The ticking of the 2014 World Cup countdown clock from three digits to two means different things to different people. For fans, the wait is nearly over; for the once-every-fouryears carnival of football and for tournament organisers, the pressure is really on.
And for West Ham striker Andy Carroll, it is the starting gun of his race to grab a seat on the plane to Brazil. Life has not been kind to Carroll recently. After an injury-plagued first season at West Ham he has missed most of this one with a foot problem, was sent off in his first home start, and then dislocated a finger at Everton. How’s your luck?
Under the circumstances, he stood no chance of being included in Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the friendly with Denmark — the last before Hodgson has to name his World Cup party. But that does not mean the door has shut on Carroll’s hopes completely, though.
Looking at that squad and thinking ahead to the summer, Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck are surely nailed on to go to Brazil. But the other strikers in the squad — Jermain Defoe, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez? Less so. Defoe has been at his reliable best for Spurs this season when called upon, but that was only in half of their Premier League games, and at the age of 31, he has moved to Major League Soccer — hardly ideal preparation for a World Cup.
Southampton’s Rodriguez is one of the Premier League’s most high-scoring English players this season, but a run of two goals in the Saints’ last 10 Premier League games hardly represents a tightening of the grip on an England place he took with his debut against Chile in November. Fellow Saint Lambert is the player most similar to Carroll, and in the darkest hours of the West Ham striker’s injury hell, he must have looked at the plaudits the former Bristol Rovers striker was getting and imagined how that could have been him.
But he too has been through something of a dip lately, with just three goals in their last 10 League games, and had record signing Dani Osvaldo not been shipped out of the club after disciplinary problems, there was even talk Lambert could have joined West Ham, of all teams, in the January transfer window. Obviously, the fact these players have played regularly this season gives them an advantage over Carroll, but they have their limitations, so he should not feel too daunted.
Carroll has played and scored for England at European Championship level, and despite a lack of goals since his return, has been a useful provider of assists. Circumstances have dictated Carroll starts the race for a Brazil place some distance behind his rivals. But if he plays as often and as well as he can in the remainder of the season, the man used to giving defenders nightmares could catch them up and give Hodgson a major selection headache — one he will enjoy having.
For Mark Noble, however, his chances of securing a World Cup place are, almost certainly, gone. Despite playing out of his skin for West Ham this season, the most recent England squad did not include Noble. In the countdown to Brazil 2014, Noble had been tipped for a call-up and, having represented England through the age group ranks, he is certainly known to them. There is a tradition of players getting late calls in the run-up to major tournaments, and having a major impact — witness Geoff Hurst, David Platt and Michael Owen — so Noble had good reason to think he was in with a shout.
And no-one who has seen him recently could deny that he had earned one. Noble’s contribution this season has been superb but, beyond that, his importance to both the club and the team is huge. Canning Town-born, after a dalliance with Arsenal he joined his local side as a trainee in 2003 — a significant date, as it means he has shared every one of the ups and downs that West Ham fans have endured in the last bizarre decade.
He signed in one of the club’s darkest hours, weeks after they had somehow contrived to get relegated with a team containing Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Paolo di Canio. Since then West Ham have been through promotions, relegations, takeovers and meltdowns, maintaining a lifelong habit of doing things the hard way — and Noble has been a constant presence.
Another reason 2003 matters is because that was when the Academy of Football production line hit a glitch. At the turn of the millennium, West Ham were overflowing with homegrown talent, but none lasted the distance — Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson, Rio Ferdinand, Cole and Carrick, all gone before they were even close to their peak. After the crash of 2003, the stream of Academy talent became a trickle — apart from Noble.
This season he has been inspirational, with the seasonchanging win at Cardiff his finest hour-and-a-half. After two cup humiliations in a week, stand-in captain Noble produced a tireless display to stop the rot and inspire the side to a 2-0 win, netting the second goal himself. Again recently, against a Southampton side well represented in the England squad, he produced another immense display. What more can he do to impress?
Yes, England are well stocked in midfield, but to not even take a look at Noble makes no sense. Barring serious injury to one of the players already picked, the World Cup boat looks to have sailed without Mark Noble. For whatever reason, England may not think he is good enough. But West Ham fans know he is.