Gareth Southgate has rejected suggestions England should write off their chances at this summer’s World Cup as unacceptable and has told his young squad to “enjoy the ride”.
Southgate appeared at Wembley to discuss his fresh-faced 23-man squad for Russia and insisted he had selected the best available players, not just those with the most to learn.
Long-term number one Joe Hart was one of those who fell on the wrong side of Southgate’s judgement but the Three Lions boss was careful to stress it was not the end of the road for the 31-year-old.
His chosen goalkeeping unit of Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland and Nick Pope have a combined nine international caps to Hart’s 75, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph have 11 in total and Trent Alexander-Arnold has yet to feature, but Southgate countered Gary Lineker’s suggestion that the tournament should be seen as nothing more than a learning curve.
“I don’t think when you play or are involved with England you can ever write off any game or any tournament. That wouldn’t be acceptable,” he said.
“We know usually teams that win tournaments have a lot more caps than we do, a lot more experience of semi-finals and finals.
“This group, we really don’t know. We have great faith in them, we know they lack big match experience but how are they going to get that? The only way is to put them in.
“We think this is the best group of players available, we think they can be very exciting now and even more exciting in the future. I don’t want to limit what they think is possible because they’re young and hungry and they want to have a go at things.
“That’s what we’ve got to do at this tournament, really enjoy the ride.”
Southgate confirmed it was his decision to leave Hart off the standby list as well as the main squad – Burnley’s Tom Heaton takes that role – but suggested it would not be appropriate to ask the former first choice to act as back-up.
The door remains open to a future call-up, though, assuming Hart finds a new club in the summer and regains top form.
“Of course it was a difficult call. He played in most of our qualifying matches, he’s been a big part of the England team the last few years and he’s a valued member of the squad,” said Southgate.
“But in the end I’ve got to look at performances over the last 18 months with their clubs and the three lads we picked were the three best goalkeepers in the league this year.
“I pick players on form and if he (Hart) is playing well for his club, why wouldn’t we select him?
“There’s no reason for this to be the end. He has an important career decision this summer and I hope he can be back at his very best.”
Southgate expanded on the decision to omit midfielder Jack Wilshere, suggesting a dip in form over recent months was more important than his patchy fitness record.
Wilshere retains a cachet among sections of fans and media but has yet to win over a sceptical Southgate, and pulled out through injury after being called up for the March friendlies.
“He’s been in our thoughts but of course he hasn’t played a game for us,” the England boss said.
“Jack had a good spell in the lead-up to Christmas and after, but wasn’t as effective after that. I think other guys have played well and deserve their places in the squad.
Southgate did not reference Jonjo Shelvey specifically but appeared unconvinced by the Newcastle playmaker’s claims and hinted “character and personality” were more important than on-field disciplinary concerns.
As for the absence of Liverpool’s Adam Lallana, another one of the five players on reserve, Southgate expressed regret at the fitness issues which have dogged him this season.
“I’ve had continual dialogue with Adam this season, close and personal conversations,” he said.
“It’s been a really frustrating season for him. Under normal circumstances, given the amount of football he’s played, he wouldn’t be anywhere near the squad or the standby list, but he’s a player and a person we have a hell of a lot of time for.”
Southgate did not take the chance to announce his captain for the tournament but indicated his final decision could be revealed when the team come together at St George’s Park on Sunday.
Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier are the likeliest contenders.