Gareth Southgate insists Conor Gallagher “deserves” his first England call-up after he was promoted from the Under-21 squad for Monday’s World Cup qualifier in San Marino.
The Three Lions just need a point against the nation who sit bottom of the FIFA rankings in order to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
Jordan Henderson, Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount and Luke Shaw all withdrew from the squad set to travel to San Marino, with Gallagher added to Southgate’s ranks.
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The Chelsea midfielder has impressed during a loan spell at Crystal Palace so far this season and follows in the footsteps of Emile Smith Rowe in earning a maiden senior call-up as a replacement in the current squad.
“We’ve been very impressed with him,” Southgate said of the 21-year-old, who has yet to make his senior debut for Chelsea.
“We’ve tracked him for a very long time in his loan spells at Charlton, Swansea – we knew the staff there very well – at West Brom and now at Crystal Palace so in each loan he has done extremely well.
“He was already Covid tested and going from one to the other was straightforward. That’s not to say he is only there because of that – he is here because he deserves to be here – but it was an easy transition for us to make.
“He has started the season very well with Palace. We talked about him when we named the original squad as somebody we were keen to keep an eye on and I suppose it’s one of the benefits of being with the Under-21s because it was an easy transition for us to bring him across.”
Gallagher will be hoping to make his England bow at the San Marino Stadium, where Southgate’s side need only to avoid defeat to top Group I.
England sit fifth in the FIFA rankings, 205 places ahead of their hosts – who are rock bottom below the likes of Guam and the British Virgin Islands.
But Southgate does not intend to take the challenge lightly and hinted he could name a strong starting XI, with captain Harry Kane keen to be included after his hat-trick in Friday’s 5-0 win
over Albania took him within nine of Wayne Rooney’s record tally of 53 England goals.
“Well, he’s quick to let me know that he hasn’t played in those games,” Southgate replied when asked if he owed Kane a start against one of the minnows of the group, having not done so at home against San Marino or in both fixtures with Andorra.
“Of course, there’s a balance for us because one of the strengths over the last few years is that we’ve had a really strong squad mentality.
“We’ve wanted to make sure that people that are with us get the opportunities to play, the guys that have perhaps been starting in some of the bigger matches during the summer in particular, recognise that they also have a role to support everybody else when the time’s right.
“When you have a squad, it is so important that those that aren’t starting support the team that are. So I think that’s a good process for everybody in the squad to experience.
“But equally, we want to make sure that the team we start with tomorrow, is a statement that we’re here to do business, that we’re taking this very seriously, we’re not qualified yet.
“We want a strong performance, we’ve got thousands of England fans travelling and we must put on a performance that underlines all of the facts I’ve just spoken about.”
The England squad that travels to San Marino will be vastly different to that named by Southgate ahead of the final two World Cup qualifiers.
Marcus Rashford and James Ward-Prowse had already withdrawn, with Arsenal’s Smith Rowe drafted in, and now a quintet of players will not make the journey either.
“With Hendo within the game; with Jack we think a little bit perhaps within the game but he trained yesterday,” Southgate said of Henderson and Grealish pulling out injured.
“As a precaution we scanned them and there are small injuries on the scans so we just hope they are not going to miss too much football from here on. It shouldn’t be too bad in either case but we’ll just have to see how that progresses.
“Raheem has got a personal issue. So the first two are injuries and with Mason as well and Luke we ran out of time really on getting them in after their rehab from the concussion (Shaw) and from the operation (Mount).”