How times change. In March 2006 Darren Bent received his first England cap while playing for Charlton, who were the epitome of a solid mid-table Premier League team. Three years on, Charlton are close to sealing relegation to the third level for the first time in 30 years – and Bent’s latest call-up, the result of an England striker injury-list to which his name would soon be added, prompted consternation in the press.
Bent’s selection caused controversy in part because he was preferred to Michael Owen, who hasn’t been picked for a squad since England’s friendly in France a year ago. For much of the ensuing time, Owen’s various injuries would have kept him out of the reckoning. But Owen is fit again and, while clearly past his best, he is nonetheless a proven goalscorer at international level – an attribute in short supply among English strikers. However, Fabio Capello appears to have decided conclusively that there is no place for Owen in his plans. Some think this is due to concerns about the player’s injury record; others suggest that Capello was so annoyed by Owen’s public criticism of the team formation in the wake of that defeat in France that he has chosen to ignore him. Capello’s resolve may weaken if Owen has a clear run of matches next season in a better team, or if the alternatives prove to be simply not up to the task. Which brings us back to Darren Bent.
Bent scored 18 goals in 36 league matches during the season in which he was first capped. He had also averaged a goal every two games in his two preceding seasons, at his first club, Ipswich. Since joining Spurs in 2007, however, his career has stalled badly, to the extent that manager Harry Redknapp made a concerted effort to offload him during the transfer window. He returned to the England squad because, with Dean Ashton also injured, he appeared to be the best of the rest. Bent has only just turned 25 and may yet revive his career. But the selection of someone who is currently a squad player with a team that have spent the entire season in the bottom half of the table once again highlights the lack of striking options available to England.
In previous generations there were always a few English forwards who scored consistently in the top division but were deemed to be just below international class. Examples from around 1984, the year of Darren Bent’s birth, would include Steve Moran, Adrian Heath and Garth Crooks. If any were playing today they would be in double figures for caps. Very few locally-born youth products are in the first team squads of the “big four” and none are forwards (the Southampton product Theo Walcott being a partial exception). The picture isn’t much better further down the table – one of the scorers for England Under-21s in their most recent victory, a 5-0 defeat of Norway, was Fraizer Campbell who often can’t get a place alongside Bent on the Spurs bench.
The Premier League’s chief executive Richard Scudamore recently had another of his periodic disagreements with Sepp Blatter over FIFA’s “six-plus-five” proposal that would require a majority of a starting 11 to be eligible for the national team of the country in which they play. Warning of “xenophobic rhetoric”, Scudamore said: “I keep getting told ‘how can English football be English football when there are not enough English players in a particular team?’. I struggle with that when everyone bar David Beckham who is qualified to play for England at the top level is playing at home.” Barring the fact that other leagues are not financially enticing to millionaire English players, very few would be first-choice at other major European clubs. Scudamore knows that the Premier League would not be dominating the Champions League if its teams were split evenly between foreigners and UK passport holders – the overseas players make the difference.
It’s a disparity that becomes apparent whenever a squad is put together for an international competition. England may have a first 11 capable of competing with, if not always beating, the best, but strength in depth is key in tournaments and the 23 best English players simply don’t match up to the equivalents in half a dozen other countries. That might be resolved by the overhaul of youth coaching that the FA’s director of development Trevor Brooking seems to have been trying to get underway for several years. Even if meaningful reform is achieved, however, Darren Bent will have long since retired before it begins to bear fruit.
From WSC 267 May 2009