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Downing takes his turn

Sven-Goran Eriksson's two new recruits can both expect to get a taste of the action when England take on Holland at Villa Park on Wednesday. And while debuts have hardly been scarce during the Swede's tenure Stewart Downing and Andrew Johnson will be hoping their England careers last longer than some of their predecessors.

Middlesbrough left-winger Downing has been meticulously monitored since breaking through at the Riverside and will be under great pressure to perform, given England's desperate craving for a solution to that annoyingly troublesome position.

It has been a hot potato for 15 years, according to former England manager Kevin Keegan, and while that may be stretching the truth, his point is certainly valid. John Barnes was probably the last player to offer a passable solution and he played his final international against Colombia in 1995.

Since then subsequent England managers have addressed the problem in various ways. Terry Venables disposed of out-and-out wingers by using a Christmas tree formation, his successor Glenn Hoddle opted for wing-backs, while Keegan stuck with the largely disappointing Steve McManaman and Nick Barmby.

Eriksson has tried both tactical adjustments - the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 diamond - as well as changes in personnel without stumbling upon a satisfactory solution.

On the right David Beckham has been a virtual ever-present - although some would argue that Shaun Wright-Phillips should start on current form - during Eriksson's reign but the left has been anything but settled.

Nick Barmby, Emile Heskey, Trevor Sinclair, Alan Thompson, Kieron Dyer, Steve McManaman, Owen Hargreaves, Wayne Bridge, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole, Darius Vassell, Alan Smith and Danny Murphy make up a rather lengthy, but not exhaustive, list of players who have been tested with varying degrees of success or failure.

The latest candidate, Downing, has been a key figure in Middlesbrough's charge for a top six finish in the Premiership this season, netting four times and turning provider for 12 of his team's 41 goals, and has been winning rave reviews from club manager and England assistant Steve McClaren.

'Stewart's still got a long way to go and is not the finished article,' McClaren said. 'But England are crying out for a left-sided midfielder and he deserves the call. Not many players cross with Stewart's quality and his beauty is that, although his left is stronger, he's got two good feet.'

The England Under-21 international has suffered a slight dip in form recently but provided the assist for Franck Queudrue's winning goal at the weekend and after Boro saw off Blackburn 1-0 the French goalscorer compared his teammate to Ryan Giggs, adding simply that 'England need him'.

England fans have often lamented Giggs' decision to opt for his native Wales over England and although Downing is now the great new hope it would be silly to expect too much from the 20-year-old.

Eriksson looks unlikely to burden the youngster with a starting place and having hinted that Beckham will start on the right, despite picking up a knock playing for Real Madrid, Wright-Phillips is expected to be the latest player to start out of position on the left.

The Man City star has only recently broken into the England set-up but has seniority over Downing and the 23-year-old can 'do a job' on that flank, according to his club manager Keegan. Downing will probably make an appearance as a substitute.

Downing: England training injury.
Downing: England training injury.

Conversely, Crystal Palace striker Johnson is probably under more pressure to score goals at club level as the Eagles battle against relegation. As the top English marksman in the Premiership, with 15 goals, he is the form striker and may have made the squad even if Manchester United striker Smith and Villa's Vassell were not out injured.

The former England youth player's timely goalscoring exploits mean that Eriksson can complete his required quartet of strikers.

The former Birmingham City trainee is similar to Vassell in terms of pace and stature and he will be hoping to emulate the impact the crocked forward had against Holland on his debut. Vassell came off the bench to score England's equaliser in the 1-1 draw at the Amsterdam ArenA in 2002 and booked his place at the Korea/Japan World Cup.

However, on a note of caution, the form striker called into the squad to face Holland was Michael Ricketts and the then Bolton forward has since disappeared, not only from the international scene but completely off the football radar.

Similarly, former Sunderland striker Kevin Phillips' England hopes were extinguished by Vassell's impressive debut, which eclipsed his own performances in an England shirt.

Other lead balloons include Blackburn's forgotten man Matt Jansen, who got the call but fell ill before getting a run out, and Everton's James Beattie, who failed to take his chance while a Southampton employee.

Now, as the latest new face to be banging in the goals for an unfashionable club, the gauntlet falls to Johnson. Judging by history his England future could hang on those infamous words......'he's scored on his debut'.

With seven regular defenders unavailable or withdrawing from Eriksson's squad the England team is set to have an unfamiliar look as they take on the Netherlands.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.