• England coach believes that young players do not play enough
• 'We must hope that a lack of games does not destroy careers'
Roy Hodgson is everyone's idea of a congenial, polite and mild-mannered chap, though it turns out there are certain things that annoy him, even before international football starts up again in earnest this week with England games against Moldova and Ukraine.
One is the idea that England have forgotten how to play football, and he was particularly incensed by the suggestion that the lack of tournament success over the summer was due to national teams reverting to a primitive style. "When I read that the Under-21s went out because they played kick-and-rush football, I wondered what the hell people were being fed," he says. "That's nothing like the truth, and as England manager I have an interest in the truth. I am fully aware of how the world works but I don't know where those headlines came from. One of these days one of these articles will have some relevance to football, instead of just saying: 'We're no good, we can't produce players,' all the time."
The number of English players being produced is another sore point. Hodgson believes there are enough, even if too many of them are being held in reserve by leading clubs and not getting enough games to thrust them into international contention, but remains mystified by Richard Scudamore's recent claim that there are a couple of hundred eligible players performing "week in, week out" in the Premier League.
"I saw a television programme the other day talking about there being 240 English players in the Premier League," Hodgson says. "They must be including a lot of players I have never heard of, because I can't name that many. If we are talking about players who could play for England then they need to be starting regularly for their club's first team, or young players like Ross Barkley or Raheem Sterling who are already so good that their coaches are pretty keen to get them on to the pitch. I would defy anyone to come up with 240 names. I don't think, frankly, you would be able to manage more than 30 or 40."
The particular frustration for Hodgson is that there are more than 30 or 40 players with England potential, though no one sees them because they hardly play. These are not the "week in, week out" players Scudamore mentioned, although they would feature more regularly with smaller clubs. "There are a number of players at top clubs who are rated extremely highly by their coaches, who would be first-team starters anywhere else but find their paths blocked by talented or more expensive players at the highest level.
"Look at Tom Carroll at Tottenham. I've worked at Fulham and West Brom and Tom would probably have played in both of those sides, but he doesn't play for Tottenham. Is that their fault? Not really. Maybe he's not quite as good as Dembélé, Paulinho or Sandro.
"Through the Under-21s I come into contact with Jesse Lingard, Nick Powell, Tom Thorpe and Michael Keane. These are all talented English footballers who I think will become very good players, but they are not at the moment in the 30% of English players in the Premier League. I'm not criticising the judgment of the coaches. These players are too good to let go but they are finding it hard to get games. As a nation we must hope that a lack of games will not destroy their careers, because it could happen. If you spend a couple of years being too good to let go but not good enough to play every week, you might not be a good player at the end of it. That's the danger. That's where the debate should lie."
English football has arrived at this situation due to the success of the Premier League, with its regular quartet of Champions League entrants, and the competition that now exists between the biggest, richest clubs to secure one of those four places as a guarantee to continued income. "The top coaches are all under enormous pressure, the opportunities for them to give a chance to young players are reduced," Hodgson says. "I had Ryan Bertrand with me a year ago and he looked like a good player. But he has Ashley Cole in front of him at Chelsea. And I don't blame José Mourinho or Rafa Benítez for going with Cole because I think I would do the same.
"Chelsea, like me, rate Bertrand highly and want to keep him, and I can't argue with that either. But it is tough for his international career, because I can't pick him when he is only featuring in the odd Capital One Cup game and it's basically Chelsea reserves."
This is not solely an English problem; countries as strong as Spain and Brazil could soon become concerned if Chelsea continue to accumulate more international midfielders than they can conveniently play, though the situation is more acute in this country due to the small number of homegrown players in the Premier League and the almost complete absence of any playing abroad. Hodgson admits he does not have a ready solution, though he would happily turn back the clock if it were possible. Not to the days when hardly any foreigners played in England and the national manager could take his choice from as far down the league as Leicester City, Fulham or Sheffield Wednesday, but just a couple of decades back, before the revamped Champions League began its insidious takeover of the priorities of English football.
"You wonder what are the chances of a Premier League manager now giving a chance to young players, as Sir Alex Ferguson did with Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, Butt and the Nevilles," he says. "Managers then didn't go rushing out and buying a foreigner every time. They gave their youngsters a break. Scholes might only have been 19 but it was clear he was going to be a hell of a player, so they gave him a go."