By Liam Twomey
This is a new era for England, even if it may not feel like it. Wednesday’s turgid 1-0 friendly win over Norway was watched by 40,101 fans – the lowest turnout at Wembley for an international game since 1998 – and a TV audience which peaked at just 5.5 million. Those who did stick it out were rewarded with no more than a few darting runs from the lively Raheem Sterling and a cool Wayne Rooney penalty.
Yet it still seems harsh that a 20-man squad boasting 12 players aged 25 or under and only one with over 50 caps to his name should have to deal with public disillusionment and apathy a decade in the making. Among the youthful faces present – and several more absent through injury – there is real quality available to Roy Hodgson, and genuine cause for hope that Euro 2016 might yield significant improvement in performances as well as results.
There is far a lot to be excited about beyond the current issues surrounding Rooney's captaincy and Hodgson's management.
Arsenal are positioning themselves as central to this future. Four Gunners – Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and Calum Chambers – could feature against Switzerland in Basel on Monday. When fit again, Theo Walcott and Kieran Gibbs will also hope to be prominent in Hodgson’s plans.
Once regarded as a blight on the growth of English talent, Arsene Wenger has become perhaps the most high-profile champion of the cause. Southampton have banked over £40m from selling Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chambers to the Gunners, who insisted on taking Welbeck on a permanent deal from rivals Manchester United and paid £16m for the privilege on transfer deadline day.
One man pleased at this development is former Arsenal left-back and England international Nigel Winterburn, even if he sees opportunism rather than design in Wenger’s growing penchant for buying English. “It’s difficult to say whether there’s been a conscious effort or it’s simply that the players have become available,” he tells Goal . “It’s probably just the right players at the right price and Arsenal being able to secure them in the market.
“Arsene would probably say he’s always wanted a core of English players, but before he maybe felt those players weren’t available.”
Winterburn, of course, formed part of the English backline that provided the foundation for Wenger’s first great Arsenal side, and he is in no doubt that both club and country will benefit from the Gunners’ maturing domestic spine. “It will help reinforce the values and traditions of Arsenal at the football club, because I believe that in England you do need that English core,” he insists.
“And it can only be positive when you’ve got players in the national side at big clubs. The way Arsenal play will eventually help the England team, because the one thing they haven’t been great with over the last few years is possession of the football and penetration.”
Key to the realisation of this vision is Jack Wilshere, the one-time golden boy of club and country now struggling to sparkle in the growing shadow cast by Aaron Ramsey’s brilliance. Tasked with becoming England’s new midfield talisman following the retirements of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, the 22-year-old, only two years removed from a 15-month injury nightmare, must first re-discover the key to unlock his fearless teenage best.
Time, however, remains on Wilshere’s side and Winterburn believes media criticism of him has been disproportionate. “It’s very harsh to say he’s not been at his best when he’s picked up so many injuries,” he adds. “It would be almost impossible for anyone to progress and I’m sure he’s very frustrated.
“Jack knows he’s always going to get that focus on him until he gets back to his best, but if he plays 40 games this season there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be back to the form people were judging him on two or three years ago.”
This sea change springs from the fact that beneath the lingering disillusionment and skepticism, there is a growing recognition of a new wave of talent boasting the genuine flair and creativity so lacking in the “Golden Generation”. Arsenal and Liverpool's English blocs have given plenty of grounds for optimism in the Premier League and many believe Sterling and Everton prodigy Ross Barkley are capable of becoming transcendent match-winners for club and country; few are so confident that Hodgson is the man to enable them all to shine in an England shirt.
Winterburn prefers to focus on the positive and insists that, regardless of the manager, the future of the national side seems bright. “We’ve entered a new era with a lot of young players, some exciting ones as well,” he enthuses.
“Roy Hodgson has to develop those players and give us some exciting football to look forward to. If he can’t then the next manager will come in and we’ll try again. But what we have to do is stick with the young squad we’ve got, and hopefully we’ll see another couple of players breaking through.
“What excites me is the attacking talent we’ve got. I think – I hope – we’re starting to turn the corner with England.”
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