It sounds like the sourest of sour grapes.
“I don’t think it really matters how well you’re playing, it’s who you play for,” Adam Johnson says of England’s selection policy.
According to Johnson, if you do not play for Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hostpur, Liverpool, Everton or Southampton, your chances of representing Roy Hodgson’s England are very slim indeed.
Yeah, yeah. Just another jilted England player looking for an excuse for his own deficiencies, you might think. Only Johnson’s argument stands up to scrutiny.
In January Arsenal’s Theo Walcott saw his hopes of making this summer’s World Cup ended by a cruciate knee ligament injury. It opened a vacancy for a right-winger in Hodgson’s squad for Brazil.
Meanwhile, Johnson was running into perhaps his best form since leaving Middlesbrough in 2010. When a Premier League player of the month award followed, it was hard to begrudge it. Johnson had scored six goals in as many games, and made a few along the way too.
When Hodgson named his squad for March’s friendly against Denmark – the last chance for anyone hoping to muscle their way into his plans – the door seemed ajar for the 26-year-old. Hodgson had even found the way to the Stadium of Light to watch him.
The door was quickly slammed shut. It will be another two years at least until Johnson finally plays in a major tournament.
Selected in his place were Raheem Sterling – another in-form winger – and Andros Townsend, the polar opposite. Townsend had not started a Premier League match since November 10.
Townsend plays for Tottenham.
The make-up of Hodgson’s squad was astonishing.
Of its 30 players, 25 came from the eight-club cartel Johnson mentioned. Southampton were ninth at the time, but on current standings it is the top eight.
Of the five outsiders, three were goalkeepers. Manchester City are the only team amongst the eight with an English first-choice goalkeeper, and Joe Hart rightly got Hodgson’s nod. He will play in Brazil while two from John Ruddy (Norwich City), Fraser Forster (Celtic) and Ben Forster (West Bromwich Albion) make up the numbers.
That left just two outfielders from beyond the closed shop. And what did Jermain Defoe and Steven Caulker have in common? They both played for Tottenham.
In Defoe’s case it was less than a month before he joined Toronto. Cardiff City’s Caulker was deputising for the only player not in the squad with much chance of making it to Brazil. Everton centre-back Phil Jagielka was injured.
“I think a lot of people saw me as almost a certainty (for the Denmark squad) but if you look at the last squad it was almost all top-eight (players) bar Caulker. I think that says a lot about the selection.
“I don’t think it really matters how well you’re playing, it’s who you play for.
“If you look at the last ten squads, Southampton have been playing well, they’re in the top eight – and the rest are Everton, Tottenham, Man United, City, clubs like that.”
If it is frustrating for Johnson, it is worrying for the North East.
At least the Easington-born winger has seen the other side of the coin, winning 11 caps when at Manchester City. The conclusion of his international career coincided almost exactly with the end of his time at Eastlands.
Ours is one of the regions not represented in the top eight. It makes recruiting English players very difficult. Johnson’s £10m arrival in 2012 was seen as an ideal opportunity to kick-start his England chances, but the opposite has been true.
“I came to Sunderland to play more, rather than thinking about England,” he stresses. “But some games I wasn’t even on the bench at City but I was still in the England squad. Now I’m playing more and I can’t get a cap.
“It’s just a fact, it’s not me being sour. Some players, if they weren’t playing for the big clubs wouldn’t be anywhere near it (the squad).
While Johnson for England was a hobby horse for those of us in the North East sports media, the man himself seems pretty unperturbed about his cold shoulder.
“In December I was probably 50th choice, and it was only in January people started talking about it,” he reasons. “I felt it was probably the closest I’d been under Roy Hodgson but I don’t think he really wanted any big decisions so he stuck with the players who had been around since the start of the (qualifying) campaign.
“That’s life, that’s the way it goes.
“It will probably take a few injuries to get in but if you’re still playing well and fit, you never know.”