Everyone always remembers the likes of Michael Ricketts, Steve Guppie and Anthony Gardner: those lucky enough to somehow don the Three Lions on their chest, despite rarely looking anything more than average Premiership players.
However, little thought is ever spared for players such as Robbie Fowler, Matt Le Tissier and Andy Cole: three players considered amongst the Premier League greats, illustrated by their 453 Premier League goals combined, but whom for various reasons could never truly break into the England team. Together, they received a paltry 49 caps; Phil Neville, David James and Emile Heskey, for example, while undoubtedly worthy England representatives, each received over a half-century of caps alone.
Now 28, and with just 13 caps to his name, Leighton Baines is perhaps in danger of eventually joining this undesirable batch of players. The likelihood is that he probably won’t as, despite remaining a top-class full-back, Ashley Cole is four years’ Baines senior, theoretically giving the latter at least a couple of years in the future as England’s first choice left-back, whilst picking up the odd cap here and there to boost his tally.
But should the Everton man even have to wait? On Match of the Day, after Baines scored the decisive two goals in a 2-1 win over West Brom, the question was posed by Gary Lineker, “Cole or Baines?” Hansen and Shearer were in agreement that, right now, Baines is the better player. It is certainly difficult to recall such an under-used talent at England level in recent years – Michael Carrick, perhaps, notwithstanding. “Experience is the only thing Cole has over Baines,” Shearer claimed. This cannot be argued with: Cole looks set to become only the seventh man to reach 100 caps for England against Brazil, whilst both his trophy cabinet and experience at the highest level is significantly larger.
But how is Baines supposed to gain this experience if he is forever waiting in Cole’s shadow? It’s a Catch 22 situation that those currently job-hunting can surely empathise with; at some point, you need to be given a chance in order to gain that experience. More recently, Baines has received chances, starting three of England’s last four competitive games – two of which were against San Marino and Moldova, it should be noted – and performing relatively well. Yet Cole instantly retained his place against Poland upon availability, and the feeling remains that this will remain the case for the foreseeable future.
Many will argue Cole’s phenomenal reliability over the years ensures this remains the case with good reason. Indeed, I’m no fan of the rather nonsensical “play in-form players only” brigade: Grant Holt scoring regularly in a fairly direct Norwich side last season didn’t make him worthy of a place in an England side – as many demanded – presumably looking to play on the ground more often. More to the point, Lambert’s Norwich side was largely built around Holt; that would simply never be the case at England, a side always blessed with higher quality players. A similar argument may translate to Baines, who at Everton has essentially been a playmaker from left-back over the previous few seasons. According to WhoScored, he has made 84 ‘key passes’, defined as the final pass leading to a shot, this season at a rate of 3.4 a game — more than any player in the entirety of the Premier League. In comparison, Cole has made only 15 all season, instructed to assist his more creative team-mates in a more reserved manner.
Baines, however, unlike Holt and plenty of others, has sustained his level of performances over a period of two or three years; any differences in club set-ups should not take away from his remarkable attacking capabilities. Indeed, one would have to question whether Cole would be capable of replicating such stats even if he was afforded similar tactical freedom. In an attacking sense, then, the Everton man would surely represent a more suitable Hodgson player than Cole. His fantastic delivery – both from open-play and set-pieces – would help relieve the worrying dependency witnessed during Euro 2012 on an ageing Steven Gerrard, while providing better balance to the overall threat from the left side. He would also almost certainly help Hodgson’s chosen target man flourish, as shown by his ability to pick out Marouane Fellaini and Nikica Jelavic at club level with unerring regularity. Moreover, in Ashley Young, there is perhaps potential for a similar partnership to his much-acclaimed one with Steven Pienaar, who intelligently creates the space that Baines drives into.
That said, Cole remains a more natural defender, particularly in the tackle, and against the very top international sides he remains the safer bet for now. Baines would not have to start every game; after all, football is a squad game, so why not utilise both talents? There is also the slight caveat that Baines has previously expressed concerns over playing for England – more specifically, about spending prolonged time away from home – in the past. Ahead of the 2010 World Cup, after a pre-tournament warm-up game against Mexico, he admitted, “I have always found it really hard, being away from home, I have always struggled with it.” Fabio Capello subsequently took the considerably inferior Stephen Warnock with him to South Africa.
However, Roy Hodgson did not share his predecessor’s apprehension, taking Baines to Poland/Ukraine last summer as Cole’s deputy. Perhaps Baines’ mental strength has expanded as a result of, or more likely steadily alongside, his rapidly developing stature; in 2010, the gap between him and Cole was vast, and only injury to the Chelsea man would have led to his deployment. Since then, however, Baines has frequently been chased by Bayern Munich, whilst becoming a more settled member of England’s squad and one of the finest full-backs in the Premier League. The fact that he has scored all ten of the penalties he has taken for Everton is further testament to his mental strength (as well as representing a very welcome bonus for tournament football given England’s failings from the spot over the years). He now resembles a genuine challenge to Cole’s place; any lingering homesickness will surely be an obstacle worth overcoming for both his and the nation’s benefit.
As fine a player as Ashley Cole has been for club and country over the past decade, and indeed continues to be, it would be a shame to see Baines instantly dropped in competitive action once more at a time when England are looking to build for the future. Cole deserves his moment against Brazil on Wednesday, and will rightly remain an invaluable member of England’s squad; beyond that, though, with the 2014 World Cup less than eighteen months away, it is time to discover whether Baines will sink or swim.