A Sterling Stick To Use On Hodgson...

It's very, very easy to write a column saying that the latest Bright Young Thing should start for England...but thankfully England have a manager and not an X Factor-style vote...

Last Updated: 04/06/14 at 10:18 Post Comment

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In March, the Daily Mail's Martin Samuel - never a man shy to state his case against all manner of straw men and 'mistakes' yet to be made - decried the lack of wingers in the England World Cup squad that would not be named for another two months. He screamed for more 'crackerjack wide players', for Raheem Sterling, Andros Townsend, Adam Lallana, Adam Johnson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to be on the plane to Brazil.

'One minute we bemoan the lack of talent, the next we haven't got room for it all. Make your minds up, gentlemen,' he wrote. We're unsure which anonymous 'gentlemen' he was addressing but presumably he's fuming that Johnson - rather good for five minutes at the turn of the year - was left behind. He should be pleased that Sterling, Lallana and Oxlade-Chamberlain did make the final 23-man squad but instead he's angry again...

'Raheem Sterling needs to start, Roy...England have a long-standing mistrust of talent that needs to end in Brazil,' was the headline on Monday's column, which fumes at the fact that the useful but uninspiring James Milner was brought on ahead of Sterling against Peru on Friday night. That will be Milner (45 caps) brought on ahead of Sterling (two caps) - a point Samuel uses to illustrate England's innate distrust of fancy players, via a whistlestop tour of Matt Le Tissier, Alan Hudson, Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Tony Currie and Peter Osgood.

What Samuel - and anyone else clamouring for the very talented but ultimately inexperienced Sterling to leapfrog Milner and Danny Welbeck - fails to recognise is that the Liverpool winger is just 19 and has already been fast-tracked into the senior set-up. Milner and Welbeck were not England internationals at 19; the fact that Sterling is there at all is an acknowledgement that he has a talent that far outweighs his rivals. The question is not whether he will become a better player than either of those hard-working but limited players, but whether he is a better option right now in what would easily be the biggest game of his career against Italy in Manaus.

It's incredibly easy to shout for the inclusion of an in-form player - especially when he plays for a club with a large and vociferous fanbase - and it's even easier when the alternatives appear to be so stodgy. There aren't many putting their hands up and pointing out that Welbeck had an incredibly similar strike rate to Sterling this season (nine goals from 45/46 shots) and was excellent against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, while Milner probably has even fewer people in his corner despite two Premier League titles in the last three seasons.

Having been robbed of one 'conservative' beating stick by Hodgson's brave and balanced squad selection (conservative would have been to include Ashley Cole, Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe), the next stick in hand is his reluctance to play the season's in-form XI, with no regard to performances in training, mental aptitude, experience or specific gameplans for specific opponents. Sod all that stuff, just play the kid who looks exciting - it's the easiest column to write as we approach a major tournament.

Sterling will start against Ecuador on Wednesday, could well be ruddy marvellous, but still find himself on the bench against Honduras on Saturday and Italy a week later. Hands will be thrown up in the air and we will wonder whether the same hands were thrown in the air 16 years ago when the precociously talented 18-year-old Michael Owen was left out of the starting line-up as England began their World Cup campaign in France.

Two games and two lively substitute appearances later, Owen - now acclimatised to tournament football - came into the England side, along with the similarly untested David Beckham. The England manager that year was Glenn Hoddle, now regularly wheeled out as one of the great sages of the game and a potential saviour of English football. He saved Owen until he was sure he was ready, initially using his pace as an 'option off the bench', a phrase decried by Samuel this week.

Hodgson may well decide to start Sterling against Italy - after all, he threw in the similarly youthful Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain two years ago - but should he choose the diligent Welbeck instead, it will be a decision based on rather more than 'who is the better player?' It's why we have a manager and don't choose the England team by public vote.

Sarah Winterburn

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