The former Manchester United and England defender tells FFT.com's James Maw all about Paul Scholes, Glen Johnson and taking video games very seriously...
Your old Manchester United team-mate Paul Scholes was asked to come out of international retirement by Fabio Capello; could he have had an impact at the World Cup?
Paul Scholes is without a shadow of doubt, one of the finest players to pull on a United shirt. You ask any of the players who played alongside him at international level or for United and they’ll tell you that he’s a fantastic player.
He’s got that uncanny knack of scoring fantastic goals at important times. If you asked any of the best players to name the best midfielders of the last 15 years, they'd all put Paul Scholes at the very top of the list. He’s a wonderful creative midfield player, he can pick a pass, and although tackling isn’t his strong suit, he’s a very intelligent, goal-scoring midfielder.
He’s invaluable. It is a shame that he hasn’t gone along, but he’s been retired now for six years and he’ll feel like he’s done his bit. He’s promised his family holidays and such and it’s very difficult to then change your mind when you have young children to go off and play in the World Cup. I’m sure he thought long and hard about it, but he ultimately chose his family.
Could he have helped solve the Gerrard/Lampard dilemma, given the three of them all played well together at Euro 2004?
It’s an age-old argument this Gerrard and Lampard thing and whether they can play together, and whether they need a holding midfield player to support the defence because they are players who want to make a difference at the attacking end of the pitch.
They are capable of doing the defensive job, but it doesn’t come as naturally as it does to someone like Gareth Barry, or even Scholesy, who can fill that role too. I think great players find a way to play together and Capello plays a formation with the holding midfielder and they’ve proved that they can play together within that system. Gerrard also has potential to play off the frontman, he’s one of those players who wants to take the game by the scruff of the neck ala Wayne Rooney, so Capello has that option available to him too.
I don’t know if any of the other strikers have made a great case to play alongside Wayne Rooney. In the early stages of the tournament I think he’ll go 4-4-2 with Emile Heskey alongside Rooney as he did in the qualifiers. I think he feels Heskey takes the pressure of Wayne Rooney and gives him the space to play in. Capello sees him as the perfect foil for Rooney to score the goals that England need to go further in the competition.
Do you think there’s a possibility of Rooney playing alone upfront as he has for United for big chunks of the season just gone?
I think it’s a possibility against the bigger teams. I don’t think he’ll do it in the group stages, I think Capello will feel like we’re the strongest team in the group and we’ll go out and take the game to all three of the other teams.
As we progress and come up against a team like Spain or Brazil then you’ve got to be a little bit more careful in your approach and it wouldn’t surprise me if we packed the midfield and had Rooney upfront on his own.
Then, as I say, you can play Barry in the holding role and give Lampard and Gerrard the freedom to go on and create further up the field and they don’t have to do as much dirty work. So we’ve got options, he’s pick a squad that gives us plenty of options and I think he’ll have to utilize them all if we’re going to win the World Cup.
Were you surprised that Gary Neville missed out in the end as an experienced back-up?
Gary’s missed so much football this season that it’s not a great surprise he didn’t make it. He got himself back into the reckoning, got a sniff but I think ultimately Capello has decided that Gary’s not quite up to speed for the World Cup.
He’s tough, Gary, he wouldn’t have let anybody down. He’s professional enough to know what he’s capable of and he’s probably still stronger than Glen Johnson defensively.
Glen will offer more going forward, but he’s a concern for me as he’s a right-back who’s still better suited to attacking. Defenders should defend first and foremost. Defending should be their lifeblood, but that’s not the case with Glen and I’m sure the centrebacks would prefer if it was.
But he’s improving and as an attacking player he’s scored some great goals in recent seasons, getting up and supporting the attacking players at Liverpool and scored a great goal for England against Mexico and he’s got that ability to make things happen.
It wasn’t so long ago that there were no concerns about the back four and the backup looked strong too. Now all of a sudden there are chinks in the armour with the off-field problems earlier in the season and the injuries, especially to Rio. It is a concern now looking at the squad and the team that’s going to start. Are they going to be the unit that they were in qualifying?
Do you think the defence could be key to how England get on at the World Cup?
A strong defence is key to any team doing well in the World Cup. Just look at Brazil. If you look back to the 70s and 80s it was all about ‘total football’ and outscoring the opposition, but now even they take a lot more care at the back – all the best teams are.
You would look at England and if they can bring that solidarity back into the defence then we’ve got half a chance with the players we’ve got creating things. The Gerrards, Lampards and Wayne Rooneys can always score goals, so if you can keep a clean sheet then you’re obviously going to have a very good chance.
Are you worried Manchester United might fall behind the superior financial clout of City and Chelsea?
I don’t think they’re going to fall behind. As much as has been said about the debt and the Glazers, those worries were there at the start and they went on to win three titles back-to-back, won a European Cup and got to another final, so you can’t say if affected them on the pitch.
This year I don’t think either Chelsea or Manchester had that invincibility about them they’ve had in previous seasons. It;s incredible that two teams who both lost seven matches were in the title race until the final game of the season.
I think United need to bring in a couple of new faces and I think David Gill has said that there’s a fair size kitty for the manager to go and do that.
Now you’ve got what’s happening at Manchester City, people coming in and bankrolling teams and signing the biggest players on such massive wages. It’s going to spiral out of control soon - big clubs are already suffering trying to keep up and it’s something we need to nip in the bud before it spirals out of control.
It’s ridiculous, £80 million for Fabregas? That’d bankrupt a lot of teams. It’s getting to dangerous proportions again and I think FIFA need to get together again and stop it.
Might it be a case of FIFA or UEFA coming in and saying “you can only spend so much a season”?
I don’t know how you can do that but it’s something that is at a dangerous level; player’s wages, the transfer fees - it’s all a bit obscene, really, isn’t it? That kind of sum for one player, it’s a bit of a concern.
Tell us a bit about the 1Goal charity..
The 1GOAL charity is working in conjunction with X-Box to try to raise awareness of the needs of the children of the world who aren’t getting the things that we take for granted, such as an education.
As you say, it’s in conjunction with X-Box, are you a keen gamer?
Even at this age, I’m still into my X-Box, much to the amusement of my family, especially my children. Games these days are getting so good, they’re so interactive and the kids love it. It’s something that us Dads have got to do!
Are you one of those Dads who is ultra-competitive?
Oh yeah, just ask my kids! If I get beat, I have to play again and again until I win. They always ask: “Why do you hate losing so much, Dad?”
Is that the old Manchester United never-say-die mentality?
Maybe, although it’s something I had in my school life as well. It was football, cricket, basketball, everything - I always wanted to be the best I could be. I’ve grown up with that inside me, I think most people do. I’ve calmed down a bit now I’ve retired, but it’s still there when I’m playing these games it’s very prevalent.
Interview: June 2010. Football greats Marcel Desailly, Gary Pallister and Quinton Fortune are brought together by Xbox to lend their support to 1GOAL, which aims to get all children into school. Joined by singer Gabrielle Climi, the sports stars signed up to a global petition at join1goal.org.