Beyond eating up a few precious seconds, there seemed little of note to chew over in Gareth Southgate’s decision to introduce Eric Dier come the 93rd minute of England’s 2-1 victory over Tunisia in their opening World Cup encounter last Monday. If you happen to be a follower of Tottenham Hotspur, though, you would surely choose to view the midfielder’s briefest of cameos altogether differently.
Dier appearing on the Volgograd pitch for a game in which White Hart Lane team-mates Harry Kane, Kieran Trippier and Dele Alli started, made for the first time ever that four Spurs players have featured for England in a World Cup finals fixture.
The London club have served up some big figures for their country at the foremost international stage. A certain Alf Ramsey played for England in their infamous defeat by the USA at the 1950 World Cup. Only injury prevented Jimmy Greaves being a member of the 1966 winning side, while Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne were the main men the only other time that the country have reached the semi-final stage, which came in Italia ‘90.
With such as Glenn Hoddle, Ray Clemence, Chris Waddle, Alan Mullery, Martin Peters and Sol Campbell having made notable contributions, Spurs have done their bit for national service at the World Cup. Arguably, though, the club’s performers are more important to England at Russia than they have been at any previous World Cup. Kane’s predatory instincts – evidenced by his match-winning double against Tunisia – and his obvious leadership qualities that have brought the 23-year-old the deserved honour of becoming England’s youngest captain at a major finals are only the starting points for that contention.
Many of the noises off ahead of this afternoon’s confrontation with Panama – which Alli will miss through injury – have centred on the need to deploy natural left footer Danny Rose in the left wing-back area. The 27-year-old was the one Spurs player in the squad that wasn’t stripped for the opener. That was considered a downside to the performance of Southgate’s team, with the man given the role, Ashley Young, required to cut inside on to his favoured right foot to deliver crosses.
The break in the side’s attacking rhythm this caused was perceived as one of the elements of the England display requiring attention as the tournament progresses.
That was in contrast to how Trippier’s display on the opposite flank was assessed. The 27-year-old was one of the stand-outs from the Tunisia win in what was his first experience of a major finals. The Bury-born full-back only earned the first of his eight caps this time last year. His progress since has been startling, and another indication of the rare ability that Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino possesses for developing players’ careers.
When the Chilean arrived at White Hart Lane in late May 2014, Fabio Capello had just named his squad for the World Cup finals in Brazil. It contained no Spurs players – the first time this had been the case since the 1954 edition of the tournament. A far cry from 2010 when Aaron Lennon, Ledley King, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Michael Dawson were all called up for the finals in Germany. Only Lennon made any real impression.
Pochettino’s quintet are no bit-part players in Southgate’s squad. And while he may have inherited Kane and Rose, he recruited Dier, Alli and Trippier for a bargain £14 million in initial transfer fees.
Trippier, in particular, seemed a dubious fit for the aesthetes of North London, as a grafter from unfashionable Burnley. All the more so when he struggled for game time in the Premier League across the two seasons that followed his £3.5m switch in the summer of 2017. Pochettino, though, resisted the calls to send the player out on loan and last summer was content to sell first-choice right-back Kyle Walker to Manchester City in an eye-watering £50m deal. Trippier seized the opportunity that Walker’s sale afforded him and he now has the potential to be one of the break-out performers for England from these finals.
Kane, though, remains the nation’s kingpin and his first tournament goals for his country six days’ ago has merely further enhanced the burgeoning reputation of a striker that now has 15 goals from only 25 caps, these coming across the past three years.
The backline weaknesses of the Panama side that were ruthlessly exposed by Belgium in their opening 3-0 loss should this afternoon allow the Spurs man both to remain in the reckoning for the golden boot and skipper his side to a victory that would guarantee their presence in the knockout stage.
With the free-scoring Belgians lying in wait for England’s final group game, they may be required to settle for second place. In that event, the winner of an unpredictable, and currently uncallable, Group H containing Colombia, Serbia, Poland and Japan would then block their path to the last 16.
The Spurs five should then have several more opportunities to demonstrate that they are integral members of a Southgate set-up that contains plenty of promise. The Three Lions could yet roar with the help of cockerel crow.