UEFA’s brand, spanking new Nations League got off to a tepid start, with Germany playing out a lifeless scoreless draw with world champions France, and Ireland’s no-show in losing 4-1 to Wales.
The aim of this new venture is to remove the “friendly” aspect of international football, replace it with something more competitive, with the chance of a back-door place at the next Euros the prize on offer. That’s if anyone at the participating countries’ football associations has worked out the labyrinthine rules; a fixture is only competitive if the competing teams actually want to compete.
Meanwhile, it was a friendly match that seized the international agenda. A dispute over image rights caused an impasse between Denmark’s players and the Danish Football Association. It has been resolved ahead of the Danes’ Nations League match with Wales, but lasted long enough for a makeshift, semi-pro team to lose 3-0 to Slovakia.
DANISH FOOTBALL IN CRISIS
A team of amateurs and futsal players will earn their first Danish caps against Slovakia tomorrow with the regular squad in dispute with the county’s football association.
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) September 5, 2018
The dispute meant no players from Denmark’s top two divisions or any of the country’s multitude of emigres were allowed to play. Thus, Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel came up against a scratch team made up of a futsal international goalkeeper, a part-time salesman, a student and a freestyle star of YouTube and Instagram.
A match between Denmark and Slovakia has never received such a level of international interest and it became tempting to consider what might occur if such a state of play befell the England national team and a dispute over bonuses meant Gareth Southgate could not select a team from the Premier League or Championship, or any of the meagre number of Englishmen plying their trade overseas.
To follow the Danish example, where coach Age Hareide was stood down for the Slovakia match, and Euro ’92 hero and Arsenal anti-hero John Jensen was parachuted in, Southgate might not even get a chance to preside over this hobbledehoy group. Instead, someone else, say David Platt, might come in from the cold to take the reins.
It has been a long time since England called up a player from the third tier, when Wolves goal machine Steve Bull was capped in 1989 by Bobby Robson, though Jack Butland was an uncapped third-choice goalkeeper at Euro 2012 having only played senior matches for Cheltenham Town on loan from Birmingham City.
There are jewels in the lower divisions, as shown by so many of Southgate’s World Cup semi-finalists having plied their trade down there, including Butland, Dele Alli at MK Dons, Harry Maguire at Sheffield United, Fabian Delph at Leeds, Nick Pope at Charlton, Jordan Pickford through a series of loans, and Jamie Vardy in non-league football. Only five members of England’s 23-man squad had only ever played top-flight football.
Those players’ career arcs eventually took them to the Premier League, but pulling together a squad in a rush job might not be so easy. Nevertheless, there is a rich seam to be mined. Sunderland can boast midfielder Max Power, outstanding for Wigan last season, and a star so far of his new club’s revival under manager Jack Ross, despite being sent off last weekend’s draw with Oxford.
In Josh Maja, born Lewisham of Nigerian parents, and still to declare for either nation, Sunderland boast a teenage star who has scored four times already this season. League One’s joint-leading goalscorer, Kieffer Moore, of Barnsley is another option, as is Matt Godden of Peterborough, currently top of League One. A division below them, Tranmere striker James Norwood was named League Two player of the month for August, having also scored the goal that won last season’s National League playoffs.
Norwood’s team-mate Steve McNulty, the 34-year-old defender who vindicates men of greying hair and a more generous body shape, would be a novelty selection, but someone whose leadership qualities have been praised at every club he has played for and could serve as a captain in the finest traditions of English stout yeomanry.
Kyle Dempsey, 22, learning at the feet of Joey Barton at Fleetwood, was linked with a couple of clubs further up the ladder in the summer and has made a decent start to the season in midfield. Michael Doughty, once of QPR, has made a fine start to life as a midfielder at League Two Swindon, scoring five goals already.
As shown by the rise of Pickford, Butland and others, including Alex McCarthy, in Southgate’s current squad, the lower divisions are often a hotbed for goalkeepers. Dillon Barnes of Colchester United, who spent time on loan last season at non-league Welling and Hemel Hempstead, has taken the eye at just 22 in League Two.
Beyond that potted selection there is almost certainly plenty more to unearth in case of a Danish-style emergency.