Hodgson adds to England malaise
A Downing: The effect that Roy Hodgson's 23-man selection has had on any national sense of expectation. All bets are off, quite frankly. Perhaps it's better to be underwhelmed rather than hopeful. However, it would feel more comfortable if the headline selection were not John Terry.
He is English football's teflon don. No matter what is thrown at him, he glides on by, seemingly without care for actions nor their consequences. In selecting him, Hodgson has possibly opened the door on a whole world - or at least continent - of pain.
Rio Ferdinand is the latest collateral damage resulting from the Terry phenomena. Can there be a player as vilified as the Chelsea skipper? Yet he still commands loyalty and respect among those in the game. Tabloid tales, court cases and putsches against managers litter his career but still he remains the go-to guy for national managers.
Fabio Capello gave up his job on a point of principle that centred on Terry and now Hodgson has staked his reputation on a player who has been the downfall of his predecessor, multiple Chelsea managers and now the international career of Rio Ferdinand, who was once hailed as the "new Bobby Moore".
Of the pair, it is Ferdinand who had looked in the better form this season, and even of late. But Terry continues to get his head even when memories of his horror show in Bloemfontein are still strong in the mind. While Hodgson will accept responsibility for his final selection, there may be a clue in his choice of lieutenant.
During a highly successful maiden season as a Sky pundit, Gary Neville has spoken of a liking for Terry as both man and team-mate. By contrast, his relationship with Ferdinand has never quite been the bed of roses that the sharing of such success together might suggest.
In October 2003, Neville put himself out on a limb when Ferdinand was facing a lengthy ban for skipping a drugs test. In leading the players to the brink of strike before a game with Turkey, Neville acquired the nickname 'Red Nev' for perceived shop stewarding. Yet the redness also stemmed from his loyalty to Manchester United - something that Ferdinand later showed a lack of when holding the club to ransom over a new contract when they had stood behind him and paid him in full during the eight months he was eventually banned for.
In plumping for Terry, Hodgson and Neville are taking a risk of the type to throw a purported 'safe choice' into rapid flux. What Harry Redknapp would do is bound to be a question proffered throughout the campaign.
With the selection of Downing, Hodgson is clearly not a subscriber to sabermetrics, since a haul of zero goals and zero assists hardly suggests a player in any form whatsoever, whether stats are your thing or not. The Liverpool man has a chance for vindication or, on the downside, further humiliation.
Being able to play on both wings helps his cause, though the media clamour will call for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to be first reserve should Ashley Young and presumably Theo Walcott break down. That pair will be expected to provide speed outside a central midfield severely lacking in pace. The not-so dynamic duo of Frank Lampard and captain Steven Gerrard are in alongside fellow over-30s Scott Parker and Gareth Barry in a central unit creaking with age.
Aside from Parker, whose participation remains in some doubt because of an Achilles problem, all are tried, tested and failed at an international tournament. Total victory aside, it will remain a regret that Paul Scholes, who has only four months in the tank and so probably among the fitter and less-fatigued players in the Premier League, will not be there to control the midfield. Even at 37 he has bested both Gerrard and Lampard this season, while his lieutenant in metronomic passing, Michael Carrick, did not even make the reserve list after his best season in four years.
Carrick had already booked his holidays in the self-knowledge that he has never been the type of player fancied by England managers. Meanwhile, the likes of Barry and James Milner are always trusted for a supposed dependability and versatility.
A Carrick, a Scholes would suggest an ability to change the approach of England; a Plan B that has not been in evidence since Alf Ramsey switched to his "wingless wonders" or Terry Venables could switch from a three-man to a four-man defence. The nearest thing is Andy Carroll, who looks likely to serve as a surrogate Peter Crouch: a target for the lofted ball when ponderous passing has failed to produce.
The hope for youth lies in Danny Welbeck being able to lead the line as he sometimes has for Manchester United, before Wayne Rooney can proclaim "the big man is back", as he did rather ill-fatedly at Germany 2006. It is to be hoped that Oxlade-Chamberlain does not replicate the Walcott role from that tournament.
And there goes the fear for any England fan. The same old story is expected, but it does not mean it will be accepted.