Roy Hodgson selects his squad on Thursday for the double-header of World Cup qualifying games away to San Marino and Montenegro, and speculation is rife that there may be a recall on the cards for Rio Ferdinand. Given that Hodgson had said that the United defender had been left out of previous squads “purely for footballing reasons,” it seems logical that any potential for a recall should only be based on that same criterion. So is there a footballing case for selecting Rio?
There’s very little doubt that in his prime Rio Ferdinand was one of the outstanding English defenders of his generation, and his tally of 81 international caps to date, shows that this assessment was shared by a succession of England managers. Now in his thirty-fifth year, however the case may be less compelling. So, let’s consider the arguments for and against his inclusion.
The ‘pro-selection’ argument runs a little like this. Whilst of course, you have to look at developing a squad that can compete in the World Cup finals, you first have to get there, and this means giving qualifying matches their due attention. The games against San Marino and Montenegro could hardly be better suited for Ferdinand. The game in the Italian enclave should be a stroll, and the type of game where a ‘footballing’ centre back would excel, with lots of possession, and the requirement to carry the ball forward into midfield. Then, looking at what will probably be the key game of Montenegro away, a cauldron-like atmosphere will be the order of the day and the requirement for a ‘been there, done that’ attitude and experience is obvious. Ferdinand fits the bill in both cases. Additionally, when you consider the alternatives to Rio - Cahill, Jagielka, Lescott and probably Caulker – none of them played in their clubs’ most recent games, and any claims for them to be an automatic ‘first eleven’ selection, when fit, would be wide of the mark. Playing for the team fifteen points clear in the Premier League, Ferdinand would make that claim. It seems an overwhelming case for inclusion, but there is an alternative viewpoint.
Despite his obvious technical ability, Ferdinand is 34 and rarely plays two consecutive games for his club on a weekend and then midweek schedule. This is precisely what England are facing, so if his club thinks this may not be sensible, is it folly for England to ignore this? You could of course not play him in San Marino, saving him for the big game in Podgorica. This would mean however running the risk of playing him in a defensive unit of which he hasn't been a part for years, in a key game against dangerous opponents. Would that be wise? Further, we’re not talking about a mid-twenties player full of lung-busting energy. For all of his talent, Ferdinand is not only 34, but also coming off the back of a series of wear and tear injuries. And, yes, there is always the case of making sure we qualify before we worry about selecting a squad for the finals, but is it likely that Ferdinand, who would by then be in his thirty-sixth year, would be in the squad? Probably not, I guess.
No-one ever said that managing England was easy. Having a football debate over a pint or two with your mates down the pub about team selection is one thing, but doing it for real, must be an entirely different proposition. It will be a big risk not selecting Ferdinand, as if things go wrong, Hodgson will doubtless be pilloried not only for the sin of omission, but also for appearing to be stubborn and unwilling to correct an error. Sadly, restoring him to the squad may turn out to be an even bigger risk. So what will swing it, one way or the other for Hodgson. Am I the only one who thinks that when Hodgson ponders the Rio conundrum, he’ll be grateful for the input of a guy who knows Rio so well, England coach Gary Neville. It may be that the inclusion, or otherwise, of Ferdinand may hinge on the support of his old team mate.