What Even Is an England Player?

Getty Images/Michael Regan

What even is an England player? Throughout most of the last decade, it wasn’t hard to define what an England player was. It was a person who had been in the last England squad and was going to be in the next one. Once that first archaic-looking cap was placed in the player’s display cabinet, things became just a little bit easier for them. They’d never again have to do quite as much to get into an England squad.

There were players called up to represent England who were already capped but weren’t getting the game-time they ideally wanted at club level. They made it back into the England setup for two reasons. They already had their statuses as England players, plus, this was the national team’s lowest trough in terms of squad competitiveness. Jack Wilshere’s selection for Euro 2016 epitomises this; he’d only just recovered from a leg break and had clocked up a mere 141 minutes of football across the entire 2015/16 season. Roy Hodgson was understandably tempted by his obvious talents, but reserving him a seat on the plane was the wrong decision.

That wouldn’t happen now. It wouldn’t need to. In some ways, Hodgson isn’t wholly blameworthy for Wilshere’s inclusion at the last Euros. Had there been enough adequate alternatives, the Arsenal man wouldn’t have been risked — another player would have travelled and Wilshere would have stayed in North London to recoup his match sharpness.

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England’s current manager Gareth Southgate finds himself tackling an altogether different conundrum. The antithesis of Hodgson’s quandary, Southgate has too many options. The players at his disposal are better than Hodgson’s lot, and there are more of them. To borrow a certified football cliché, what a delightful problem to have.

The right-back position is a good case in point. England have the world’s most valuable right-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold; his mesmerising assists and goals for Liverpool, along with his sheer youth at just 22, mean he’s currently valued by CIES at an extraordinary €151.6m — only Marcus Rashford and Erling Haaland rank higher worldwide. But rivalling Alexander-Arnold for England caps are Manchester City’s Kyle Walker; Reece James of Chelsea; Atlético Madrid’s Kieran Trippier; and West Bromwich Albion’s new loan signing Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

Don’t forget, they’re just the players already capped at senior level. Kyle Walker-Peters, James Justin, Tariq Lamptey, Matty Cash, Luke Ayling and most notably Aaron Wan-Bissaka would be in with great shouts to earn international debuts in the coming March break if they weren’t all fighting for one of the most hotly contested positions in the national team’s long history.

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It’s not just at right-back, either. One of the main criticisms recently aimed at Southgate is that the newly adopted 3-4-3 formation removes the opportunity to play even one attacking midfielder or ‘No10’. Quite understandably, that has upset a lot of people. They’ve asked: Why pick a system that means you can’t play any of Phil Foden, Mason Mount, James Maddison, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jesse Lingard or Dele in their favoured position?

Assuming England persevere with 3-4-3, the lucky two or three playmakers who do make the final 23-man squad for the rescheduled Euro 2020 would be deployed out of position as box-to-box midfielders or more likely as makeshift wingers alongside Harry Kane in the forward-line. Or they wouldn’t feature at all. That only increases the ruthlessness with which the team’s other overpopulated position will be picked by the manager. Add the most likely trio of Foden, Mount and Maddison to the list of established wide-forwards, and you don’t envy Southgate. Raheem Sterling, Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, Harvey Barnes, Mason Greenwood and Callum Hudson-Odoi would all be regular internationals in world-class sides if they weren’t all English.

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That all serves as evidence that Southgate has an abundance of talent, a wealth of really high-calibre options; evidence that there are always gifted others waiting impatiently in the wings. So, reintroducing the question, what makes someone an England player? Is Fikayo Tomori an England player? The young defender earned his one and only cap for Southgate’s side in November 2019, but since then his decreasing playing time at Chelsea paved the way for AC Milan to take him on loan last month. Is he young? Yes. Is he likely to rediscover his rich early promise? Yes. Will he play for England again? Yes, he probably will, but there is an element of doubt about it. Capped, but perhaps not an established ‘England player’.

Sterling — is he an England player? He seems almost guaranteed to wear the red and white again. Still quite young, a major player for a top European club, and a world-class footballer. But even a smidgen of doubt is still doubt. Wayne Rooney’s international career was cut short very abruptly; the same can be said for John Terry, Paul Gascoigne and countless other ‘big names’. They probably all felt their England careers would last longer than they did. Is anyone truly an ‘England player’?

Karen Carney — who won 144 caps for England between 2005 and 2019 — spoke reflectively about what it means to be an ‘England player’ on a recent podcast. “On Twitter or Instagram, I never ever put ‘I play for England’,” she began.

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“You only borrow the jersey. Once you leave, you don’t know whether you’ll get it again, so how can you say that you play for England? You play when you’re here and then when you leave you don’t know. When you’re at your club, you’re contracted [for] that period of time. You borrow that jersey for as long as you can, but it’s never yours.”

Playing for England should evoke immense pride. But it’s not a God-given right to do so. It’s never a forgone conclusion that a player will be picked, re-picked and picked again. Whether two appearances or 102, no player should ever rest on their laurels once capped for the Three Lions. It should be the pinnacle — an honour and a privilege afforded to only the select few who work harder and perform better than anyone else in the country.

No one is really an ‘England player’. As Carney always reminded herself, “you only borrow the jersey.”

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