This is just another (England) football fan’s biased rant, in full self-awareness of one patently unqualified for the job, unlike those football writers (and, gord-help-us, pundits) who actually get paid for their (not always acuminous) analyses and opinions. Much like writing political commentaries, it is easier in hindsight, don’t you think? And, as with political commentaries, we tend to favour those which confirm our opinions and perceptions and preferences and tastes, and insult out of earshot those who don’t. No?
I was interested, then, in the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year Award for the recently ended season. Not so much for the winner (predictably and deservedly the sinistral-footed Robin van Persie), but for the guy who came third in the vote. I freely confess my bias here. Paul Scholes is my favourite player; not necessarily of all time, although he is on that list, and not just because he eschews agents and limelight. I mean, currently. Because, having come out of retirement mid-way through last season, and likely to sign up for another, he is evidently playing. And playing very well. It has been argued that Manchester United’s welcoming of this turnaround may well have reflected an element of ‘desperation’, in that they did not have anyone else good enough to fill his boots. But his return to a relatively (to itself) average squad coincided with the start of an unbeaten twelve match run that very nearly kept the title at Old Trafford. (Little can be judged from single games, but had he played at Wigan, where they lost late in the season, then who knows. I’ve also occasionally speculated on how things might have been had Scholes not been omitted from the starting line-ups in the two Champions’ League finals against Barcelona, when he is arguably the only Man Utd midfielder who could hold his own in that team. Maybe.)
It was remarkable that, in his press conference following the announcement of England’s Scholes-less squad for the forthcoming Euro2012 tournament, not one journalist asked Roy Hodgson the question I was jumping up and down with? Rather, being the muck-rakers they are, he was repeatedly quizzed on the omission of Rio Ferdinand and the concomitant selection of John Terry. Which is easy, really, if you imagine, as I do, two very brief telephone conversations:
Hodgson: “John, would you be happy to be in the squad alongside Rio Ferdinand?”
Hodgson: “Rio, would you be happy to be in the squad alongside John Terry?”
It is often banally ventured by pundits that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Scholes is certainly still good enough (at least for an hour, but it is a squad game), but is now of an age that provides easy excuse for Roy Hodgson not to bother contemplating picking up the phone (something which, had Fabio Capello personally tried two years ago, might have then persuaded Scholes to come out of international retirement). Whilst not wanting to be critical of Hodgson (an experienced coach with a fine record who I am glad was selected ahead of someone I view through Rosie-tinted glasses), I find this stance (if that’s what it is) perplexing.
Instead, for the game in Norway last Saturday, Hodgson had to pitch a line-up, half of whom will likely not figure against France on June 11th. (Where were the Chelsea players, by the way? What is this being-given-a-rest-after-winning-the-Champions’-League bullshit? Two friendlies for a new manager to try and coax some rhythm and confidence into a team already requiring adjustment due to the unavailability of Rooney for the first two group games of an imminent major tournament. And one of them – Terry – didn’t play in the final anyhow. They should have been there.) And what was the significant outcome? Gareth Barry tore muscle in his groin and is thus out of the tournament. We’re told that Scott Parker is fit, despite being substituted and having a very large ice pack immediately applied to the ankle that has been troubling him for some weeks. And Danny Welbeck is still an injury-carrying concern. Obvious, then, that the hole made by Barry requires filling with a midfielder. Instead, Hodgson has gone for another centre-half, from a stand-by list that omits Michael Carrick, who has just had a fine season (although it is perhaps the case that he talked himself out of a stand-by role). Despite his twice blinking astonishment when facing the Medusa-headed Barcelona midfield, an England squad that omits Carrick (let alone Scholes) cannot be stronger than one which may yet include the stand by-listed Jordan Henderson, should another midfielder be struck down before the tournament commences. Given that we are pretty bereft of players enamoured of putting in a decent cross, surely we need back-up strength in central midfield.
It is not for we pub pundits to reason ‘Why?’ the new England manager has not, with no time for trial and experimentation, endeavoured to people his Euro2012 squad with the best available players. There’s the rub. But, according to recent reports, Scholes could have been. And with his former team-mate Gary Neville appointed to the England coaching staff, I (for one) hoped he would be.
Imagine, then, if England encounter Spain, which, if we get through the group phase, could theoretically be a quarter-final. Who would you want up against the purring midfield fluency of Xavi, Iniesta et al? (If we avoid them in the quarters it will then become highly theoretical that we meet them in the final, but if we get that far we’ll have taken the squad as it is to our fickle hearts by then.) I imagine these wonderful players will again wonder just why a footballer they rate as of their echelon is again not lining up against them.