First blood to Roy Hodgson. England’s new head coach was not the people’s choice to replace Fabio Capello, but Gary Neville is certainly the people’s pundit and his appointment to the coaching staff by Hodgson is a smart move, not least in offsetting some of the PR deficit created by the Harry Redknapp snub.
Hodgson learned in his six months at Liverpool the cost of failing to connect quickly with his constituency. The elevation of Neville, who will continue in his role as commentary box guru at Sky, provides the new regime with a populist shock absorber to help dissipate the blows that Hodgson knows are coming.
It might also provide the key to cracking the mind mystery that Capello identified early in his reign but was unable to solve. Mental frailty born of a collective lack of confidence, particularly at Wembley, was the major impediment to English success, argued Capello without ever coming close to finding the solution.
Neville claims in his book Red that his England career, all 85 caps of it, was in a sense a waste of time. The inclusive nature of the club set-up with its support networks and camaraderie was absent in the international context, where players assemble periodically in an atmosphere of exclusivity that prohibits freedom of expression for fear of losing a place in the team.
In those circumstances it is impossible for a player to reproduce club form and leaves England at a disadvantage which, Neville argued, could take ten years to correct.
That was before he was handed the controls. Work at the Neville rehabilitation centre begins tomorrow when Hodgson names his first squad for the Euro 2012 warm-up fixtures against Norway and Belgium.
One hopes Neville’s presence is part of a radical selection policy that finally rids England of the remnants of the ‘golden’ generation of which he was once a part. John Terry and Frank Lampard are almost beyond use. Only Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole retain legitimate claims to inclusion.
Joachim Loew demonstrated the regenerative power of youth at the last World Cup plundering the German Under-21 squad to devastating effect.
The nimble feet and fresh minds of Mezut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Sami Khedira complimented the experience of Miroslav Klose, Philipp Lahm and Lukas Podolski. The result was a vibrant collective that crushed England and Argentina en route to the semi-finals.
The same resource is notionally available to Hodgson. Scott Sinclair, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Adam Johnson, Daniel Sturridge and Phil Jones have all passed through England’s junior hall of fame.
Many have already made fleeting appearances in the senior side. Courage is not required to include them in the squad but in the starting XI, and when they get there to make them feel loved.
Hodgson is both progressive and conservative; a devotee of organisation and prescription with a twist of invention. He values nothing higher than a clean sheet, and seeks to compliment parsimony in defence with quick feet and efficiency higher up the pitch.
He likes his centre-halves to stop, his full-backs to fly and his wingers to tuck-in. His challenge is to imbue the classic English template with creative devil and belief, to remove the chainmail from the England shirt and set the Three Lions free.
The assumption was that Redknapp had the intuitive understanding of character and place to do this. The more avuncular Hodgson must work harder for the popular vote. The appointment of Neville is both recognition of that and a bold step towards the fast start he and England need.
My squad: Hart, Green, Amos; Cole, Walker, Gibbs, Jones, Cahill, Lescott, Ferdinand, Richards; Carrick, Lennon, Gerrard, Parker, Cleverley, Sinclair, Johnson; Rooney, Welbeck, Sturridge, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Young.