England keeping their Russia World Cup options open

ENGLAND manager Gareth Southgate insists no player will be pressured into going to the World Cup against their will amid the growing tensions between the UK and tournament hosts, Russia.

England manager Gareth Southgate during the team announcement at St George's Park on Thursday. Picture: Nick Potts/PA

The fallout from last week’s nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury was last night continuing to cast a shadow over this summer’s tournament.

Russia has continued to deny any involvement in the attack but Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed earlier this week that UK dignitaries, including the Royal Family, will not be attending the World Cup as part of a wide-ranging response of measures that yesterday drew backing from the governments of the United States, France and Germany.

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A possible boycott by the Three Lions team has also been mooted but Southgate stressed yesterday his plans are continuing unabated. He did, though, admit that any concerns felt by the players over safety have validity.

“I think the players would be the biggest consideration and if they do have any concerns clearly, with the amount of spotlight on the issue, they will have questions to ask,” he said.

“So we have to make sure we give them all the facts we have, allay fears they have and make sure they and their families are safe and secure.

“It is always an individual decision (to go). You select (players) and you assume everyone wants to go, but that doesn’t always happen.

“I would never pressure any individual to make a decision. They are all grown-ups and can make their own decision.

“I think the important thing is that, ultimately, a decision on the team going will be (made by) the FA in conjunction with the Government. It is not a decision I am going to take.”

Southgate, understandably, was keen at yesterday’s unveiling of the squad for this month’s friendly double-header against Holland and Italy to not go too deep into political matters way beyond his control.

“My job is to focus on the football, focus on preparing the team and I think the public wouldn’t expect anything else,” he added.

On that, Southgate handed first call-ups to Swansea’s former Barnsley defender Alfie Mawson, plus Burnley duo James Tarkowski and Nick Pope, the latter once a York City loanee.

Lewis Cook, Bournemouth’s one-time Leeds United midfielder, is also named in the squad again and may make his senior debut in either Friday’s friendly in Amsterdam or the following Tuesday’s clash with Italy at Wembley.

There was no place in the 27-man squad for Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling and Michael Keane. Southgate insists the door is still open to the trio along with Fabian Delph and Phil Jones, both injured at the moment.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Harry Kane are also absent through injury from a squad that includes recalled Arsenal duo, Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck.

Kane, of course, is the most notable absentee with the ankle injury that will keep England’s only genuine world class talent on the sidelines until next month.

Despite Tottenham’s confidence about their top scorer’s speedy return, Southgate admits to having contingency plans in place across his squad.

“It is part of our World Cup bingo that we have got going on,” he said with a smile. “Base camp hotel, injury to key player…

“I have had Harry available for six out of 14 games so far, so we always need a ‘what-if?’ scenario planning in our minds.

“I am very clear. At this stage, we want to be keeping options available because, as you have seen with Harry, something can happen at the drop of a hat.

“Who do we need to look at to? Who do we need to learn more about to be able to replace some of the first-choice players?

“Players are developing quickly and we have some good young players who are coming through, youngsters developing at rate of knots. I am very comfortable with the team I would pick tomorrow. But, equally I can’t just have that in my head because in this job, things change.

“We are experimenting with some players we think we need to know might come into the fringes of the squad.

“We have to accept we are not as far down the path as Brazil are and Germany in having a more settled team. We have faith in them so to give them experience now is critical.”

On Kane specifically, Southgate added: “He is as robust as any player we have got, he is just unfortunate to be in collisions where he is going in where it hurts.

“To score goals, you have to put your body on the line. He is one of the players we are least concerned about in terms of robustness.”