As it turned out, England’s squad announcement on Wednesday was hardly blessed with huge surprises. That’s mostly because Gareth Southgate had long pledged he would pick players on form and conditional on their playing regular football at club level.
It spelled obvious doom for a worryingly large group of Englishmen who could not be said to have fulfilled those criteria. There is plenty of talk of a paucity of options, but there is a case to be made that Southgate’s task was eased by the amount of players who have been struggling.
These players were once considered England certainties yet had dropped from view when it came to the final 23 being chosen. What became of those likely lads?
Joe Hart (Manchester City, 31)
‘Not going to lie, I’m gutted,” he wailed on Instagram. “I know what I bring to the team, but it is what it is.”
The truth is that, at just 31, Hart’s career is at a treacherous crossroads. It was only two years ago that he was outstanding in all but holding Real Madrid at bay for City. Then came Pep Guardiola’s insistence on a goalkeeper being good at passing and disappointing loan spells at Torino and West Ham in which Hart’s weakness down his left side became ever more exposed.
Hart may be gutted, but cannot be surprised.
Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool, 27)
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s gain has been his colleague’s loss.
A series of injuries, including a back problem that required surgery, have harpooned the former Southampton and Crystal Palace full-back’s hopes. Denied a role in Liverpool’s Champions League run, save for a cameo in Rome, a place in Russia and with such a talented understudy now eclipsing him, Clyne has endured a tough season.
Michael Keane (Everton, 25)
When Everton committed to a deal worth £30m for Burnley’s central defender, it appeared Keane’s long road to the top was near-complete, having been discarded by Louis van Gaal from Manchester United.
Keane, though, dropped from Southgate’s reckoning as he became a victim of Everton’s blighted season and failed to suggest himself as one of England’s back three. Harry Maguire took that spot instead.
Chris Smalling (Manchester United, 28)
Southgate’s snowballing reputation for straight-talking gained momentum with a very pointed dismissal of Smalling’s passing abilities.
“I think we made that decision in November and I’ve not seen any reason to change the thinking on that,” England’s manager confirmed this week.
Smalling’s club manager, Jose Mourinho, clearly has lesser demands on passing ability.
Luke Shaw (Manchester United, 22)
Brazil in 2014 was supposed to be a dry run for a glittering career, with Shaw given a run-out in England’s final, dead-rubber group game ahead of a £30m move from Southampton to Old Trafford. Four years on, injuries and conditioning issues have slowed Shaw’s trajectory to a halt, with Mourinho hardly doing or saying much to suggest the left-back can get himself back on track.
Jack Wilshere (Arsenal, 26)
Wilshere beat Hart to the social media punch, yet somehow managed to show even less self-awareness.
“I’ve felt fit, sharp and strong all season and believe I should be in the squad!” he tweeted. “And given the chance I could have made a real impact.”
The Wilshere of 2010-11 might have done just that, but the snarling antagonist that injuries have transformed him into clearly doesn’t fit into Southgate’s vision of slick, fast-breaking football. Wilshere’s slide is a dreadful shame, and his hubris casts a yet sadder shadow.
Ravel Morrison (Atlas, 25)
While Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba take to the World Cup stage, the United youth player considered much more talented than both by Sir Alex Ferguson has been playing for Atlas, who finished 15th in Mexico’s Liga MX. And Morrison was a bit-part there. Morrison’s tale includes brushes with the law, and short, abortive spells at Birmingham, West Ham and QPR, before a move to Lazio, from whence he has been loaned to Mexico.
He has not dropped away from the game entirely, but is edging to its fringes.
Ross Barkley (Chelsea, 24)
Another who was on the plane to Brazil four years ago, with promise aplenty to come, but whose career is now down a treacherous cul-de-sac.
Antonio Conte’s selection of Barkley at Newcastle last week for Chelsea, just a second start, bordered on the foolhardy, considering the midfielder’s anonymity since joining from Everton for a controversially low £14m. Heading to Stamford Bridge looks a serious misjudgement, and Barkley must hope the club’s next manager has a role for him.
Jack Grealish (Aston Villa, 22)
A lack of senior England appearances so far may have Ireland, the nation he turned his back on, feeling tinges of regret, but it is only in the last few months, and in the Championship with Villa, that Grealish has looked capable of fulfilling his teenage potential. Injuries and what might politely be termed a loss of focus have hindered him, but with a filled-out physique and a greater responsibility, he looks a prospect once more.
Theo Walcott (Everton, 29)
The watching brief he enjoyed as an uncapped 17-year-old naif at the 2006 World Cup now look like being his only experience of the finals. Walcott was omitted by Fabio Capello on the eve of South Africa 2010 and was injured for 2014, but having been dropped by Southgate on his 28th birthday last year, there appears no way back.
A January move to Everton was a belated step out of his Arsenal comfort zone.
Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool, 28)
While Liverpool stormed to the Champions League final, Sturridge was getting relegated with West Brom, a fate he could do little to prevent as yet another injury ruled him out of two months of the Baggies’ bid for safety. In Brazil four years ago, he displaced Wayne Rooney as his country’s frontline striker, yet is leagues down the pecking order for England as well as Liverpool, where his race is surely run.