Gareth Southgate had not appreciated Wilfried Zaha’s international future was on a “disappearing egg timer”, but the England manager is only interested in players desperate to represent the country.
Frustration at a lack of opportunities and continued interest from the Ivory Coast came to a head in late November as the Crystal Palace winger switched allegiance.
Zaha had made two senior appearances for England but the fact both came in friendlies allowed the winger to instead represent his country of birth.
The winger has sparkled since returning from the African Nations Cup and underlined his talent with an outstanding solo goal against Russia last week, bringing into focus the international switch Southgate tried in vain to reverse.
“I didn’t really appreciate there was this disappearing egg timer on him going to the Ivory Coast,” he said of a player he watched at Burnley, 22 days before his switch. “And of course I was interim manager at the point.
“He was the first player I went and saw when I got the job permanently but he’d already made his mind up to go across to the Ivory Coast.”
Southgate was unable to sway the player he coached at under-21 level, despite visiting him at Palace’s team hotel before December’s match at Hull.
The England boss’ clear frustration at losing Zaha is tempered by seeing him playing “with a smile on his face” after difficult spells at Manchester United and Cardiff.
And while it could prove a big loss in the long run, Southgate has not appreciated Palace chairman Steve Parish’s “quite vociferous view” on the issue.
Hardly a withdrawn character, he called Zaha’s switch a “huge blow” for England to lose the winger and took to social media after his stunning effort for the Ivory Coast to ask “why is this goal not for England?”
“I know Steve’s an intelligent guy who’s done a great job for that football club,” former Palace defender Southgate said.
“I’m not sure it’s helpful to comment. I wouldn’t comment on his decisions and we’re both in important roles.
“But he is passionate about his football, his players.
“I spoke to him during that process as well, he was keen to push that forward. I totally understand it.
“But I go back to that it was a very small timescale for me to pick him.
“I didn’t want to pick him just because there was a chance that might happen, but the first opportunity I had as permanent manager I did go and speak to him.”
Zaha joins the likes of Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi in switching nationalities after representing England at one level or another, with eligibility something the Football Association is wary about.
“We’ve always got to have in our mind that there’s a hell of a lot of youngsters in our system, from 15s up, who are dual nationality or more, so there’s a constant dilemma,” Southgate added.
“(Ben) Woodburn would be an example. He had a training camp with us, went to a training camp with Wales and you run the risk any time you leave a player out of squads of them going across to another country.
“But in the end I have to focus on players who are desperate to play for England. For me, it’s different to a club.
“If you feel that internal 100 per cent passion for playing for England, then I’m not sure it’s for me to sell that to you. I think it should be your desire to do it.
“Although I’m always willing to sit down with players, it should be them coming to us.
“I don’t think it’s the same as a club where you’re trying to sell the benefits of the club and you’re competing (against other clubs).
“I get that we are competing against other countries and players want to feel valued at all times, but the inherent desire of playing for your country is the most important thing if we are going to be successful.”
That desire to be successful led Sam Allardyce to reveal he tried to call up French-born midfielder Steven N’Zonzi, while a recent report mentioned Celtic’s Moussa Dembele possibly being on England’s radar.
Successor Southgate leaves FA technical director Dan Ashworth to take such calls and pointed to Jermain Defoe as the kind of player he wants to build a team with.
“His whole life has been a desire to play for England right from under-16s all the way through,” he said of Sunday’s goalscorer.
“I don’t think if you’d approached him later to play for someone else, he would have done it.
“That’s where I was with it – I didn’t get capped until I was 25. I had no interest in playing for anyone else.
“I’m English and proud to be English and I think part of your identity as a national team has to be pride in the shirt, so for me the commitment has to come from the player.”