BURTON-0N-TRENT, United Kingdom, Mar 22 – England midfielder Jack Wilshere has played down World Cup expectations but believes the Russian showpiece could be a stepping stone towards a brighter future for Gareth Southgate’s inexperienced team.
The Arsenal player is hoping to win his first cap in nearly two years in warm-up friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy after battling back to recover his place in Arsene Wenger’s team this season.
The squad Wilshere has rejoined is a far cry from the one he first broke into as a highly promising 18-year-old in 2010.
Shorn of talismanic striker Harry Kane through injury, Southgate’s 27-man group is desperately thin on players performing regularly at the highest level.
“It’s completely different. I remember the first time I walked into an England squad, I went for dinner the first time and there was (Wayne) Rooney, (Frank) Lampard, (Steven) Gerrard, (Rio) Ferdinand, (John) Terry — big players who I had watched growing up,” Wilshere said at England’s training base.
“It’s a different feel now. There’s more young players, there’s more of a group I think and there’s more of a plan towards the future.”
Wilshere’s last outing in an England shirt was not one to remember as Roy Hodgson’s side were embarrassed 2-1 by Iceland at Euro 2016 — extending England’s long wait for a first win in the knockout phase of a major tournament, which they have not achieved since 2006.
And he stressed that big expectations should not be piled onto the shoulders of a young squad, despite excellent results at youth tournaments that have boosted hopes of a brighter future.
England’s under-20 and under-17 sides won their respective World Cups last year.
“The World Cup is a massive thing for us and we want to do well. We don’t want to set ourselves any targets but I think going through after the World Cup the group is in a good position,” he added.
“If you look over the past years, especially Rio (before World Cup 2014) — we were confident going into that and it didn’t work out. And with this group of players, it wouldn’t be fair.”
– Arsenal future in the balance –
Things could have been different for Wilshere had he taken manager Wenger up on his offer to leave Arsenal at the beginning of the season.
“I wasn’t getting in the Arsenal team and the manager said I could leave if I wanted to,” said the 26-year-old. “I was in the position that I did not know what was going to happen in the coming season.”
Wilshere’s future is again up in the air. His contract is set to expire at the end of the season, meaning he could become a free agent while at the World Cup.
And he is hoping to have a deal agreed before jetting off to Russia.
“I want to go to the World Cup and enjoy it but we have three months till then and a lot can happen. Ideally from my point of view and the club’s point of view, they will probably want it sorted.”
In a career blighted by injury, Wilshere has managed to marry a prolonged spell of form and fitness, making 31 appearances already this season.
England’s pain could be Wilshere’s gain, as a lack of competition for places in central midfield means he is now well-placed for at the very least a place in Southgate’s squad for the summer.
“I have always had the confidence in myself and felt that if I got in there I could put in the performances that would give me the opportunity to be back here with England,” he said.
“I have always loved playing for England. It is the top level for any player. I am at an age now where I get it and it means a lot to me.”