagged a hat trick. He finished his first season with 21 goals as Leeds made an unlikely title challenge and UEFA cup semi final.

An England call up was mooted for early next season (many of his young teammates were by now full internationals) but then disaster struck. Bridges was stretchered off in a Champions League group game in October and didn't play again that season. An endless cycle of injury and rehab began and he made only 10 appearances over the next 4 years.

After that Bridges began to drop down the divisions even faster than Leeds and was last seen playing at the beautifully named Lambton Jaffas in his native North East. For England Under 21s he played 11 times (all in those 2 seasons at Sunderland & Leeds) netting 3 times. Injury has wrecked many a career but few in such frustrating circumstances as with Bridges who showed so much in such a brief period.

There are a few other examples of young English players most notably Manchester City's Paul Lake who showed immense promising leading Citeh out of the Second Division aged just 21, hailed by some as a successor to Bryan Robson as an all action midfielder Lake suffered a anterior cruciate ligament (sounds painful), played 4 games in 6 years and Robson was succeeded with England by Carlton Palmer, something we should all mourn.

10. Wilfried Zaha (2 caps, 0 goals)

The only current player on this list Zaha first emerged at Crystal Palace aged 18 and over 3 seasons built a reputation as a dynamic winger, so much so he was given a senior England debut and a transfer to Manchester United. He turned out to be Sir Alex Ferguson's last signing at United before being loaned back to Palace.

The problem was by the time he arrived at United David Moyes had taken over and Zaha's risky exotic style no longer fit in Manchester. He was soon loaned and eventually sold back to Palace and demoted back down to the Under 21's. There he had a punch up with Ravel Morrison and showed an attitude that allegedly saw him fall out with Pearce and teammates alike.

At the start of last season Zaha's stock had fallen and few saw him as an potential England player after falling behind new young attackers Marcus Ashford & Demarai Gray but a sudden return to form had many thinking recall and then something unexpected happened, Zaha switched allegiance to the Ivory Coast.

Zaha was born in the African republic and qualified for both nations and as both of his senior caps were in friendlies FIFA approved the switch. Whether of not Zaha goes on to be a true world class player remains to be seen but he has the raw talent despite occasionally being let down by a lack of focus. It's a shame we won't get to find out with England, but at least he can entertain at the Cup of Nations.

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New Season- England manager’s to do list

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With a season to go until the World Cup Gareth Southgate has plenty to do. Here’s the key things he chronologically needs to sort out before the World Cup.

  1. Pick a captain. The importance of the captaincy is of course massively overstated, it seems to be important to some of the press and fans (expect Five Live phone-ins to be lit up with black and white cab drivers insisting it’s the biggest decision the manager will ever make) but ask any player or anyone associated with football outside of England and they’ll say it’s not important. However it’s daft to have Wayne Rooney; a player not currently in the squad listed as captain. Harry Kane appears the most likely option as the current Tottenham captain and one of only 2 players guaranteed a place in the side (the other being club mate Dele Alli). Southgate can save himself a lot of grief in the press by picking his captain before the Malta game this September.
  2. Qualify. Obvious and the absolute minimum requirement for an England manager as Steve McClaren, Graham Taylor and even Sir Alf could all testify. England’s remaining away games are against the two weakest sides in their group (Malta & Lithuania) whilst the only sides who could realistically beat England to top spot (Slovakia & Slovenia) both have to visit to Wembley. If England win both their games this September they may find themselves needing only a point from the two October games (Slovenia Lithuania) to ensure qualification. Given the issues to resolve within the team before the World Cup Southgate would benefit from using the final qualifiers as glorified friendlies. England really need to avoid the playoffs given the at least two from Italy, Spain, France, Holland & Sweden will be there with the likes of Croatia, Portugal and Ireland currently sitting second in their qualifying groups.
  3. Decide on a number one. Joe Hart’s tenure as automatic first choice goalkeeper is surely over despite Southgate public backing his man. England have two highly talented young keepers in Jordan Pickford & Jack Butland but neither has played a Champions League game (although Pickford will play in the Europa League this season) and 4 caps between them (all Butland’s). Southgate’s problem is he has to choose between these 2 players quickly in order to give one of them enough caps before the World Cup. Fraser Forster and Tom Heaton complete England’s current complement of ‘keepers, the number one will be largely decided by club form but Southgate has to get it right.
  4. Find a centre back pairing. England has struggled in central defence at their last two tournaments, Southgate needs to find the right combination for a back 4 and preferred trio when flexed to a 3-4-3 formation. At present Gary Cahill is the only guaranteed a place even in the England squad despite ongoing concerns over his international pedigree. John Stones is a hugely talented playmaker but needs a much improved second season at Manchester City whilst Michael Keane made a good start to his England career but must adapt to a new team at Everton. Chris Smalling & Phil Jones appear to be fading down the Manchester United pecking order, England under 21 trio Callum Chamber, Alfie Mawson & Rob Holding will all press their claims and Harry Maguire may come into the equation following his move to Leicester. England have plenty of options but must blood combinations that will work.
  5. Central Midfield conundrum. England’s central midfield places look wide open. Only holding midfielder Eric Dier and the often injured linkman Jordan Henderson look squad certainties. The other veteran options are Jack Wilshere (perma-crock), Fabian Delph (Man City B team), Michael Carrick (turns 37 next July), Jake Livermore & Danny Drinkwater (neither international class) whilst Southgate clearly doesn’t trust Ross Barkley. That may lead Southgate to look at his youth options: James Ward-Prowse, Nathaniel Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Cook, Will Hughes, Tom Davies & Harry Winks are all possibilities but all will need to get regular starts for their clubs and take their chances when they come. At the moment it’s anybody’s guess who will make it.
  6. Promoting Youth. Unlike 2006 or 2010 when players were more or less guaranteed places year in advance this squad will likely contain surprisesI’ve mentioned numerous young options above in England’s problem positions, however I’d estimate only 10-14 players are locked into the squad, that leaves plenty of opportunity for up and coming talents, especially with a former Under 21s manager now in charge. Kieran Trippier, Nathan Redmond, Demarai Gray, Tammy Abraham & Dominic Solanke lead a lengthy list of young players who may just breakthrough the International glass ceiling.