By George Ankers
There was a joyless inevitability about the news of Jonjo Shelvey’s call-up to the England squad.
People called for the side to be refreshed, infused with younger blood after Euro 2012 and that remains the right thing to do. Players should be picked at the start of a qualification campaign who will be in a position to excel two summers later.
There is a difference, however, between picking new players who need to use those two years to learn their way around international football and picking new players who still need to learn their own game.
Shelvey is clearly going to pick up his fair share of caps for England in the years to come but he is some way off being ready for senior international football. He has yet to define and secure his role in the Liverpool team, yet to mature personally and professionally – witness his startlingly immature behaviour in the wake of his red card against Manchester United.
Regardless of whether or not Jonny Evans should have walked as well, lashing out at Sir Alex Ferguson and then following it up with a lunge-tackle goal celebration in a subsequent game betrays the fact that the 20-year-old has a lot of growing-up to do.
If Shelvey had put in his handful of promising recent performances (and they are promising) across the city for Everton, his inclusion for the Three Lions would be seen as a joke. Why pick an obviously raw young talent off the back of a few good games when many others have proved more on a regular basis for years?
Shelvey is not the only one to be called up having done very little, seemingly only because he has done it at a top-six side.
Already in Roy Hodgson’s short tenure, Martin Kelly, also of Liverpool, made it in to the 23-man squad for Euro 2012 as cover at right-back. He had played just 20 games that season, performing encouragingly for one of his age but already clearly needing to be moved to centre-back.
Tony Hibbert, a specialist right-back, reliable and capable, with over 250 Premier League games to his name, could consider himself a saint not for making a Grant Holt-like outburst. The Everton man is not the next Gary Neville but, if Glen Johnson had got injured, there can be no argument as to which of he and Kelly you would have preferred in a major tournament match there and then.
Again, Kelly may well go on to pick up many caps for England, but bringing a youngster along for the experience at a European Championship who may not even be able to dislodge Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger at his club in time for 2014? There was no sense in it.
Again at Liverpool, Raheem Sterling’s recent introduction to the senior set-up before even a single Under-21 match was ludicrous. Some exciting stepovers and one excellent cross against Manchester City were far from a case to bring the winger in ahead of Nathan Dyer, so outstanding for Swansea City last season.
Sterling is another who would do well to be developed enough for a role in Brazil in 2014 but the slightest hype at Anfield and into the squad he comes.
An encouraging counterpoint to the 17-year-old’s call was that of Adam Lallana. At 24, the Southampton captain fits the bill exactly of a player who is young enough to play a part for many years to come but has done the work at club level to prepare himself for international duty first.
Over three increasingly impressive seasons, Lallana has polished his game, blossoming into a player clearly far above Championship level, and matured enough to earn the skipper’s armband at St Mary’s Stadium. He offers freshness to England but is also a complete player, a ready-made option for Hodgson.
So why, when Frank Lampard gets a knock, does Shelvey get the nod? Lallana goes forgotten and Leon Osman, another unsung player in a similar position to the Liverpool youngster, is overlooked once again as well.
This is not only a bias towards Liverpool. Look at Manchester United’s Tom Cleverley. Again, the midfielder has obvious ability and potential but only made 15 appearances in 2011-12, a season which should have been key to his growth had he not been injured.
His rawness was obvious against Ukraine in September when, in the No.10 role, he was skittish and ill-composed. Cleverley will have a role to play going forward but both he and England would be better served if he concentrated on learning at Old Trafford first.
Hodgson is not the first to exhibit this bias towards players from the “big six” but is on track to take it further than before. As well as those mentioned, Ryan Bertrand is still yet to do anything of serious note at Chelsea. James Milner runs around perfectly well but so do countless others in the Premier League.
Danny Welbeck has not disgraced himself for England so far but will clearly struggle to continue his development with regular first-team action in the bolstered attacking ranks at United. Meanwhile, in Scotland they decry Celtic goal-machine Gary Hooper’s absence from the international reckoning.
Holt’s rant was brash but he had a point – his demonstration of all-round ability and goals against the league’s best warranted a test in a friendly or two. Rickie Lambert of Southampton’s ability has been clear to regular watchers for some time. Danny Graham of Swansea City must be knocking on the door too. And that is just up front.
Scott Sinclair: Overlooked this summer for Stewart Downing. Leon Britton: Ignored in favour of Jordan Henderson. Jonny Howson is at the very least no further away from the required level than Henderson, nor Newcastle’s Danny Simpson compared to Kelly. Dyer. Lallana. Osman. Hibbert.
Rather than throw youngsters in before they are ready, when fans will expect results immediately, Hodgson needs to look beyond the small splashes in the big ponds and put some faith in those thriving in smaller waters.
Follow George Ankers on