There might be quite a few people who are surprised to learn the identity of the player in Gareth Southgate’s squad who will be going to Russia for the World Cup as the leading scorer within the England setup. But here’s a clue: it is not Harry Kane. Or not yet, anyway.
Perhaps this might also be an appropriate moment to point out that Danny Welbeck – one of the players who regularly seems to get the pitchfork treatment on social media – has managed more goals in England’s colours than Jamie Vardy, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford put together. Fifteen, in total, from 37 appearances, though on only 10 occasions has he has played the full 90 minutes. Kane is next in line, with 12 goals from 23 caps (13 full appearances). Nobody else is in double figures and it is worth bearing in mind that four different England managers – Southgate, Roy Hodgson, Fabio Capello and Stuart Pearce on caretaker duty – have selected Welbeck in his seven years as an international footballer. When he is fit, he tends to get the call.
Unfortunately for Welbeck, that has not been as often as he would have liked since he signed for Arsenal from Manchester United in 2014. First it was the cartilage in his left knee that required major surgery. Then it was a similar problem in his right knee and another long, demoralising layoff. Welbeck missed Euro 2016 because of the second operation and it does not need long in his company to realise these have been the hardest times of his career.
“It’s not been easy to deal with,” he says. “It’s difficult. It’s a lonely period. You are not out on the pitch helping your team-mates and doing what you love doing. I had so much time on my hands. Straight after surgery I couldn’t put any weight on my leg for two months. I went through a period of not even leaving my house. Then, after six weeks, when I went back to training, I was literally going just there and straight back home, reading books and stuff like that. But you can learn about yourself and improve mentally. I read more books than when I was in school. Sports mentality books and autobiographies.”
Undisputed Truth, the autobiography of Mike Tyson, was a favourite – “He’s a fighter, he’s a mad man . . . I’m not just a fighter, I like to give love as well. I’m a lover too. But I liked that one.”
The book he really benefited from, however, was Relentless – From Good to Great to Unstoppable, detailing Tim Grover’s work with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and some of basketball’s other stars. “I really enjoyed that one. It also helped me through that period because it talks about being injured and making your way back into the game.”
The issue now is whether Welbeck can be considered back to his best and, realistically, his total of 10 goals from 43 Arsenal appearances last season means he is unlikely to be in Southgate’s starting XI when England begin their penultimate warm-up game for the World Cup with Saturday’s friendly against Nigeria.
“What would you class as your best?” is his answer to that one. “There is always room to improve. When you come back, you are not going to be fighting fit, you are not going to be as sharp as you have been straight from the start. It doesn’t happen with a click of the fingers. You have to do it in stages and work really, really hard at it.”
All of which helps to explain why Arsène Wenger, in his last few weeks at Arsenal, was so effusive in his praise of the player. “This guy has gone through some difficult times,” the former manager said. “And I’ve seen him behave when it was really hard and tough, so he deserves everything he gets.
“He had every reason to feel sorry for himself and to think this mountain is too big to climb. Because he had the right knee, the left knee, almost a year out every time and having to work hard, unnoticed by everybody. People were questioning: ‘Will he come back or not?’ It’s the most difficult test for any sportsperson. I believe what he has done is exceptional.”
At 27, a “veteran” of the last World Cup, Welbeck is one of the older players picked by Southgate in a squad chosen with pace in mind. “We’ve not had a race but, put it this way, there are a lot of players who would back themselves. Over 100 metres Raheem would be rapid out of the blocks – say, the first 10 yards. Then there are a few boys that would catch him up and take him over. Marcus is quick,Kyle Walker. I have not seen Ruben [LOFTUS-CHEEK]really go for it yet, but he might be quick.” Welbeck, one imagines, might fancy his chances too.
Not Jack Wilshere, though. Welbeck can sympathise with his Arsenal team-mate, another player who knows a thing or two about long-term injuries, about not being selected – “Jack is a really good friend of mine and I know he is disappointed” – and he nods in agreement when it is put to him that a decent World Cup would be one way to impress the club’s new manager, Unai Emery.
“Obviously it is exciting times at the club. It was a bit strange with the manager [WENGER]announcing that he was leaving and not knowing who was next. Now it has been announced I am looking forward to working with him next season. But my main focus, being with England, is the World Cup now.”