Gareth Southgate says James Maddison earned his spot on the plane after the England manager surprised many onlookers by selecting him for the World Cup and ending the midfielder’s three-year international absence.
With just 11 days to go until their Group B opener against Iran, the Three Lions boss largely stuck with the tried and tested while still managing to make some eye-catching decisions on his squad for Qatar.
Maddison had apparently resigned himself to missing out on the 26-man group, only for the Leicester player to receive a call from Southgate on Thursday morning informing him he would be heading to the Gulf state.
The 25-year-old’s only previous cap came as a substitute against Montenegro in November 2019 and the England boss revealed he made the decision to include him in his World Cup squad a couple of weeks ago.
“He is playing really well,” Southgate said. “Look, he is a good player, we have always said he is a good player.
“He has earned the right. We think he can give us something slightly different to the other attacking players we have got.
“I think at various stages there have been conversations and debates about James and there have been moments ahead of the Euros I don’t think he was in contention. He had a problem with his hip.
“I think September was a fair debate, but I think he is playing as well as any of the attacking players in the country.
“He is a little bit different to the others. He has a different threat and we might need that.”
Southgate believes Maddison has been playing “exceptionally well” and said a 2019 casino incident was not behind his absence in recent years, saying it “wasn’t the drama it seemed to be for everybody else”.
In-form Newcastle striker Callum Wilson also returns to the fold in time for the World Cup, having last been involved in November 2019 – just like fellow Coventry youth product Maddison.
There is a deserved recall for rejuvenated Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford, whose last cap came in the Euro 2020 final loss to Italy.
Versatile Arsenal defender Ben White and Chelsea midfielder Conor Gallagher also return to the fold after being overlooked for September’s internationals.
Southgate included Manchester City pair Kalvin Phillips and Kyle Walker despite fitness issues, with the England boss saying the former is able to be involved against Iran and the latter towards the end of the group stage.
Reece James’ absence until the latter stages of the tournament due to a knee injury meant Southgate had to end his World Cup dreams – one of several sombre calls the 57-cap former defender made.
“My priority always on these days is the difficult conversations and the sad news and that is really tough,” Southgate said.
“There are not many situations in football harder than that – maybe releasing a young player at the early stages of their career.
“But the nature of those conversations, good and bad, reminds you how important it is to go to a World Cup and I am very conscious of that.
“It is a great day but some I have had to disappoint.”
Among those missing out are Roma striker Tammy Abraham, Brentford frontman Ivan Toney, West Ham forward Jarrod Bowen and Manchester United’s Jadon Sancho.
Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse narrowly lost out on a spot, just like at last year’s Euros, and is among those Southgate told to be ready as “things can change over the weekend”.
Defenders Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori may also be in that boat after missing out on a squad that Harry Maguire got the nod for despite his comparative lack of game time at Manchester United.
“We’ve picked our more experienced defenders,” the England boss added.
“We think that at this moment in time the younger ones have got some really good qualities, but we don’t think they’ve quite done enough to push the more experienced ones out.
“We think the tournament that we’re going into and the level of the matches, that needed to be the pecking order.
“He’s one of our best centre-backs. We know within the squad we’ve got a lot of players that we know have been to tournaments, have performed at the level, know what’s required.
“We’ve got other players who are playing well, who are in form right at this moment. We’ve got to balance all of that when we’re picking our team.”