The seats on England’s plane to Johannesburg next summer are no closer to being filled after a 1-0 defeat by Brazil that had more negatives than positives. Missing half a dozen names from the regular teamsheet, Fabio Capello was forced to call on a number of fringe players and most of them did little to force themselves further into the World Cup reckoning. In some cases, lacklustre performances may have moved players further down the pecking order. Sadly, in the last week one player has been completely removed from the pool of England players available to the Italian, while conversely, another has re-emerged. The future of West Ham’s Dean Ashton is in doubt, while Chelsea’s Joe Cole will soon be back in England contention.
It was reported last week by the London Evening Standard that Ashton was to announce his retirement from football imminently, bringing an end to a career that showed moments of brilliance but, like many, was tempered by injuries. The Hammers continue to deny Ashton’s career hangs in the balance, but the former Norwich striker has not played a game in 14 months. A tackle from Shaun Wright-Phillips left Ashton with a broken ankle while on England duty and Ashton missed the whole of the 2006/07 season as a result, and that is when Ashton’s problems began. West Ham were able to call upon the ex-Crewe player for the following year and Ashton responded with 11 goals in 35 games. He was rewarded with a place in Capello’s England squad that toured North America and finally made his England bow against Trinidad and Tobago in June 2008, over two years after he was originally selected for the Three Lions. But from that peak, Ashton’s career again stagnated because of an ankle injury. After two goals in the first five games of the 2008/09 season, Ashton sprained his previously broken ankle in Gianfranco Zola’s first training session and has not been able to play since. His last game may turn out to be against West Brom, for the Hammers, in September 2008.
If that is the case, it would be a real blow, not just to the player and his club, but to England. Capello has been searching for the perfect foil to Wayne Rooney, the strike partner to get the best out of the Manchester United forward, and Dean Ashton could have been that man. The Swindon-born striker has the physical presence of Emile Heskey, who is in possession of the No 9 shirt, but Ashton is far more skilful. Of the other contenders for the position, Ashton, at his best, is more mobile than Peter Crouch and more rounded than Darren Bent. The most similar player currently available to England may be Ashton’s West Ham teammate Carlton Cole, but the former Aston Villa striker needs to show he possesses the drive and determination required to force his way into the England team.
England’s World Cup hopes may rest on Capello getting the best out of Rooney, and Rooney often plays his best football when paired with a target man, someone who holds his position centrally and occupies the defence. That can allow Rooney to roam the field in search of the most dangerous position and still give both Rooney and the team a reference point in the attack, someone to take the ball into feet and lay it off again or attack a cross whipped in from wide. But to partner Rooney, that player also needs the technical ability to link with the brilliant former Everton forward and the mental prowess to think as fast as Rooney does on the field. Ashton, capable of all kinds of goals, from bullet headers at Goodison Park in March 2008, to overhead kicks at Old Trafford in May of the same year, could have been the player to get the best out of Wayne Rooney. England and West Ham fans alike should hope the talk of Ashton’s retirement is premature.
If Capello does lose the services of Ashton, then the former Juventus Coach may be buoyed by the return to action of Joe Cole. Against Brazil, England looked devoid of ingenuity, lacking the spark that separates World Cup winners from World Cup also-rans. Without Steven Gerrard, that may have been understandable. But arguably the most naturally gifted English player of his generation, the one capable of unlocking even the tightest of defences and the individual who could make the difference between success and failure next June is the Chelsea player. Cole’s unavailability for much of the qualifying campaign, after suffering knee ligament damage, may make it difficult for him to find a place in the starting line-up, but with one friendly remaining, Capello will surely explore the option should the mercurial Cole stay fit. Heskey has been Rooney’s regular strike partner, but if he fails to find first team football before the World Cup, the former Roma tactician may drop the Villa player. While there are a number of forwards who could replace Heskey, if Gerrard slotted in behind Rooney for England as he does for Liverpool behind Fernando Torres, a Joe Cole-sized space may open up in midfield. It is too late to alter England’s formation to accommodate Cole in his most effective position at the point of the diamond, but, playing nominally from the left wing, Cole given the freedom to stray from his wide berth would give England a dimension no other player can provide. Width down the left flank would come from Joe’s namesake Ashley, while the space vacated by both Coles could be ably filled by Gareth Barry. Even from the bench, having the former West Ham player in the squad would make England much more dangerous opposition for Brazil than they were on Saturday should the two nations face each other again as they journey along the road to World Cup glory.
The differing fortunes of Ashton and Joe Cole – current and former West Ham players – highlight the problem Capello faces between now and June. The Italian would surely love to call on Ashton, Owen Hargreaves or Ledley King, but fate has conspired to render those players seemingly permanently unavailable. Phil Jagielka was struck down during his most impressive season to date in April this year, and has yet to play again and may not before 2009 becomes 2010. Injuries robbed Don Fabio of Cole’s services for much of the qualification campaign, and while England barely missed a beat without the impish midfielder, Capello will be hoping Cole will contribute next summer in a way Ashton sadly will not. The difference between more quarter-final disappointment for England and a second World Cup trophy could be one player, and that one player could be Joe Cole.