Stoke City: Shawcross out to make positive England impression
RYAN Shawcross is poised to become only the 23rd Stoke City player to appear for England when Roy Hodgson's team take on Sweden this evening (7.30pm).
But his greatest duel during tonight's friendly in Stockholm may not be against the best the Swedes have to offer.
For it will be how Shawcross fares in comparison to Steven Caulker that looks certain to decide whether the Stoke skipper has any realistic future in the England squad.
And the Spurs man already has a head start after being named in Hodgson's starting line-up tonight, leaving Shawcross to take his bow from the bench later in the evening.
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The reason the 20-year-old should concern Shawcross most is because there seems little prospect of both being included in future England squads also likely to feature fellow central defenders Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott, plus the Manchester United pair of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
So it is imperative that when his time comes, Shawcross proves he is ahead of his young rival in the pecking order.
Shawcross certainly deserves his chance before Caulker – albeit we might be a little biased in these parts – because it was the Stoke man called into the last England squad and forced to bide his time on the sidelines during last month's World Cup qualifiers at home to San Marino and away to Poland.
Caulker was elsewhere on England under-21 duty in Serbia, meanwhile, during an explosive play-off fixture that was to leave him one of 11 people charged by local police for allegedly playing a part in the disturbances which followed the final whistle.
Shawcross, who is five years older than Caulker, also goes into tonight's game with much the greater experience at club level.
Now into his fifth campaign in the Premier League, Shawcross has clocked up 131 appearances in the top flight, four times more than Caulker, who travelled to Stockholm with mixed feelings after scoring for Spurs on Sunday and then being found wanting on Sergio Aguero's equaliser in the 2-1 defeat at Manchester City.
He didn't make his Premier League debut until a loan spell at Swansea last season, while at Spurs he has started just half-a-dozen games at the top level since returning to White Hart Lane in the summer.
And there is the rub. If there is one category in their tale-of-the-tape which leaves Caulker ahead of Shawcross, it is the bias we all know that can come from playing for a perceived "big club" like Tottenham rather than Stoke City.
If only Denis Smith, that dyed-in-the-wool Stokie, was in charge of the decision-making.
No-one will take more pride in seeing a Stoke player break that 28-year-old wait for an England international – and not least because it will be a fellow centre-half breaking that duck.
Smith acknowledges the importance of the Shawcross v Caulker battle, but is optimistic that the City skipper is ahead in the queue going into tonight's game.
"I haven't seen a great deal of Caulker, to be honest," he said, "but he seems to have done okay without being really outstanding.
"But then again it is hard for a centre-half to make a quick impression because it's not like a striker who can score a goal and get noticed, or a winger like Zaha and Walcott when he was younger who can catch the eye with a mazy run or two.
"A big advantage for Ryan is that he has been around for a while now, playing week-in, week-out in the Premier League and also being captain of his team.
"If anything, we maybe take him for granted a bit here at Stoke because he has been so consistent for so long now.
"But I have to say I thought he was excellent again on Saturday against QPR.
"Two or three years ago Djibril Cisse would have given him problems, but not on Saturday. That's a measure of the progress he's made with us at Stoke.
"I think it's also been important for Ryan to have been in the England squad just recently.
"It's like when you bring a new player into a club. You think you know him, but you need to be around him to really get to know him.
"Roy will be looking not just for good players, of course, but for good tourers and players who can mix well because you can be away for a long time at tournaments.
"Ryan is level-headed and sensible, so I'm sure he will have made a good impression in that way."
Shawcross isn't quite a homegrown talent after spending his teenage years at Manchester United, but he has learnt much of his trade at Stoke, and so his call-up has echoes of Mike Pejic's back in the early 1970s.
"It's a bit different because Pej never used to speak, so he never told us about his call-up," joked Smith.
"But I do remember we were all delighted for him. We knew we had a good side at that time and it was right we got people into these squads.
"We had John Mahoney with Wales and Terry Conroy with Ireland, and then there was Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton with England.
"Then we got a local lad like Pej into the team, a bit like Ryan this time. I know our fans will take great pride in seeing him wear his England shirt out in Sweden, just as we did with Pej."
ENGLAND'S STARTING XI IN STOCKHOLM
Hart (Manchester City), Johnson (Liverpool), Cahill (Chelsea), Caulker (Tottenham), Baines (Everton), Gerrard (Liverpool), Cleverley (Manchester United), Osman (Everton), Sterling (Liverpool), Welbeck (Manchester United), Young (Manchester United).
WHOEVER gets to eventually partner Shawcross tonight will be his lucky 13th sidekick at centre-half since he broke into Stoke City's first team in August 2008.
But can you name the dozen central defenders he has played alongside in a Stoke City shirt?
Beginning with Danny Higginbotham and ending with Matthew Upson, the other 10 in chronological order were Jody Craddock, Clint Hill, Gabriel Zakuani, Dominic Matteo, Leon Cort, Abdoulaye Faye, Ibrahima Sonko, Robert Huth, Danny Collins and Jonathan Woodgate.