It’s hard to believe Gazza wasn’t a shoo-in for England’s Italia 90 squad.
The Tottenham man, who would capture the world’s heart in an explosion of talent and emotion at that summer’s World Cup, still had a question mark against his name only months before the tournament began in 1990.
That was until one night in late April, anyway. With 46 days before the Three Lions took to the field for their first group match against Republic of Ireland, Gascoigne turned in the sort of virtuoso performance in a friendly victory over Czechoslovakia that meant he couldn’t be ignored.
Three assists, topped off by a goal of his own, all but sealed Gazza’s place in Bobby Robson’s squad. The stage was set for him to take the tournament by storm. For lung-busting runs, match-winning moments and semi-final tears.
Gascoigne’s emergence became the blueprint for all future England hopefuls, aiming to come up the rails to play a major role in a World Cup campaign.
And as we enter a World Cup year ahead of Qatar 2022, there’s a new set of wannabes wanting to muscle their way into Gareth Southgate’s 23-man party next November.
At the front of the queue currently are the likes of Conor Gallagher, Emile Smith Rowe and Jarrod Bowen, who are enjoying impressive seasons. A prerequisite for anyone to even enter the conversation of a call-up. If they want to stand any chance of reaching the finals in 10 months’ time, that form needs to continue.
Each of the players to make a late lunge for an England World Cup squad place has that in common. Well, unless your name is Theo Walcott.
The teenager was the shock call-up of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s 2006 World Cup squad. A relative unknown to many fans, Walcott hadn’t played a Premier League game and was touted as a secret weapon. A joker in the pack that could catch opponents unaware.
Robson had done something similar in 1990 when naming Wolves striker Steve Bull in his squad for Italia 90, despite playing in the second tier. Albeit Bully had been given the chance to prove himself in the run up to the tournament, scoring four times for England ahead of his selection.
It was a luxury Walcott didn’t have. Although, as Eriksson suggested years later, he believes we make too much of a deal out of which players creeps in as a squad’s number 22 or 23. Yeah, right.
“If you don’t have a clear one, why not take a young, talented one for the future?” Sven replied when asked about in on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football in 2020. “Because the player picked at number 23 will not win the World Cup for you.”
It’s possible Roy Hodgson felt the same way. Better to call on youth in those final squad places in order to offer experience to future stars instead of opting for more-storied alternatives.
In 2014, Hodgson drafted in 21-year-old Ross Barkley in preference of Michael Carrick, and chose a teenage Luke Shaw ahead of the vastly experienced Ashley Cole.
“How do you get experience?” Hodgson asked at the squad announcement. “You get it by getting the opportunity… it’s a catch 22… but the balance is good. Everyone is inexperienced until they get the chance to do the job.”
It’s a trend that suggests any close calls for spots on the periphery of the squad may be decided with age as a key factor. But while offering experience is a positive move, managers may also be considering their squad’s make up – and the late inclusion can be as much about who they’re picked ahead of as it is about themselves. And that doesn’t automatically mean a young protégé stepping up.
That may have been part of Glenn Hoddle’s thinking in picking Rob Lee instead of Gascoigne for the 1998 World Cup. At 32, Lee was one year Gazza’s senior, but didn’t have the same profile to cause a distraction – either in person or among the media – if he wasn’t in the starting XI.
It means that even if a player’s numbers stack up, it’s no guarantee they’ll be included. After all, a World Cup squad is rarely simply a nation’s 23 most talented players. If some individuals aren’t going to be starters, an international manager might not like the idea of them travelling as a bit-part player.
Hoddle wasn’t averse to turning to youth in ’98, though, and was happy to back emerging stars, with Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen all earning places in his World Cup squad despite their relative inexperience at international level.
Owen had only made his Liverpool debut 12 months before getting in England’s squad for the World Cup and became the Three Lions’ youngest player of the 20th century when he won his maiden cap against Chile a few months earlier. But 23 goals in all competitions in 97/98 meant he was on the plane, with Andy Cole the one missing out due to being “in a similar mould” to Owen, despite netting 25 himself.
It was a decision that paid dividends, with Owen scoring against Romania as a substitute before playing a starring role in England’s fateful last-16 tie with Argentina. Only Geoff Hurst’s exploits in 1966 – four goals in three knockout matches, only months after making his international debut – stand as a stronger example of a forward making such a big impact at a World Cup so soon after their England debut.
Being on a hot streak will undoubtedly help a player’s case to get that prized call-up, but there’s no guarantee when there are plenty of options to choose from.
That’s what adds an extra element to 2022’s World Cup selection. As it’s not a season-ending tournament, but a mid-campaign competition, the chances of a one-season wonder playing into the reckoning is far slimmer because they’ll need to sustain their form into 2022/23.
That could be an especially tall order for Gallagher, whose Crystal Palace loan will only take him to May – and no guarantee of where or what role the ensuing six months will offer if he stays a parent club Chelsea after that.
Add to that Southgate’s preference to having a strong core of players in the national camp that form the backbone of his squad – unless they suffer injury or a dramatic loss of club form – and it’s tough to predict what will stick.
But if they can take any chance to impress for England like some of their fellow bolters have done in past decades, it will do their cause the world of good.