Football’s moral malaise and the Olympic Games GOLD RUSH (note the tabloidy uppercase) have collided of late, creating an ungodly smog of righteous posturing, largely from people who will either gleefully return to their football-focused lives today, or middle-class part-time sports “audience” members who aren’t interested in football anyway. It’s been said in many quarters that enthusiasm for the new season is low as a result. Not here – for all of my own criticism of football, footballers and football fans, I can’t wait.
As much as the majority of my football intake is of the non-league variety, the Aston Villa supporter in me is delighted that today has arrived and football is now almost entirely back. For England, a new manager begins his job proper in earnest and there are plenty of players looking to either obtain or retain a place in the England squad for the FIFA World Cup in 2014. Those battles begin this weekend.
Jermain Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur)
After briefly looking like contenders last season, Tottenham Hotspur won’t be tempting many Betfair users in their Premier League title bets again this season. Andre Villas-Boas has come in, but is yet to bolster Spurs’ decimated striking options. For the club, it remains a position of overall weakness – in fact, only one senior striker remains and even he is puzzlingly linked with a move away in the remainder of the transfer window.
Jermain Defoe scored a fantastic goal for England against Italy on Wednesday and looked as lively as ever. He’s a player who thrives on confidence and needs games, something he’s not enjoyed with much regularity at White Hart Lane over the years. Unless Villas-Boas and Spurs move fast in the summer mercato, Defoe is going to be not only a regular starter but a key player for his team. If Villas-Boas’ career in England takes off and Spurs do well, the former Portsmouth striker could even hit the 20-goal mark.
Ryan Bertrand (Chelsea)
Ashley Cole turns 32 in December and England will soon lose a second excellent, long-term full back after Gary Neville retired and eventually joined the England staff. Leighton Baines is a fixture in the England squad but the left back spot will become a keenly contested position as Cole approaches the end of his international career. Not so long ago, Kieran Gibbs was the man widely tipped to be Cole’s replacement. Ryan Bertrand, though, has stolen a march.
He made his England debut in Bern against Italy last week, capping a uniquely successful summer period for the 23-year-old Londoner. He was given his European debut by Roberto di Matteo in Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League final win over Bayern Munich, and certainly delivered. Just over a month later he was called into the Great Britain Squad for the Olympic Games, playing in all four matches and a friendly against Brazil. Is he the heir to Cole’s throne? This season should offer some significant clues.
Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton)
A relatively recent debutant in the England Under-21s, 21-year-old full back Nathaniel Clyne has finally shaken off the oft-given label of “Crystal Palace contract rebel” by leaving Palace and signing a contract with someone else instead. Despite his modest years, Clyne has played over 120 Football League games for the Eagles since graduating from their youth system, and has won almost endless plaudits along the way. When other popular players have left, many a Palace fan has been merely relieved that it wasn’t Clyne making his way through the exit.
Now, highly rated Clyne has his chance to prove his worth in the Premier League. Two months after securing their promotion back to the Premier League, Southampton manager Nigel Adkins drafted the Londoner in as he tweaked the squad for a new challenge. Clyne, defensively effective and an ambitious attacker, has all the tools. All that remains now is to find the proof of the pudding by giving it a nibble in the Premier League.
Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)
Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere has really looked the part in his Premier League appearances for Bolton Wanderers and Arsenal, but his recovery from an ankle injury has already out-lasted most recent long-term Premier League injuries and will continue months into the new season. But when 20-year-old Wilshere returns to the fold, he will find himself with new expectations and different challenges.
Now the proud owner of Arsenal’s number 10 shirt, Stevenage-born Wilshere is still expected to be a dominant force in the middle of the park for both Arsenal and England. For his club, he will need to step it up a notch to become a fresh-faced leader in a team that has lost key players since he was last playing regularly. For England, the rise of other young midfielders in his absence and the appointment of a new manager mean that Wilshere will have questions to answer as soon as he returns. All in an afternoon’s work, one suspects.
Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)
Like Wilshere, the pressure of expectation has been a familiar feeling for Jordan Henderson since his earliest Premier League appearances. Now compounded by the double whammy of an enormous price tag and being managed by Kenny Dalglish, Henderson’s stock is low and his season in Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool midfield could well be a crucial one if he is to fulfil the potential he demonstrated in such exciting flashes at Sunderland.
If nothing else, 22-year-old Henderson is firmly in Roy Hodgson’s thinking. Last man standing after the great England midfield injuryathon of the summer of 2012, Henderson was promoted from the standby list to replace Lampard in the UEFA Euro 2012 squad and he made two appearances as a substitute in England’s first and last matches of the competition. No season is truly make-or-break for any player, but with a new manager on board and a year at Liverpool under his belt, Henderson will be looking to make his mark.
John Ruddy (Norwich City)
Norwich City goalkeeper John Ruddy has come a long way since making his debut for Cambridge United at the end of the 2003/04 season, and it’s not been the meteoric rise enjoyed by the man to whom Ruddy is now vying to become understudy. After being repeatedly loaned out by Everton, Ruddy finally landed at Carrow Road, where he was promoted under Paul Lambert into the Premier League in 2010/11. There, his excellent form for the Canaries was a key part of their impressive first season back in the top flight.
Ruddy made his England debut in the second half against Italy after having to withdraw from the Euro 2012 squad because of a finger injury, and he was not overshadowed in the slightest by the responsibility – perhaps taking over from 19-year-old Jack Butland calmed his nerves. Joe Hart is England’s settled first choice, but in Butland and Ruddy England have exciting possibilities as back-up. Ruddy’s challenge is to use another Premier League season’s form to temporarily hold off what looks likely to be the rise of Hart’s long-term replacement.
Phil Jones (Manchester United)
What is Phil Jones? A centre back? A right back? The next Danny Blind? At the age of 20, Jones’ brief Manchester United career has already seen him develop from a central defender with enormous potential into a player so highly rated that he’s being shunted around like nobody’s business, raising the possibility that he could end up being one of those players who never quite finds his place. Given his popularity with Alex Ferguson and successive England managers, it’s a fate he will hopefully avoid.
It would be unrealistic to have expected much more of Jones up until this point, but he’s now into his 20s and part of the furniture at Old Trafford, and it’s time for him to really make a name for himself for both club and country. In my opinion – and I seem to be in the minority – that means establishing himself at the back and not being pushed forward just because he’s capable on the ball.
Steven Caulker (Tottenham Hotspur)
Another inclusion in Hodgson’s latest England squad, this season is a vital one for Steven Caulker simply because he’s not out on loan. Having signed a new contract at Tottenham Hotspur last month, it appears that he is finally to get his league chance for his club, having only played for them previously in the League Cup. But he has impressed hugely elsewhere, carving out a strong reputation at Bristol City and then proving his worth at Premier League level with newly promoted Swansea City.
Caulker is considered by many to be the real deal, a capable and modern central defender who’s tailor-made for the heart of England’s back line. For England, just as for Spurs, competition is fierce. But thanks to the Olympic Games Caulker now has a few international caps, albeit a somewhat unorthodox version. His England bow should be a formality, but with a number of defenders available to Andre Villas-Boas this season, Caulker has work to do.
Tom Cleverley (Manchester United)
Robbed of an England debut by injury in 2011, 2012′s return to fitness has been accompanied with significant international recognition for Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley. He was a solid performer for Stuart Pearce’s Great Britain team at the Olympic Games and was rewarded with a starting place in the England team when they played Italy in Switzerland on Wednesday. There, he played an important role both in linking England’s midfield together and with the lone striker.
Despite injuries, Cleverley remains an exciting prospect for England supporters. Ferguson clearly has a lot of faith in him and we should see more of him this year than ever before. Regular midfield positions are going to be up for grabs in the England team before too long, with Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry all reaching the age where international retirement might lengthen their club careers. If Cleverley settles into Ferguson’s midfield then he’ll undoubtedly be considered. In any case, he’s already caught Hodgson’s eye.
Adam Johnson (Manchester City)
One of the real bright spots of England’s latest friendly international was the adventurous nature of Manchester City’s 25-year-old winger Adam Johnson on the right wing. He joined City from Middlesbrough in 2010, just as the beginnings of the current Premier League champions were being established. An ambitious dribbler with a penchant for the spectacular, Johnson has struggled to make himself indispensable to Roberto Mancini’s line-up, and has been the subject of attempts by the manager to improve his mental approach.
The fact that many observers are surprised that Johnson has remained at the Etihad for the duration of the summer break suggests to 2012/13 being a big season for him. City may be a tough nut to crack, but if he earns the chance to shine he has the quality to take it. If he does that for the best team in the league, Hodgson will find his open-mouthed allure difficult to resist.
(Photo credit: Ronnie Macdonald via Flickr)