Thursday 12 December 2019

Taming alpha males will be Hodgson's toughest task

Richard Sadlier

Some of you may be familiar with the episode of Seinfeld in which the four main characters embark on a bet to see who can go the longest without, erm, treating their body as if it were an amusement park. It is known as 'The Contest'.

During one international tournament, five players took part in a competition of their own, which amounted to the exact opposite of what Seinfeld and his friends had to do. They had to do it immediately, and in front of each other. There were certain rules, but the winner was the one who completed the task first, so to speak. There was no alcohol involved, amazingly, and all reported having had a great time.

There are many ways for players to overcome the monotony of hotel life at international tournaments and to improve the mood. However it is achieved, time between games must be enjoyable or success becomes impossible. More than ever before, this applies to the current England squad ahead of the Euros.

He surely knows this by now, but Roy Hodgson's chances of succeeding as England coach have little to do with how good a coach he is. He stressed his training ground credentials to the world's media ten days ago, but they've already become incidental to his task. He is due to name his England squad on Wednesday, and his most important decision has nothing to with football or the ability of those involved. If he gets it wrong, his England camp could descend into chaos and disarray before they even leave the country.

Bowing to pre-conditions set by any player for their own inclusion is not the basis on which to select any squad, but certainly not your first. Dropping John Terry because Rio Ferdinand has a problem with him would be ludicrous. That they are both vying for the same position in the team muddies the water further, as players cannot be allowed to block the selection of a rival. If Ferdinand has an issue, he should declare himself unavailable and sit at home with his principles for the summer. Negotiating terms for your inclusion is not an option.

Terry revealed on Thursday that Hodgson had yet to make contact with him, fuelling speculation that his place in the England squad was far from certain. He gave his worst display of the season two days earlier in Chelsea's 4-1 defeat at Anfield, sparking a debate as to whether he's even good enough to be there.

Those who say he shouldn't go are from the same school of thought as those who believe Andy Carroll should, building their case solely on the adage that a player is only ever as good as their last game. However, the decision is straightforward for those whose memory extends beyond the last week. If he's fit, he goes. Based only on his ability on the field, there is no debate. His pending charge for a racially-aggravated public order offence following an alleged exchange with Anton Ferdinand means his presence in the squad could be potentially toxic. Rio Ferdinand has yet to speak publicly on the issue, but presuming the innocence of any defendant must be difficult when your brother is the chief witness for the prosecution. Terry is happy to play for his country regardless, an attitude you would expect from every player. If Ferdinand feels otherwise, he should be left at home.

However, adopting such a firm stance has its difficulties too. Excluding Ferdinand against his wishes on the grounds he couldn't work with a white team-mate alleged to have racially abused his mixed race brother poses all kinds of PR difficulties for the FA. And these matters are of great importance to Club England. Chris Smalling's unavailability due to injury weakens Hodgson's hand slightly, but the central point remains: how far can England expect to go if cohesion and morale among the squad is compromised from the very start? It's not like things were great on that front to begin with.

You'll hear a lot about the importance of spirit and togetherness as the tournament nears. It's constantly applied to the Ireland squad, but rarely to England. It's assumed their

superior ability will compensate, but it never has in the past. Notoriously bad travellers, the 1990 World Cup remains their only semi-final appearance abroad. And it's not hard to understand why.

Squad unity, or the lack thereof, remains an issue for successive England managers and it's the primary one facing Hodgson today. "It's every man for himself," was Gary Neville's assessment of his time winning 85 caps. "No one feels happy."

If Hodgson misjudges the impact of Terry's inclusion alongside Ferdinand, it will further undermine an already flimsy bond between players who have yet to show they can succeed anywhere without non-English team-mates. Successful teams use the time spent away from the field productively. The rapport among the group is strengthened by everything they do together. It is difficult to imagine this occurring in any squad with both Ferdinand and Terry.

There isn't an obvious answer available to Hodgson, but including them both could potentially be disastrous. And given his role doesn't formally begin until tomorrow, it was never going to be the easiest of months in the first place.

Of course, with England, the dynamic is always dominated by alpha males and the battle of egos. There will always be one who wants to be master of his domain.

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