England manager Gareth Southgate says he would have no qualms making Raheem Sterling the national team captain if Harry Kane is unable to recover from an ankle injury in time for the UEFA Nations League semi-final.
The Three Lions face the Netherlands on June 6 in Portugal, and will have a second game, either the third-place match or the final, three days later.
Tottenham star Kane has been out since suffering an injury against Sterling’s Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-final on April 9, and remains a doubt for next week’s final in the competition, against Liverpool.
The game against the Dutch will be Sterling’s 50th cap, and comes at the end of what has been a stellar season for the 24-year-old.
Sterling has scored 26 goals across all competitions, his best-ever return for a single season, and on Saturday scored a brace to help City complete an unprecedented domestic treble as Pep Guardiola’s side added the FA Cup to the season’s trophy haul of the League Cup and Premier League.
The City winger was named the PFA Young Player of the Year and also won the Football Writers’ Association award for Footballer of the Year, and Southgate is firm in his belief that Sterling would be ready to wear the armband against the Oranje.
“Raheem is in that leadership group now and he has fulfilled that brilliantly over the last 12 months in particular,” Southgate told a press conference.
“You can see his maturity now with what has happened to him on and off the pitch. I think he is realising that.
“He has risen to that challenge and embraced it and I wouldn’t have any hesitation in making him captain if that was the right thing.”
Gareth Southgate has underlined the need for change after the number of English top-flight starters reached a historic, and alarming, new low.
The Three Lions are preparing for the inaugural Nations League Finals having reached the World Cup semi-finals last summer, while the development sides have enjoyed sustained success in recent years.
But improving talent is being stymied by a lack of top-level opportunities.
English-qualified players made up just 30 per cent of starters in the Premier League during the 2018/19 season, having dropped from 33.2 per cent the previous campaign and reached the lowest figure in top-flight history.
“There’s a clear diminishing number there,” manager Southgate said.
“There’s some discussion around developing players that is important. There’s some discussion around work permits moving forwards which might affect some of that.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is arrest the slide. We have to stop that graph slipping.
“Because it isn’t correct to say we’re not developing good players. I think that’s really important.”
Southgate is not one for sweeping statements but his need to protect national team interests is understandable, especially considering just 19.9 per cent of the top-six’s starters were English-qualified players.
“The big concern for me is this graph continues to fall away and that we end up in 10 years’ time with an England manager who has got 15 per cent of the league,” he said with a wider view.
“And why wouldn’t that happen? Because it has dropped 15 per cent in the last seven or eight years, so there’s no sign of that being arrested because more money coming in, global market. That is a big danger for us.”
Brexit could provide an opportunity to help improve English opportunities, with the Football Association having proposed a way to increase homegrown playing time while ensuring the Premier League remains at the top.
The proposal would allow the league to sign the best players in the world, rather than the restrictive work permit system currently in place but keep the number of non-homegrown players at the current level of around 260.
That would mean having a maximum of 13 non-homegrown players per club – a plan which would certainly help bridge the gap that is growing.
Southgate added: “Brexit is offering an opportunity because there will have to be change.
“If Brexit happens, there will have to be change – whether people want it or not – around work permits.
“It won’t be freedom of movement for European players, so that landscape will change.
“I think the proposals that the FA have put forward have tried to balance keeping the success of the Premier League and recognising that is a product that works for us as a country.
“But we saw 40-odd million people or more enjoying last summer and the impact of the national team as well and what that can bring.
“We are trying to achieve something that not many other countries have had: a successful league and a successful national team. That’s a huge challenge.
“But I think the proposals that have been put forward have said ‘look, there’s a certain level of players that we think it shouldn’t go any further (than) and there’s got to be change so let’s have this grown-up conversation about it’.”
The FA is working with the Premier League, EFL and a range of government departments during this consultation period, which comes at a time when Southgate is keen to build from a position of strength.
He added: “I understand completely that each of the Premier League clubs is a business in its own right, with its own aims and objectives that won’t necessarily align with what the national association want.
“But our job as a governing body must be to protect the interests of both – to protect the interests of the club game but to give the national team and its importance for our people the right level of support and opportunity to succeed.
“And I think that is possible. I think you can have a successful league and a successful pathway for the national team.
“That needs grown up conversations and I think there are a lots of good people in football who are more than capable of having that – and the more we can be joined up it’s a really powerful force.”
The 25-year-old has not played since injuring ankle ligaments in the first leg of Spurs’ Champions League quarter-final win over Manchester City.
Kane, who won the Golden Boot at last summer’s World Cup, has missed the end of the Premier League season with Tottenham but is hoping to be fit for their European showpiece with Liverpool.
That game takes place in Madrid on June 1, just five days before England face Holland in their Nations League semi-final.
Kane was included in an initial 27-man squad for the tournament named by Southgate on Thursday, with the final group of 23 to be confirmed on May 27.
“Frankly, we will know a lot more about that if he is in Tottenham’s team,” he said of Kane’s current fitness level.
Asked if Kane needs to play in the Champions League final to be considered for international duty, Southgate replied: “Not necessarily because they might take a view that (Lucas) Moura scored a hat-trick (in the semi-final) and Son (Heung-min) played well so they keep Harry as an impact player.
“So without talking to Mauricio (Pochettino), I don’t know what his thinking on that will be. I guess that depends on how Harry trains in the build-up to the game.
“So no, I don’t think it is an absolute he has to play there or he is not ready four days later.
“Equally he could play in the final and not be right four days later for us, we are just going to have to play it by ear because he is not going to have had a game prior to that point.
"It's been an incredible couple of weeks for English football. We're really looking forward to the opportunity to finish the summer off."— England (@England) May 16, 2019
“Where there are one or two others we need to know a lot more about in the next week, he is one I will make an exception for in that I will see how it goes in the final week.”
Kane is one of nine players from Tottenham and Liverpool who could potentially be involved in the Champions League final and go on to link up with the England squad in Portugal for the Nations League.
Southgate admits the all-English final presents a new challenge to his man-management and judging the mental state of those who play at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.
“It is a unique situation,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live. “I guess the Spanish manager would have had that over a period of time in the past and there will be others that have had to deal with it.
“That’s a test of our management skills and our collective spirit as a team.
“It’s the biggest challenge of all to compete against each other, then leave that at the door and remember with England we are a team, we support each other.
“That’s been a massive strength for us over the last 18 months.”
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