John Terry's exit may be moment England begin to forge their future

The brief statement released by Roy Hodgson made a point of stressing John Terry's decision to retire from the England set-up had been accepted only "reluctantly".

The phone call had been fielded on Sunday afternoon while the national manager prepared to watch Rio Ferdinand and Manchester United win at Anfield, the angst kicking in as soon as the line went dead. "I am, of course, disappointed to lose a player of John's international experience and exceptional ability," said Hodgson after digesting the news. Even that felt like an understatement.

Terry's ability to flirt with controversy was supposed to have rendered him a toxic presence when it came to the national side and yet successive England managers have staked their reputations on the centre-half, prepared to accept all the accompanying baggage and merely rely on his strong-arm ability and unswerving self-belief.

For Fabio Capello and Hodgson to have done so revealed the respect within the game for the defender's powers even if Terry is now 31 and, inevitably, slower than he was. Injuries have taken their toll in recent seasons and his game feels as if it is played from deeper these days, the back and knee twinges or nerve pain that has regularly rippled down his right leg in recent years fuelling a wariness that he can be outpaced at times.

But he was still someone on whom the national team had relied in Ukraine over the summer and was clearly to be a key component of Hodgson's first qualification campaign. This was a defender who had featured in every minute of England's involvement in the past three major tournaments – albeit in a team prone to under-achieve who have never ventured beyond a quarter-final – and, whether it was a progressive enough policy or not, the management were still counting on him to help this team reach Brazil. In their eyes Terry was the best central defender available. Now, after 78 caps, he is out of the running.

Hodgson has until the end of next week to draw up a squad to sweep aside San Marino and, more significantly, blunt the Poles in Warsaw with central defence now an area to be addressed. There is a short-term solution staring the manager in the face: Ferdinand was outstanding against Liverpool with a performance worthy of a player capped 81 times, if not at all since the summer of 2011. He would fill the void with his experience and classy ability to summon a tackle, pick a pass or read the game, a former captain who could inspire and reassure. Yet the recall that seems so obvious may end up ignored. That call might prove too hard even for a manager of Hodgson's years to make.

Ferdinand has become embroiled in the saga that has taken down first Capello and now Terry. That was inevitable given it was his brother, Anton, who was the subject of the alleged "abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour" currently being scrutinised by the Football Asociation's independent commission, and the subject of the alleged racially aggravated language in the case dismissed at Westminster magistrates' court in July. Rio was ignored for Euro 2012 for "footballing reasons", though that always felt too convenient. Those same reasons may not now apply. Yet more intriguing would be whether Ferdinand could be reintegrated into the national set-up: he is expected to follow his brother's lead and refuse the hand offered by Terry and Ashley Cole when United play Chelsea next month, his retweet of a message that suggested the full-back was a "choc-ice" after he gave evidence on Terry's behalf at the trial having already prompted an FA sanction.

Would his inclusion not prolong this unsettling story, further testing unity in the dressing room? Furthermore, while Hodgson may be a pragmatist at heart, would the inclusion of a player who turns 34 in November after an absence of 16 months not feel too regressive? For the sake of eking some kind of positive from a messy and divisive situation, Terry's decision may have to become a watershed: the time this team moved on.

On the face of it England are well stocked with centre-backs. Joleon Lescott was an unsung success at Euro 2012, a player who was drafted in late once Gary Cahill had been ruled out with a cracked jaw but is a Premier League winner who partnered Terry effectively and impressively through the side's four-game involvement at the finals. Cahill himself has Terry's stature and style to his game, if not his club-mate's experience even if he is a European Cup winner where his captain, despite the medal, is not.

Phil Jagielka, too, has impressed when offered an opportunity over his 14 caps, his own pairing with Lescott having been forged at Everton and adopted by Capello as a regular Plan B. The pair successfully shut out Spain in a friendly in November 2011 and England have won all but one of the four games in which they have started alongside each other. The success against Switzerland in Basel in qualification for Euro 2012 was arguably the team's most impressive of that group away from Wembley. Jagielka's Everton assistant manager, Steve Round, said Terry's departure presented "a terrific opportunity". He must consider it precisely that.

That Terry has missed 10 of his country's 24 games since returning from the World Cup in South Africa would suggest life without the Chelsea stalwart should hardly be considered a step into the unknown. There have been five different combinations lacking Terry who have started matches in the last two years and, away from those relatively established names, Hodgson could point to a posse of youngsters eager to make their mark. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Steven Caulker would hope to make an impression when fit and in form. The first two would surely have featured against Italy in Berne in August had their respective knee and metatarsal problems not ruled them out.

The onus is firmly on them to prove Terry's loss is not as significant as it instinctively feels. England appeared shaky at Wembley against Ukraine earlier this month after the former captain turned his ankle in Moldova. Perhaps Jagielka and Lescott had simply lacked the proper preparation time ahead of that awkward fixture or maybe it was early-season rustiness but this was a glimpse of an England stripped of their most experienced centre-back and Cole, with their combined 176 caps.

It must prove fleeting vulnerability even if nagging away at Hodgson, too, will be the reality that only Jagielka and Lescott can hope to be playing regularly for their club teams in the campaign ahead, with Terry's retirement – freeing up international windows for breathers – potentially impacting on Cahill's involvement on a weekly basis at Chelsea. That is something Hodgson may have to live with as he looks forward to Brazil. The younger pretenders may have their chance. Ferdinand might not be an option in Rio.

Powered by article was written by Dominic Fifield, for The Guardian on Monday 24th September 2012 22.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Ronnie Macdonald

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