Jim White

Injuries create Roy’s perfect storm

Jim White

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Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley, Jack Rodwell, Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard: that is some useful choice an England manager has of central midfielders. Shame none of them are available to Roy Hodgson. And with Scott Parker still shaking off an Achilles injury, Hodgson resembles a man whose horizons are shrinking daily.

It has long been the way before tournaments for England bosses. Graham Taylor was on the radio this morning talking about the manner in which his selection choices were narrowed ahead of the European Championship 20 seasons ago. No John Barnes, no Paul Gascoigne and with Mark Bright pulling up in training after the deadline for replacements had been passed, he arrived in Sweden with one hand tied behind his back.

And remember the Sven years, when every competition seemed to be preceded by the Sun attempting to act as national faith healer, seeking psychic assistance to fuse the metatarsals of David Beckham or Wayne Rooney.

It is around now that someone usually points out that statistics prove those countries which apply a winter break are consistently less likely to be faced with injured players come the summer. Two weeks off in mid-season apparently has miraculous effect on hamstrings, groins and thighs come June. In Spain and Germany, the physical benefit of a Yuletide holiday is now about to be demonstrated.

But moaning about the workload of the Premier League isn't going to help Hodgson now. Facing the French with a possible midfield of James Milner, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, retrospective whinging will be of no use. He can only work with what he has at his disposal. Nor is there any real point talking up the claims of those the manager might have picked instead. When Michael Carrick and Joe Cole are the answer, some might wonder at the question.

But oddly, there is good news for Hodgson even in the gloom. Looking at the line-up he is now faced with selecting, it was no surprise to hear his new coach Gary Neville yesterday saying that he had never known such low expectations surrounding an England squad. As his Sky appearances have indicated, Neville is a superb, articulate, shrewd analyst of the game and his comments have resonance. So when he said that there was a welcome air of reality in the squad, that it was about time we approached a competition with a degree of humility rather than chest-thumping, that it was right to recognise where we stand in the pecking order before kick-off rather than after we have been quickly dispatched back home, we should all take note.

Neville also alluded to the lack of luck that has attended most of his involvement in international competition. He has suffered lost penalty shoot-outs at Euro '96, World Cup '98, Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006; a lick of paint, or a save by the keeper, he suggested had been the difference between lack of fulfilment and reaching a final or semi. Such are the fine margins of sport at the pinnacle.

And to continue the sense that whatever else England might have to their advantage - money, facilities, preparation time - their entire deposit of luck was exhausted when Geoff Hurst hit the bar in 1966, Hodgson must worry that he has run over every known black cat in the country. With a talent pool already resembling a puddle, with his best forward suspended for the first two matches, before a ball has been kicked he has been faced with an injury pile-up of absurd proportions.

Of all his losses, Lampard might well prove the most significant. The Chelsea man may not be universally popular outside Stamford Bridge, but even his fiercest critics would be pushed to gainsay his experience, commitment and presence. Plus, he has had an excellent late season, relishing the defensive role Roberto Di Matteo gave him. Bastian Schweinsteiger - no bad player himself - reckons Lampard has the best vision of any current midfielder. And you could see that in that pass he laid on for Ramires in the Champions League semi-final. It was a thing of beauty, something the evidence of this season might insist is a little beyond Henderson.

Sadly, Lampard is not going to be heading out east. And Hodgson has just tomorrow's appointment with Belgium -Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini and all - to sort things before the real test starts next week. Nobody can envy him the task.

Yet, as Neville suggested, no-one will be expecting anything more from him than that he will be returning home before the post cards. After this latest round of withdrawals there can be nobody expecting Hodgson to do anything more than come back a stoical loser. In many ways, in the history of our ludicrously over-inflated sense of ourselves and our position, for a new England manager rock bottom might not be a bad place to start.

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