Belfast Telegraph

Roy Hodgson's England reign may be defined by Raheem Sterling's use

By Sam Wallace

The forecast is for clouds in Miami this week, with Roy Hodgson apparently doomed to take an English summer with him wherever he goes, from the Algarve to Florida, where his players arrived yesterday – the penultimate step on the long journey to Rio de Janeiro.

It is getting closer to what will be the biggest month of Hodgson's managerial career and, whether he likes it or not, the period upon which history will judge him.

In one of his press conferences on Thursday the son of south London was asked about his roots – the BBC are planning to produce a documentary on him – and Hodgson answered in that slightly overly formal manner of his that he was very proud to be a Croydon boy, although even he seemed at a loss to define what that might represent.

The decisions that define Hodgson at this World Cup finals will be marginal. He is never, for instance, likely to field Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in one starting line-up – few managers would in his situation. But he may well decide to play at least one, and again on Friday night against Peru he was given reason to believe that the one could be Sterling. The boy from Wembley is playing with the fearlessness that changes games. He does not care who he is playing against, and it shows.

It was in the position that Wayne Rooney played for 66 minutes at Wembley that the Liverpool player was introduced on Friday, and in place of the man whom Paul Scholes has dared Hodgson to drop. Early days yet for Manchester United's Rooney, who was playing his first football match since April 26, but you could hardly take your eyes off Sterling. Perhaps he is best for that role, attacking tired defenders, drawing mistakes at the end of games – but there comes a stage when he just has to play.

Where that would be is a question Hodgson has been unprepared to answer so far. He bridles at any attempt to pin him down, presumably with one eye on his line-up for Italy, but when it comes to Sterling, he will not even disclose the position he believes suits the player best.

"I'm not even certain I want Raheem Sterling to have a 'best' position necessarily," he said. "I want Raheem to be able to play in the position where we need him.

"He's a good player and I'm sure he's going to be a very big player for England going forward as well, but at the moment I would rather like to see some of these younger players treated with a little bit more caution. I think it's very dangerous to start building them up and saying 'England are going to do terrifically well because of them'. There's a lot of other players in our squad who are going to have to take responsibility, and hopefully the younger players will come in on the back of it and put the icing on the cake."

The "icing on the cake" reference was telling. The Sterling generation are, for now, the decoration on a confection that Hodgson wants to keep as straightforward as possible. He cannot afford to lose that first game of the World Cup against Italy on June 14. As for the Italians, they start the penultimate week of preparation having to come to terms with losing the services of the midfielder Riccardo Montolivo, who broke a leg against the Republic of Ireland at Craven Cottage on Saturday.

At some point at this tournament, Hodgson will make the decisions that define his managerial legacy. It may be something as yet unanticipated but he would only be human if he was wondering how far he dare push Sterling in his plans, and how the player will himself respond.

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