A few weeks ago, at a press conference in a Berlin hotel function room with high ceilings and a wide array of pastries on a table outside, Roy Hodgson was asked whether Mark Noble could consider himself unlucky not to be in the England squad for the friendly against Germany. Hodgson is not a man who strikes you as one who gets irked easily, but he did seem momentarily a little cross. Perhaps exasperated is a better word, which is understandable for a man who has an entire nation looking over his shoulder while he works, saying “No, no, you’re doing it all wrong. Get out of the way – let me do it.”
“The fact is there are always two or three players that are in the news that many people would like to be selected or think are better than the players I have selected,” he said. “That is the nature of my job…Before the World Cup it was Grant Holt so there is always somebody.”
He may not have meant that last line to be a gag, but it got a laugh anyway. Poor old Grant Holt, Rochdale’s finest who didn’t even have a former career as a beetroot packer to propel him to international stardom, reduced to a punchline. The point was sound, though: there is always somebody, which probably comes about due to a combination of people being contrary, people genuinely thinking other players deserve a chance, the old chestnut of parochial interests and an English desire never to be truly happy and have something to kvetch about.
A similar thing has happened with Andy Carroll. We all know and love the big man by now, and we know what to expect from him. He’ll play a few games, look like some sort of tree made entirely of muscle, arrange his hair in a slightly different way for every comeback, score some goals, create a bit of havoc then get injured again. Night follow day, eggs do indeed turn out to be eggs and Arsenal display themselves to be spineless frauds. All of this is known.
What’s also known is that, for some reason, people lose their absolute sh*t about Andy Carroll. Whenever there’s a hint that he might remain standing for more than three games, or scores a goal, or thunders towards some defenders like the boulder from Indiana Jones, people fall over themselves to insist he must be in the England reckoning. This is at least partly because these days he is so very different to almost anything else around; in an era when quick, technical players are the most valuable currency, a powerful, lumbering galoot who can head the ball harder than some can kick the thing is bound to stand out, and to thus inspire some pretty breathless, sweaty opinions.
Maybe people like him because he’s your cliched ‘old-fashioned’ centre-forward; maybe people like him because he’s an uncomplicated sort – see ball, head ball, knock over man; maybe people like him for all sorts of complicated reasons to do with masculinity and the supposed feminisation of society. Maybe people just think he’s fun to watch.
Carroll is very ‘other’ in modern football, a man slightly out of time who would be more at home in an era when goalkeepers could be bundled into the net, with the ball as a pleasant bonus rather than the primary target, and grappling at corners was encouraged rather than penalised. This walking symbol of what English centre-forwards used to look like has, rather curiously, become quite exotic through his sheer differentness. And when some teams are increasingly on the lookout for ball-playing central defenders rather than beefy thugs who remove their false teeth as an act of intimidation (which Kenny Burns did to Kevin Keegan before the 1980 European Cup final – apparently it looked like his mouth was full of raw meat), maybe having someone that different makes a certain amount of sense.
It is odd that people seem so instantly keen to get Carroll in the England team, though, particularly this England team. The nomination of Noble at least made some portion of sense because England’s midfield is not exactly set in stone. Eric Dier and Dele Alli should be shoo-ins, but James Milner’s season has been average, ditto Jordan Henderson’s before he got injured, Danny Drinkwater probably deserves a shot but beyond that there isn’t much to get excited about. But the one thing we can probably all join hands and agree upon is that Hodgson has a good few options up top. This is a team in which many argue the captain and national record goalscorer shouldn’t have a spot, the top-scorer for the champions elect isn’t guaranteed a starting spot and Daniel Sturridge, in whom two years ago so much faith was placed, will probably go to France as the fifth-choice forward.
People will make the case for Carroll as ‘an option off the bench’, again citing his differentness, but England haven’t exactly got anyone like David Beckham to swing in a bunch of crosses from which Carroll could be useful, leading to the prospect of Carroll just standing on the penalty spot, forlorn and frustrated like a dog waiting to be fed. And then there’s the added complication of him almost inevitably conceding about a billion free-kicks, as referees abroad usually take a rather more dim view of his sprawling aerial physicality than those in England.
The Carroll question was put to Hodgson last week, and that irritation was there again, Mr Roy suggesting that it would be ‘disrespectful’ to the other forwards if Carroll was waved into the England team having not played much this season. That is a little odd from the man who appears desperate to get Jack Wilshere into his squad, but again you can sort of see his point.
Hodgson doesn’t seem to quite understand why people go quite so squiffy for Carroll, a man who looks like he should be much more effective than he actually is. He’s essentially a visceral novelty, but as we all know sooner or later the, erm, novelty of a novelty wears off. He’s not a punchline like Grant Holt, but nor is he someone we should get quite so excited about.