Roy Hodgson heads to Wearside this afternoon hoping to discover a World Cup midfielder.
In-form Adam Johnson is the reason for his rare foray to the North East but might Jack Colback – arguably Sunderland’s next most-improved player after the former Manchester City winger – catch his eye too?
It is not as far-fetched as it sounds. For a start, there are precious few English players who actually play regularly in the Premier League. Colback was one of only 189 who played in the English top flight last season, and one of only 149 who played more than five games for their team.
His case is based on more than just paltry numbers, though. Even though we know the reasons against and that nay-sayers will argue that it is impossible for someone who doesn’t even have an England under-21 cap to gatecrash football’s biggest party, Colback is entitled to dream.
For a start, he is that rare combination of the right passport and that elusive quality in English midfielders: taking care of the ball. If Hodgson is prepared to take a gamble on a young English midfielder, he could do worse than Colback, who cherishes possession, rarely gives the ball away and has more than 100 Premier League appearances under their belt.
Given the changes Gus Poyet has made recently, Colback might be about to make more of a mark in attack. Last weekend, against hometown club Newcastle, he was part of an engine-room effort that overwhelmed Alan Pardew’s Magpies. Poyet’s suggestion is that with Liam Bridcutt available, his flame-haired charge will get more of a free role to add to his three-goal Premier League tally.
There can be no doubt that his manager rates him sufficiently to put forward his case for a higher profile. Asked whether Colback might make the most of Hodgson’s appearance in Wearside, he said: “I like that (idea)!
“Listen there’s 23 going to the World Cup, 18 are there already – maybe even 19 or 20. There’s two or three places that will depend on injuries or someone having an unbelievable end to the season. There’s always one that goes who no one expects. I remember Theo Walcott went and no one expected that. There’s always a reason.
“I think the manager of the national team is looking for that player. It’s an opportunity – not only for Adam but for other players. It depends what you do on the pitch.”
It is incredible to think that at the start of the season, Paolo Di Canio was trying to construct a case to keep him on the basis that he would perform mostly as a left-back for Sunderland. Martin O’Neill had thought the same but Poyet is incredulous that he would be utilised as anything other than a central midfielder.
“I remember at the beginning when I played Jack in the middle of the park and said: ‘It’s not difficult, is it, to play a player where he performs the best’.
“One day you can ask him to play as a full-back because he is needed there because you’ve made a few changes or because you need to take a risk but without any doubt he’s a central midfielder. If you want to get the best from your players, the best decision is to play them where they play the best. That’s his best position.
“I tried him in a deeper position in case Lee wasn’t fit or Ki wasn’t playing in that position well but no. His position is the one ahead of the central midfielder. He’s got the legs, he presses and he passes the ball well. He cares a lot about the ball, which people don’t always see.
“Now he’s started to make the extra runs into the box which is great for us because we need people pressing, especially with the system. So who knows?”
Goals are something that Colback needs to add to his game to emerge on the Three Lions radar. His cool, precise finish at St James’ Park acts as proof that he has the potential to score more – now Poyet expects to see him prove that in a more advanced role.
“I think he will (start to score),” he said. “The problem is that I don’t think he’s been in that position too many times.
“When you are not used to being in front of goal and then you find yourself in that position, it’s not that you panic, it’s just that you want to score so much.
“Now, the options are there for him to get shots and opportunities, and even in training, I think he finds it easier to be in front of the goalkeeper. It’s a skill. That’s why strikers are incredible, because they score from anywhere.
“But having the ability to score is not that easy.”
It is Johnson’s goals that have propelled him back into England recognition, which is not something that he would have dared to dream about when Poyet relegated him to the bench in the New Year.
Back then it seemed like the latest act in an unfulfilled Sunderland career that looked certain to end in a January separation, if the Black Cats could persuade anyone to come up with the sort of cash that they paid for him in the summer of 2012.
But his response was stirring – reacting to Poyet’s tactical tinkering by starting to produce the kind of performances that have given him hope of adding to his 12 Three Lions caps. He has not played since a friendly in Italy in 2012, but according to Poyet at least he has one foot on the plane to Brazil.
“If the England manager was picking a squad today, I think Adam would be in it,” Poyet said.
“But I don’t think any manager from a national team is going to rely on a player who has had one good month. We need to be saying the same things about come June, and if we do that, we will have a good player.
“We will have a player who you know is going to do something good if he is taken to the World Cup.
“Of course he’s going to have bad games, but the idea is that you know what you are going to get, and before it was difficult. I think now we are in a different situation. It helps that he is getting used to playing with the players around him.
“He is in a relationship with Phil Bardsley, they know how to help each other. When you start building that with little groups of players, you become a better team.
“We changed a lot, but now there is a bit of consistency in the team for him to do it. He needs to maintain this level – if not, it is going to be difficult for him to make it.”
Whether England are anything more than rank outsiders in Brazil, the debate around Johnson is whether he can fit into a plan for South America in the summer.
“I don’t know exactly how England will play (in Brazil), but you would imagine they will have to play a certain way because of the conditions and that should suit Adam’s style,” he said.
“There will be moments where the game is flat and the tempo drops away, and that is where you need somebody to make something happen. That spark is what we were missing a few months ago, but it is what Adam has provided for us. He has helped the whole thing come together, but you need players to make a difference, and he is one of the ones that has done that the most.”