WHEN he was storming about on behalf of Leeds United and Manchester City, and 19 times for England, Danny Mills was not easy to mark down automatically as a potential football statesman. Whatever his other virtues, cool logic never announced itself uppermost.
He has, however, just stepped forward with a brusque but outstandingly impressive appraisal of what is being described as Roy Hodgson's – rather than Hobson's – choice.
The widely perceived requirement of the new England manager to assess the willingness of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, who between them have amassed 150 caps for their country, to put their disagreements to one side for the duration of the European Championship is given withering treatment by Mills, as well it might.
What the old pro has done on the nation's airwaves is crash-tackle the culture of an English dressing room which for longer than we might care to remember has been high on individual egos and preferences and extremely low on something that might pass for collective effort.
No doubt Ferdinand has an issue with Terry, who is awaiting trial on a charge of racially abusing his brother Anton, but the point so well made by Mills is that elsewhere in life people are required to get on with the job alongside colleagues who for one reason or another will never graduate to the status of best friends –or even someone with whom they might share a brief drink after stepping off duty.
What you do is get on with the job. Soldiers, firemen, surgeons, nurses and factory workers do it all the time. It is called professionalism.
However, at the highest level of English football such fortitude seems to be an increasingly impossible demand.
Mills says: "Players play, even when they don't like each other. I'm pretty sure that in every walk of life there are people in the building that you don't like – that's life, get on with it. You're playing for your country at the pinnacle of your career. It's for 90 minutes. You don't have to go out to dinner – you don't even have to speak to each other, but for 90 minutes you are a professional expected to do your job."
At his unveiling, Hodgson suggested that he would speak to both Ferdinand and Terry before making his selection. Now the shortest odds are on Terry being the loser. This isn't going to cause too much gnashing of the teeth if it is recalled quite how much devastation Terry's behaviour has brought over the years to hopes that England might one day develop the single-minded sense of a team which generally helps to separate the winners from the losers. It is certainly a track record that suggests he might have caused some disruption at the Last Supper.
However, Ferdinand has not been without a squall or two – notably when charged with failing to take a drug test and then, after being automatically left out of the England team, becoming the focal point of a strike threat from some of his team-mates on the eve of an important European Championship qualifier in Istanbul.
Ferdinand, when free from the erosion of injury and doubts about his durability at the age of 33, of course remains a player of formidable accomplishment, which is something that on some recent occasions has not been so easy to say of Terry. Ten years ago in Japan Ferdinand was sensational, arguably the best defender in that World Cup, and there are no doubt still moments when that figure of authority and silky touch suspends the years.
Yet is it still necessarily a case of Ferdinand or Terry – or perhaps time for Hodgson, uncluttered by any ties of misplaced loyalty, to make the kind of declaration of firm leadership that was so plainly beyond first Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren and then, when it mattered, and much more surprisingly, Fabio Capello?
When you think about it for a second, this question of whether Ferdinand will deign to play with Terry is an absurdity. It is an unwelcome throwback to the days of the alleged Golden Generation, when David Beckham once summoned Eriksson from his dinner table to deal with talk of player insurrection over that Ferdinand affair.
Hodgson has every right to make his choices and if he believes that Ferdinand is worth his selection – and Terry isn't – he is right to enforce his judgement.
What is wrong, as Danny Mills points out with such splendid force, is that players are given the smallest encouragement to play for England only on their own terms. "Players play," he insists, and he is patently right.
Playing for England is not some jaunt only to be undertaken in the company of the boys you happen to like. It is a few weeks of professional commitment, of grown men operating in an imperfect world who understand quite what is their job.
Independent News Service