First of all let me say I have huge respect for both Roy Ferdinand and the current England manager Roy Hodgson, whom I predicted in this column when he was appointed would restore pride in wearing the Three Lions. But like players, managers are prone to making mistakes. And Hodgson has been guilty of failing to use his common sense.
Ferdinand will be heading to Rio one way or another. The betting now is that it will be as a pundit, judging by the impact he has made on Al Jazeera and the fall-out of this latest saga. Whether or not Hodgson makes it there too, with or without the Manchester United defender in the England team, is likely to remain in doubt until October at least. And the shadow of Ferdinand will not go away until England qualify.
It is typical of the media, especially because he plays for Manchester United, that Ferdinand has been singled out as this week’s public enemy No.1 by an array of pundits, ex-players and headline hungry journalists. But this is not his fault and if Hodgson was on top of his job this ridiculous scenario would never have happened.
Hodgson has done himself no favours by naievely walking into a media storm of his own making by the way he has handled his non-selection and subsequent flawed selection of the former England skipper. It was bad enough that the boss made a mess of things in the first place when he omitted Ferdinand in favour of John Terry at Euro 2012. But the re-selection fiasco that has preceded Tuesday night’s crucial showdown in Montenegro could have been so easily avoided with a simple phone call.
As Mark Lawrenson pointed out in the Mirror this morning “What does the England boss do all week? Are you telling me he could not have called Sir Alex Ferguson or Rio himself and said: “I’m planning to bring you back in the squad. Are there any issues with that?”
Sir Alex Ferguson’s support team at Carrington boasts a sophisticated sports science team that has worked wonders in helping to extend the careers of a succession of star players. The return to form and fitness of Ferdinand is further testimony to the value of a set-up second to none in the Premier League. And it is Hodgson’s job to know what is going on behind the scenes and not use guesswork.
If being England manager simply meant selecting a squad of names and pinning it to the notice board, it would be an easy job that most of us could do part-time. The game has moved on from the days when news of an England call-up was announced to the media before the players, or at least it should have done. Hodgson knew there were potential issues in selecting Ferdinand out of the blue after his public humiliation of the player last year. What is equally worrying is that he alienated Ferdinand in the first place, especially with England being so short of quality in central defence.
As Alan Hansen said in his column in the Daily Telegraph: “If you look at the Premier League this season, it is not surprising that England are so desperately short. The standard of defending has deteriorated to the lowest level I think I have ever seen.”
Managing a national team, especially superstars continually in the glare of media scrutiny, requires many skills, not least the ability to motivate, build team spirit and read situations correctly in order to avoid strength-sapping conflict. My belief is that Hodgson made the mistake of writing Ferdinand off when he alienated him in the summer and now that error of judgement has come back to haunt him. It is a measure of England’s desperate lack of quality at the back that we are still a long way short of replacing the formidable defensive partnership that Ferdinand and Terry once forged.
It was predictable that the media would criticise Ferdinand’s decision to travel to Qatar to sit in a TV studio on Friday night, when he could have been playing in the 8-0 thrashing of San Marino. But there is no way Rio would have made that trip if the medical experts back at Carrington thought it was putting his delicate back at risk. Meanwhile, the reality is that Ferdinand was only needed for the game in Montenegro and if Hodgson had done his homework and tried a lot harder to repair the damage he caused in the first place, maybe this could have happened.
What is indisputable is that Ferdinand has been outstanding for Manchester United this season. The statistics confirm he has been the best defender in the League. His career has been rejuvenated with the assistance of the medical support team who scientifically manage his training programme and advise the manager on the optimum time he should spend on the pitch. Hodgson should have been aware of this and in communication with the United throughout the season. No wonder Sir Alex and Ferdinand were taken by surprise when Hodgson announced his squad on March 14.
Great managers embrace sports science and understand the power of psychology, diplomacy and motivating their players to give everything for the common cause. If England fail to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, the way Hodgson has blundered his way through his man-management of key players will be called into question.
Whatever the result of Tuesday night’s crunch encounter in Montenegro with the side that currently tops England’s group, who makes it to Brazil will almost certainly remain in doubt until the final qualification matches are completed in October – and the ordeal will continue to the play-offs if England fail to top the group. My prediction is that England will make it to the World Cup. But if they do, let’s hope Hodgson has learned a few lessons and can avoid giving the media the excuse to undermine morale before the team gets on the pitch.