By David de Winter – Sports Editor
The weeks leading up to a major championship are always the source of endless debate. Who to pick? Do you go with the experienced but out of form forward (Wayne Rooney)? Do you take chance on a young whippersnapper (Marcus Rashford)? What about the players who have spent large amounts of the season on the sidelines (Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson)? Luckily, I’ve done all the hard work picking the 23 chaps who will no doubt flatter to deceive in France so old Roy Hodgson doesn’t have to. You’re welcome Roy.
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Fraser Forster (Southampton), Tom Heaton (Burnley)
The men between the sticks pick themselves really. Joe Hart has stood out in an average Manchester City side this season and the giant Fraser Forster is a more-than-able deputy (it’s no coincidence that the Saints have flown up the league since his return to the team). Due to Jack Butland’s unfortunate injury, Tom Heaton should be the third-choice ‘keeper but the Burnley stopper is unlikely to see much action.
Defenders: Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur), Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, John Stones (all Everton), Ryan Bertrand (Southampton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Chris Smalling (Manchester United)
Not a defence that will strike fear in the hearts of Europe’s top strikers. As much as I think Aaron Creswell has had a wonderful season and I rate him very highly, it would be foolish for Hodgson to take him to France because he is unproven at international level. Ryan Bertrand has had a good season for Southampton and the tournament will most likely be an international swansong for Leighton Baines, whose set-piece delivery may well come in handy (he can also take a decent penalty….just saying).
Kyle Walker just sneaks ahead of Nathaniel Clyne at right back due to his impressive form with Tottenham this term. Centre-backs John Stones and Chris Smalling can provide cover in an emergency. Speaking of which, none of the centre-halves inspire total (or any) confidence. Stones and Cahill have had shaky seasons, Jagielka’s best days are behind him and I always sense that Smalling has a calamity up his sleeve. Oh for the days of Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Jonathan Woodgate, Jamie Carragher, Ledley King et al.
Midfielders: Eric Dier, Dele Alli (both Tottenham Hotspur), Adam Lallana, James Milner, Jordan Henderson (all Liverpool), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Ross Barkley (Everton)
Yeah, I know, no Danny Drinkwater, but I don’t actually think he’s that good and international football is very different from the hustle and bustle of the Premier League. I admit it’s a risk taking both Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson when both are far from full fitness, but England do play three warm-up friendlies and, given that they’ve spent time on the sidelines, Henderson and Wilshere will be fresher than their counterparts who have just played a whole season. Plus, Wilshere, at his best, is one of the best midfielders in Europe.
Eric Dier and Dele Alli have forged an effective partnership at Spurs this season and I would expect both to start against Russia on the 11th of June, possibly alongside James Milner who has been exceptional for Liverpool since the turn of the year. Out wide, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana have had indifferent seasons but, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain injured and Theo Walcott perennially underachieving, there are few alternatives (Jese Lingard and Marc Albrighton spring to mind but both lack experience at international level).
I would love to see Mark Noble in the England squad as a reward for his superb form this season and if Wilshere and/or Henderson are deemed unfit, the West Ham captain would be my choice as replacement. His ability to control the game and his range of passing have significantly improved and a deep-lying playmaker in the Andrea Pirlo mould would be a useful option for England.
Forwards: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Jermain Defoe (Sunderland)
A year ago, when Jamie Vardy was first named in an England squad, I thought Roy Hodgson had lost his marbles. Turns out he’s still got them and more. Attack is where England look most dangerous with Vardy, Harry Kane and Daniel Sturridge all amongst the goals in the Premier League. Captain Wayne Rooney, despite his lacklustre performances for Manchester United, must go, if only for his tournament experience because he is not a guaranteed starter.
Danny Welbeck’s injury is a big blow to England because he tends to save his best performances for the national team. Hodgson plays him on the right and he works tirelessly, even if he does sometimes resemble Bambi with the ball at his feet. There is no obvious like-for-like replacement, so I have decided to go for Jermain Defoe in the final striker berth. He has had a stellar season for Sunderland, scoring 18 goals to keep them in the Premier League. Whilst by no means a starter, who better to bring off the bench if England need a goal than the experienced poacher Defoe? His is a wily old fox in the box and can sniff a goal out of nowhere.
So I’ve picked the squad, what about England’s chances? Whilst I do really want the national team to do well, I can’t see it happening. England should get out of their group but any more than that is fanciful. Too many players are out of form, particularly in defence and midfield and there are not enough world-class, big-name players in the squad. The draw against Germany in March was credible and the connection between Alli and Kane is an exciting one, but what happens when Cristiano Ronaldo, or Karim Benzema, or Robert Lewandowski come up against the defence? I’m afraid it’ll be a familiar summer for England fans: squeeze out of the group and a gallant defeat (probably on penalties) against the first half-decent team they face.