England must repair their fractured relationship with mistrustful Premier League clubs
by Henry Winter
The trust has gone. Many Premier League clubs simply don’t trust England with their players any more. Club versus country is as old as international football, dating back to the 1870s, but never has the relationship been so fractured as now.
With European competition resuming, and Premier League combat intensifying, sensitivities are inevitably heightened. As England fly out to Copenhagen on Tuesday, club managers are left to sweat on the safe return of their prized assets.
In the past seven months, since the eve of the 2010 World Cup, the following stars have fallen lame on England duty either in training or in matches: Rio Ferdinand (twice), Aaron Lennon, Darren Bent (twice), Ben Foster, John Terry (three times), Peter Crouch, Michael Dawson, Jermain Defoe, Phil Jagielka, Jack Wilshere, Joe Hart and Steven Gerrard.
Such is England’s sensitivity over injuries that Capello’s players were permitted only nine holes of golf, or a maximum two hours’ play, at their base near Watford yesterday afternoon.
A familiar figure stood on the edge of a bunker at The Grove shortly after 3pm. Slightly hidden from view, this sole spectator closely scrutinised a tracksuited four-ball of advancing towards him. It was Capello, doubtless checking that none of his remaining squad members was coming to any harm.
Carnage follows England around. Before and during the last international, the November friendly with France, Capello’s camp resembled a scene from M*A*S*H. Wilshere and Hart were both crocked in the final training session, Terry aggravated a sciatic problem and then, most controversially, Gerrard tore a hamstring six minutes from time.
Liverpool were apoplectic, stating that Capello had reneged on a deal that Gerrard, who has a history of muscular problems, would play only 60 minutes. “Unbelievable from all associated with England and the English FA,” tweeted Liverpool’s head of fitness and conditioning Darren Burgess. “Completely ignored agreement and past history.
Completely amateurish and now we pay for their incompetence.
Absolutely disgraceful.” The toxic tweet was soon deleted but the point was made.
Gerrard’s injury even led to angry exchanges in the post-match press conference. Capello countered that as Ferdinand and Gareth Barry had gone off at half-time, he needed somebody ”senior” on. As Liverpool fumed, England’s popular medical man, Gary Lewin, quickly visited Melwood to try to put out some fires. Not easy. Liverpool lost their captain for six weeks. They were livid. They have not forgotten either.
Now Gerrard has been pulled out of tomorrow’s international with Liverpool citing a groin strain. The conspiracy theorists have had a field-day as Gerrard did complete the 90 minutes at the Bridge on Sunday. Suspicious minds abound.
Yet the midfielder is genuinely injured. Feeling the groin tighten with 15 minutes left against Chelsea, Gerrard signalled to Kenny Dalglish. Christian Poulsen was immediately ordered to warm up, even getting half-stripped, until Gerrard told Dalglish he could continue. After the match, he was assessed by England’s medical staff and released back to Liverpool as per regulations.
He is now struggling to face Wigan Athletic on Saturday.
Gerrard embodies the club-versus-country tension. He loves representing England and was mortified over the post-France fall-out.
He just loves playing but Liverpool’s medical department, led by the highly respected Peter Brukner, are very careful in their use of Gerrard. Essentially, it is a risk playing the 30-year-old twice a week which is why he was used so sparingly in the early stages of the Europa League.
England owe a duty of care to anyone selected. Dawson, for instance, suffered a serious knee injury making his first start against Bulgaria last year and Defoe, his Spurs team-mate, also hobbled away. “It was not a good day for the manager,” said Dawson yesterday. Harry Redknapp loves his players reporting for England but will inevitably feel anxious about them getting injured.
“Maybe the manager is thinking that,” said Dawson, “but as a player, walking on the pitch, even for a friendly, I will give it my all. It was an amazing feeling to sing that national anthem. It will always be an honour to wear the three lions on your shirt.”
So for all the talk of international football losing its importance, of clubs fighting country, England matters to players. Talk to any young professional about how they fell in love with the game and many will mention sitting bewitched at home, watching England in the World Cup or European Championship.
The last word should go to Stuart Pearce. “When I represented England for the very first time, I can remember Bobby Robson’s words like it was yesterday,” recalled Pearce. “He said ’this is the best football team you will ever play for’. It certainly was in my career.”
So Bernstein and Horne, Capello, Lewin and Franco Baldini need to liaise more closely with the Premier League clubs. The trust has gone and everyone, clubs, country and particularly the players, are losing out.