Call-up for Raheem Sterling highlights England's devalued resources
The statistics have told us that it has been the case for a long time now, but it took the call-up to the England team of a 17-year-old kid with just seven games' experience at Liverpool to remind us that the pool of talent available to the manager of the national team is shrinking by the season.
It is not Raheem Sterling's fault that he has been fast-tracked from the England Under-19s, for whom he played against Germany on Thursday night, to a World Cup qualifier tonight against Ukraine in the space of four days. He is undoubtedly a very promising talent, and his former teachers and class-mates at the Copland Community School on Wembley High Road, less than a mile away from the stadium, will be very proud of how far the former Queen's Park Rangers academy boy has come.
By comparison, when Steven Gerrard, tonight's captain, made his debut against Ukraine in May 2000 he had played 44 games for Liverpool's first team and turned 20 the day before the match. At the England team hotel, he was, as he recalled yesterday, presented with a cake before having "my room trashed" by, he suspected, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler.
The Premier League and the landscape of English football has changed dramatically since then. Yes, there is still a strong core of English footballers who are first choice for their Premier League teams. Yes, there is an injury and illness crisis this week that has left Roy Hodgson without 12 players whom he would have expected to select. The Under-21s played last night in Chesterfield which complicated matters further.
Nevertheless, the statistics are impossible to ignore. On the first weekend of the Premier League this season, of the 272 players who either started or made substitutes' appearances, only 93 were eligible to play for England and only 33 of them were playing for teams who finished in the top 10 last season. Among that 33 were players such as Paul Scholes and Jamie Carragher who have ruled themselves out of playing for England.
In the most recent weekend of Premier League games, and including the Chelsea team that played in the European Super Cup the preceding Friday, only 66 of the 209 players – 31.5 per cent – who started matches were eligible for England. In Spain that equivalent percentage for Spanish players on the same weekend was 64.3 per cent; in France 62.7 per cent; Italy 52.1 per cent and Germany 45 per cent.
Hodgson said that the deficit of English players in the Premier League was a fact of life that the national team manager simply had to live with. "Would I prefer to have a reverse of that statistic, with 66 per cent of players being English? Of course I would. But that's not going to happen. The Premier League is a fantastic league, but it's a league that embraces all the top European players. We have to accept that.
"One of the other facts we can't deny is the top clubs know where the best talent is, and often go out and buy that top talent. That top [English] talent, at a young age, finds it difficult to break into the team because of the established European talent in front of them. There'll be occasions when I select people and you say they're only reserves at United, Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea. But I may think they're worthy of a place."
There has already been the fast- tracking of players such as Tom Cleverley, who has made just 13 Premier League appearances for Manchester United, and Ryan Bertrand, who has made 10 appearances in the same competition for his parent club Chelsea. Hodgson said that despite the unarguably small number of English players in the elite it did not mean that the few who had made the grade, including yesterday's new call-ups, Sterling and Adam Lallana, were not capable of playing international football.
"I'd like to think they're there because they have the talent to be there, even if the numbers of games they can boast is relatively small. Their timing of getting into our thoughts has corresponded when a lot of others who would have been selected have been absent."
Hodgson's more immediate preoccupation is playing Ukraine 84 days after England eliminated them from Euro 2012. He said that his team will be the same one that beat Moldova 5-0 on Friday night with the exception of the injured John Terry. His replacement will be either Phil Jagielka or Gary Cahill with Hodgson saying that the Everton man's former partnership with Joleon Lescott would "not necessarily" enter into his thinking.
It will be Gerrard's 98th cap tonight meaning that he should, injuries permitting, hit 100 when the team play Poland in Warsaw in a World Cup qualifier next month. He said of his Liverpool team-mate Sterling "it won't be too long before he's a regular in this squad – he is that good, and has that talent. But for those young lads who have played for the national team, we shouldn't build up too much expectation."
Was it harder to get into the team when Gerrard was making his way? "Similar" was his diplomatic answer. But if Gerrard has designs on managing England one day he may find his choices severely curtailed if the current trend prevails.