By Mike Collett
England’s early qualification for next year’s Euro 2016 finals in France has given manager Roy Hodgson the rare luxury of being able to experiment with his selections well ahead of the tournament kicking off.
England’s 6-0 win over San Marino on Saturday maintained their perfect record in Group E with seven wins out of seven and they became the first country to take their place alongside the French hosts in the expanded 24-team finals.
It was the earliest England have ever qualified for any major tournament apart from when they hosted the World Cup in 1966 and the European championship in 1996, and skipper Wayne Rooney now wants them to win every match in their qualifying group for the first time.
With a home game to come against Switzerland tonight (9.45pm) followed by October’s double-header against Estonia at Wembley before signing off with a visit to Lithuania, England could well make it 10 wins out of 10 and preserve their long unbeaten run in both World Cup and Euro qualifiers which dates back 26 matches to a 1-0 loss to Ukraine in October 2009.
Hodgson told the BBC: “I’m not sure early qualification gives us any particular advantage because we are going to take a lot of time to plan and improve anyway.
“What it could do is give me the opportunity for experimentation because we did not get that ahead of the World Cup when we had to win our last two qualifiers to get to Brazil.”
Although England failed to get out of the group stage in the World Cup last year, they are now unbeaten in their last 12 internationals.
They were always likely to emerge unscathed from a Euro qualifying group against the likes of San Marino, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Switzerland, but younger players have impressed Hodgson during the course of the campaign.
Liverpool defender Nathaniel Clyne, 24, looks like being England’s best right-back since Gary Neville while Jonjo Shelvey, 23, has played his way back into the squad after some fine performances for Swansea.
Everton defender John Stones and his club mate Ross Barkley, also 21, who scored his first goal for England against San Marino and now has 14 caps, look set for long international careers.
Young forwards like Harry Kane, 22, of Tottenham Hotspur, and Raheem Sterling, 20, of Manchester City, also provide options for Hodgson in attack.
Rooney, meanwhile, may not have made a blistering start to the season with Manchester United, but the skipper, who will be 30 next month, is still a key figure as far as Hodgson is concerned.
Rooney equalled Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time England record of 49 goals against San Marino before Hodgson swapped him for Kane with nearly an hour played.
Some have criticised Hodgson for taking him off when the record was there to be broken, but the manager explained: “The substitution was planned with a view to Tuesday night against Switzerland.
“It would be nice if Wayne got his 50th goal against Switzerland, but one thing for certain is that he will get it.
“It is not as if this was his last game and his only chance.
“If this was his last game for England and he needed that one goal, then I wouldn’t have taken him off.”
Rooney added: “I’m delighted to have equalled the record, now I’d like to break it, but more importantly I hope we can make it 10 wins out of 10.”