IN front of a full house and expectant Wembley this evening, Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere will resume a hugely promising central-midfield pairing that has only been going for 13 minutes.
Hodgson also name-checked Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and the “exceptional” Tom Cleverley as further reinforcing his argument that England were as well-stocked as anyone in the centre. Followers of Spain might disagree, thinking of the calibre of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Javi Martinez and many others.
At the European Championship finals, Gerrard and Scott Parker struggled to get the ball off Italy’s Andrea Pirlo. In tonight’s friendly, Gerrard and Wilshere must hunt down such Brazilians as Paulinho and Ramires, Ronaldinho and Oscar.
Hodgson’s was a bold statement but indicative of the excitement he feels at Wilshere and Gerrard being able to start in tandem. Injury has prevented the pair building their partnership until a brief cameo in Stockholm in November. Players often become inhibited when donning the England shirt but confident individuals like Wilshere enjoy the challenge.
“He’s a top player who gives the dressing room a lift,” said Gerrard of Wilshere. “He can tackle, get about the pitch, create a goal, score a goal, can pass and he’s going to get better and better – which is a scary thought. He’s only 21 and a fantastic talent.”
Asked whether the Arsenal midfielder reminded him of a young version of himself, Gerrard replied: “I’m better looking than him! As a player? He’s got the potential to become one of the best in the world, and I don’t want to add any pressure.
“He looks as if he can cope with the pressure. It’s up to the experienced players, the likes of Lampard, [Ashley] Cole and Rooney to put our arms round him, protect him, and make sure you [media] lot don’t put too much pressure on him.
“One man can’t be expected to carry a nation on his own. He needs other players to help. The only advice I can give him is to try and keep his feet on the ground and enjoy it. His career will be full of ups and downs, and I’m sure he has the mentality and the people around him to help him handle it.”
Gerrard urged against labelling as ‘world class’ any of the new generation breaking through, even such prospects as Wilshere. “These young players who all have got huge potential have to prove it in big games in the Premier League, the Champions League and international level, [proving] they’re good enough to compete against other world-class players. Maybe, if they do, towards the end of their career, the tag ‘world-class’ can be given out. I don’t like the ‘world-class’ tag being given out to young players. It’s too soon.”
One of the qualities required was unwittingly confirmed by Gerrard: the maintaining of a competitive spirit year after year. “It’s not just Jack who’s after my shirt,’’ the England captain said. “All the lads in the Under-21s, and Carrick and Parker, all want my shirt. I’ve lived with that for 10-12 years. I have to make sure I keep performing at a good level. I’m prepared to fight with anyone in this country for this shirt.”
Hodgson joined in the debate about the attributes required to be world-class. “What does it take to be a player like Steven Gerrard or Ashley Cole, about to receive their 100th caps [Gerrard reached the landmark in Stockholm, Cole does it tonight] for a country like England where the pressure is huge?’’ the England manager said. “It takes an in-born talent, and a lot of work on that talent. It requires humility because along the way you’ll be encouraged to become very, very big-headed, with people telling you you’re world-class when you’ve finished only four games.
“To go on and be a top-class player you have to achieve what the likes of Gerrard or Cole are doing now, doing it over a consistent period of time, be strong enough to accept it won’t be plain sailing, there will be moments when people are saying you’re wonderful and others when people are saying you’re hopeless and shouldn’t have been considered in the first place.’’
Hodgson is expected to start the two Manchester United strikers with Rooney playing off Danny Welbeck. Neither is expected to finish the game with Hodgson determined to keep in with club managers like Sir Alex Ferguson as European competition resumes. United travel to Real Madrid next week.
“I’m aware that it is a friendly and United are playing an important Champions League game,’’ said Hodgson. Gerrard interrupted, saying: “It doesn’t matter, just keep playing them!” Hodgson smiled at the reminder of club rivalries in his squad before continuing his explanation.
“I haven’t spoken to Sir Alex, but I don’t need to. I was a club coach myself and there are a lot of matches being played. It’s pretty obvious Alex would like me to spare his players. Arsène [Wenger] has a very important game coming up [Arsenal face Bayern Munich on Feb 19].
“I appreciate what these top-class managers are doing to make sure we have full access to the players for the qualifying games. We want to win this friendly, play well and keep progressing, but I don’t want to do that at the expense of players missing important Champions League games and then their managers being less pleased when I select them for the national team.”
Hodgson sounded more subservient than he probably intended; it is hoped that the Premier League managers are as supportive when Group H of 2014 World Cup qualifying re-opens for business next month. England cannot afford a defeat in Montenegro.
Another United player, Chris Smalling, may come on at Wembley, bringing to 45 the number of players that Hodgson will have used in 13 internationals. “I’ve done my casting around. I’m confident now I know the players. It’s still a large number that I consider are good enough to get us there [to the World Cup].”
He needs a strong performance from Theo Walcott against Brazil, demonstrating his threat whether out wide or through the middle.
“Theo has to make sure every time he plays for Arsenal or England, wherever he’s asked to play in that forward position, that he shows us what a good forward he is: he can get past players, use his pace and strength and eye for goal, he can use his technique to score his goals,’’ Hodgson said.
England’s manager also needs his players to prove they do not have a phobia about Wembley where they have won only five of their last 11 games.
“I don’t think the players fear Wembley,’’ Hodgson said. “I’m hoping there isn’t some hoodoo or mental blockage.’’
Gerrard shrugged. “I’m confident against anyone at Wembley,’’ the captain reflected. England need that belief. Wilshere also brings some.