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Although much derided, Sam Allardyce’s use of comedians Bradley Walsh and Paddy McGuiness to host a quiz night for his England’s players as they prepare for the manager’s first game in charge against Slovakia could be welcome.
It is a marked departure from the cheerless atmosphere that hung over England at Euro 2016 when the only semblance of fun under the drab Roy Hodgson was an unexplained toy lion and a darts tournament nobody was allowed to talk about.
It all culminated in the unforgettable shambles that saw them dumped out by Iceland and Allardyce, with his first squad since succeeding Hodgson, is attempting to inject a bit of much-needed joy.
“We want to have a bit of fun, I haven’t come here to be miserable” he said.
The thinking behind it is clear. Allardyce inherits a team that has been dogged by intense pressure on the biggest stage so often it is now in their DNA.
The 61 year old’s methods may be open to ridicule but the early attempts to shift the attitude were apparent as Michail Antonio sat in his first press-conference since receiving his first call-up to the senior national side.
Antonio cut a relaxed figure as he spoke openly and honestly, in a marked removal from the robotic interviews of the previous era that were seemingly tied to a script, about his call-up and his career to date.
He grinned as he spoke of hearing about his call as he walked off the pitch at Manchester City on Sunday, reacting in disbelief to what he thought was “great banter”, and talked freely about his time as a lifeguard, sparking enough laughter from the press to make Allardyce think he may not require Walsh and McGuinness after all.
Offers physicality and strength
He will require Antonio on the pitch, even if the call raised a few eyebrows, as he will offer the physicality and strength in wide positions that has been at a premium with England since Danny Welbeck suffered his long-term injury in April.
Theo Walcott makes his return to the England fold after starting the season in good form for Arsenal while Adam Lallana will be hoping to keep hold of his right-sided spot after starting there for England at Euro 2016.
Antonio will have to compete with that pair if he is to earn a first cap but he brings something different to the table.
His game consists of searing pace and aggressive incisiveness from the flank, while his imposing ability in the air gives England a route to goal the famously uncompromising Allardyce will not be afraid of using.
He has scored bullet headers against Bournemouth and Manchester City already this season and international defences will have to adapt to the sight of Antonio rising above them with his impressive climb as England seek more variation in their route to goal after appearing too one-dimensional during the summer.
“The quality that has shown through in every league he has played, the impact he had at the end of last season and the start of this, his attacking flair, his quality for final-third delivery and his goal record from a wide position” said Allardyce as he explained why he picked the West Ham winger, before focusing on why the 26 year-old’s back-story, which Antonio has used to draw inspiration from Jamie Vardy and Ian Wright, has warranted a place in his squad.
Fighting his way to the top
Antonio endured five loan spells as he tried to break into the Reading squad six years ago before earning a move to Sheffield Wednesday in 2012.
Two quietly impressive years at Hillsborough earned him a move to Nottingham Forest where he made his true breakthrough, scoring 16 goals and starting every league game during a campaign that culminated with Forest’s Player of the Year award.
West Ham came calling that summer with a £7 million deal but he had to wait until mid-December to make his first start for Slaven Bilic’s team.
Taking advantage of a glut of injuries, Antonio broke into the team and, with the help of a versatility that allows him to fill in at right-back, kept his place, finishing his debut Premier League season with 23 starts and 10 goals.
Persistence, a beneficial quality for the West Ham star
It is that persistence- Antonio still uses the facilities at Tooting and Mitcham, the Isthmian league club he had a loan spell with in 2008, to hone his fitness and skills in the summer- that has appealed so much to Allardyce.
“Something that deserves to be in this squad and me to have a look at as a potential player going forward” said the manager, “it shows how much it means if you’ve got guts, determination and desire.”
Antonio certainly has those characteristics in bucket-loads and his single-minded dream to play for England, which pushed him to knock-back advances from Jamaica in favour of pursuing his dream to play for the Three Lions, looks set to have paid off.
With the infectious smile and the human touch that shone through in front of the cameras on Monday, Antonio’s inclusion could be as significant to the squad as it is to the 26 year old who has waited so patiently for his chance.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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