Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

James Lawton: England unbeatable when it comes to controversy

Roy Hodgson has called up Martin Kelly to replace the injured Gary Cahill

If we didn't have an England football controversy we would have to dream one or maybe mine for it. Or, as happened in the last day or two, accept one served on a silver platter and lavish on it all the old familiar fervour.

Boy do we do controversy. We do it as well as the Spanish create unforgettable skills and the Germans formidable efficiency and the French a streak of hauteur that threatens to re-emerge, on cue, when we face them in the European Championship next week.



We do not just do controversy, we worry it, we look for obscure nuances, we devote hundreds of man hours and – until Rio Ferdinand twittered his latest outrage, and his agent weighed in with another protest over the lack of respect granted his client – we might even have dredged more mileage out of the ludicrously marginal one surrounding Micah Richards.



This concerned the young and scarcely proven full-back's decision to turn down England stand-by duty because the wrong FA person picked up the phone to ask him.



He was apparently affronted to take a call from Stuart Pearce, who apart from being the Great Britain Olympic and England Under-21 manager, played for England 78 times at full-back. Unlike the offended Richards, Pearce became a fully paid-up international defender, but apparently it was an unbearable slight for Richards that England manager Roy Hodgson delegated the phone call.



Hodgson has yet to have his face superimposed on a turnip but yesterday he received a second bout of serious flaying over his decision to exclude Ferdinand for "football reasons" when everyone knew it was really about a lily-livered blurring of the real issue of a choice between the United player and John Terry.



But was it really? Hodgson insists not and if he has made any kind of serious mistake it surely came when he refused to elaborate either on his original decision or the reason why the thinly experienced Martin Kelly now replaces the latest injury victim, Gary Cahill, rather than the holder of 81 caps who is widely accepted as the most cultivated England defender since the late Bobby Moore.



The big problem, you have to believe, was that the England manager was so fearful of the controversy culture that he ran for the bushes when the subject was re-introduced at the time of Sunday's announcement.



What he should have done, of course, was attempt to put some flesh on the "football reasons" argument. It was, after all, not entirely unavailable.



Originally, he was armed with the public statement of Ferdinand's club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, that: "You play something like a game every four days at the Euros and Rio couldn't do that." The player made it clear that he quite bitterly resented Ferguson's intervention and certainly it was one underpinning Hodgson's decision to go with Terry. It was not, however, the only one.



If it was generally agreed that it had to be the case of either Terry or Ferdinand under the shadow of the former's impending trial on a charge of racially abusing the latter's brother Anton – and the Football Association considered it reason enough to risk the resignation of Fabio Capello when stripping Terry of the captaincy – there was hardly a case to claim that Hodgson had made the more politically expedient decision.



Some argued powerfully that if it was not appropriate for Terry to be captain nor was it that he should be a member of the squad. It is only logical to believe that if Hodgson had concurred, there would hardly have been convulsions among the FA hierarchy. Instead, he made his "football reasons only" argument.



It is one that even now is not without substance. Kelly was recalled after post-season work under Hodgson while Ferdinand, for whom match-fitness on tap has long been rendered a dream by the years of physical fragility that followed his brilliant performance in the 2002 World Cup, would have been required to break back into competitive mode after several weeks of angst-filled inactivity.



Yes, Ferdinand's achievements dwarf those of the young Liverpool player, but Hodgson had already made his decision about which of his veterans would be included alongside Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka, a pairing which just happened to perform outstandingly against world champions Spain at Wembley.



In choosing Terry the manager could point to evidence other than the comments of Ferguson. Though the Chelsea player erred grievously in Barcelona when drawing a red card, and had some bad moments against the charging Andy Carroll, Hodgson could claim with some justification that he had made a major contribution to his club's dramatic revival.



Two years younger than Ferdinand, over the season he played six times more than his rival and scored seven goals against Ferdinand's none. Through 2010 onwards, Terry had played 15 times for England, Ferdinand five. Of course, the argument now is not Ferdinand or Terry but Ferdinand or Kelly? In a simple test of relative ability, it is maybe not a serious argument – but then when last did such basic options present themselves to a manager of England?



Hodgson no doubt shouldn't have run from the latest questions, not least because he had an argument to make despite all the potential for fresh controversy a week before the start of a major tournament. He should have laid it all on the line and out in the open and let it fall where it might. An old pro once said that nothing was more sensational than the truth. One day an England manager might have the nerve to give it a try.



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