Affronted Hodgson’s inclusion of Downing is puzzling

WITHIN minutes of Kenny Dalglish being sacked by Liverpool, the joke doing the rounds on Merseyside was that it represented Stewart Downing’s first assist of the season.

Cruel? Certainly. But a joke containing more than a grain of truth? Quite possibly, after a 2011-12 season that saw a player who the Scot spent £20m on last summer manage no goals and no assists in 36 Premier League appearances.

It is a paltry record and one that, scouse humour aside, must have played a part in Dalglish’s exit, as surely was Liverpool spending a similar amount on Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson last summer for little or no return.

Mind, following yesterday’s confirmation of England’s 23-man squad for Euro 2012, maybe the joke is on us after Roy Hodgson stunned the nation by including not only Downing but also placing Henderson on standby.

In the case of the former Middlesbrough man, his selection is made all the more mystifying by Andy Carroll, the one striker in the Three Lions’ squad of sufficient height to feed off decent delivery from the flanks, being someone Downing has singularly been unable to find over the past year.

A strange decision, therefore, but by no means the only one to raise eyebrows as England’s preparations for next month’s European Championships took another step forward.

Rio Ferdinand’s was the standout omission, particularly as it effectively brings down the curtain on his international career.

However, ever since Sir Alex Ferguson suggested that the short gap between games at a major Championships could put too much strain on Ferdinand’s body, the clock did seem to have been ticking on the 33-year-old.

Various conspiracy theories may have been doing the rounds but Hodgson is at pains to stress that the decision was one taken purely on footballing grounds.

Fair enough, though this claim is then somewhat undermined by John Terry, whose form at club level has been way below that of Ferdinand’s in recent weeks, making the cut.

Another who can consider himself unfortunate to miss out is Micah Richards, who with Kyle Walker absent due to a toe injury seemed a much better option at right-back than Glenn Johnson.

The full-back is one of four Anfield regulars to make the final list, meaning they join the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea in supplying the bulk of the squad.

Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, meanwhile, provide a couple each, with one apiece from Everton, Norwich City and West Ham United.

In terms of City and United, surely none of those selected came as a surprise. Likewise, Jermain Defoe and Scott Parker at White Hart Lane and Arsenal’s Theo Walcott.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s presence is, though, bound to raise some eyebrows, even allowing for the great strides the youngster has made this season and his growing popularity among the fans at the Emirates Stadium.

Leighton Baines is another whose selection was widely anticipated, though his clubmate Phil Jagielka surely deserved better than to only make the five-man standby list along with Henderson, Adam Johnson, Daniel Sturridge and Birmingham City’s rookie goalkeeper Jack Butland.

Any manager has, of course, to be clear and decisive in his thinking. On that score, Hodgson has delivered in his squad selection – even if the make-up of the final 23 has raised more than a few concerns.

Hodgson has also stamped his mark on England’s preparations, most notably in cancelling this week’s planned trip to Spain, while the appointment of Gary Neville to the coaching staff is another admirably bold move.

What did not inspire confidence yesterday, however, was how quickly Hodgson was bristling at the scrutiny under which his selection was put by the media, something that hardly bodes well for when the real pressure comes during the tournament itself.

“Are we still on Rio Ferdinand?” said the England manager, displaying a similar irritation to that he showed at Anfield last season when under the spotlight.

“Are we ever going to get off the Rio Ferdinand [subject]?.

“I mean, there are 23 men in the squad, we are preparing for the future and we seem to be discussing one man until the cows come home.”

If England flop this summer, Hodgson can expect a lot, lot worse and that will, unlike the jibe about Downing and Dalglish, be no laughing matter.