London – Gareth Southgate laughs when the subject of a golden generation is jokingly raised. The England manager has just named a squad of 28 players from 15 different clubs, a far cry from some of his predecessors’ moans about a shrinking talent pool and a limited number of Premier League sides worth watching, yet even though he has been able to leave out a few deserving candidates Southgate knows that particular pressure is not one he need work under for a while.
The retirement of Wayne Rooney only serves to emphasize that what is past is now past and the future under Southgate can begin with a clean slate. “There is no basis for deluding ourselves,” he says. “Very few of these players have won anything with their clubs.
“We are talking in a lot of cases about potential and we have to try and help that potential come to the fore. The great guide for me was our games against Spain, Germany and France last season. In moments we have shown we can play at a really good level, we can score goals against the top teams and we can defend well, but we didn’t win any of those games.
“That is a good marker for me about the level of improvement we still need. Our players might think they have reached the top, but we are not there yet and that’s the message. When we start beating some of those top teams we can start getting a bit more excited. Where we are is 14 months on from being knocked out of the Euros in the second round by Iceland.”
Perhaps it is just as well England are in a relatively undemanding World Cup qualification group, with games coming up against Malta (Friday) and Slovakia (the following Monday). England ought to have enough experience to take points from those games even without their most-capped outfield player and record goalscorer. Indeed, it was probably the recognition that while his squad presence was valued he was no longer guaranteed a place in the starting XI that helped Rooney reach his decision.
Southgate has been careful to leave the door slightly ajar – should Rooney continue to enjoy a rejuvenation at Everton it makes no sense to rule out a recall for the tournament – though the same calculation is likely to be necessary next summer. On balance, it is unlikely that Rooney will secure a place in the team instead of Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli through his goalscoring prowess; it is more probable that Southgate will want him in the squad for his experience, example and influence on younger players. Whether Rooney will fancy that remains to be seen, though Southgate is in no doubt that the player’s contribution to the England cause over the years has been outstanding and that no one in the present squad appears capable of taking a tournament by storm as a young Rooney did in Euro 2004.
“When Wayne came through he was at a level which is different to any of the players we’ve got at the moment.” Southgate says. “I was playing with him at that time and his attributes, strengths, goalscoring, range of passing and intelligence aged 17-18 was better than any of the players in the current squad. We are talking a different level. You’ve got very good players and then there are top players.
“In my time in the England setup, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Scholes and Rooney just had that little bit more than all the others. And we are talking high‑level people there, players like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham, so the really outstanding talents are very few and far between. That’s where Rooney was and all our guys have still got that to prove.”
It was England’s misfortune that two of that triumvirate of peerless talents never burned as brightly again after the excitement of their breakthrough years, while Scholes ended up retiring from international football earlier than he might have done through being played out of position to accommodate Gerrard and Lampard in the middle. At least Rooney went on to gather 119 caps, almost as many as Scholes (66) and Gascoigne (57) accumulated between them, though in terms of tournament performances the graph after Portugal in 2004 resembles something of a cliff edge.
That is where the golden generation went, though with England Under-20s winning their World Cup in the summer Southgate is reasonably relaxed about the future, even if he does not think any of that squad are quite ready to make the step up to the senior side.
“Not that many of them are playing regularly for their clubs,” he says. “Dominic Calvert-Lewin has had a couple of games for Everton and there are one or two like Dominic Solanke who could really push a cause if they get a run of games, but Liverpool have some outstanding attacking players.
“I saw that for myself when they played Hoffenheim. Even Daniel Sturridge has competition on his hands there and hopefully that will bring the best out of him. I spoke to Jürgen Klopp before selecting him and he was very positive. He was impressed with his physical preparation this summer, so even though he has not played a lot of games I thought it would be good to have Daniel involved so he knows he is still on our radar.
“At any big club you have competition for places, and that is certainly true at Liverpool. I even asked Jürgen after the Hoffenheim game whether Sadio Mané had any English grandparents. Unfortunately he said not.”
The Guardian Sport