By Nick Mashiter, PA
England boss Gareth Southgate admits there was no reason to exclude Ivan Toney – despite a potential ban hanging over the player.
The in-form Brentford striker is in Southgate’s squad for the Euro 2024 qualifiers against Italy and Ukraine this month – the manager’s first since the World Cup quarter-final exit to France in December.
Toney is still waiting for a Football Association verdict after being charged with 262 breaches of Football Association gambling rules, with a lengthy suspension possible.
Toney – who turned 27 on Thursday – scored his 17th goal of the season in Brentford’s 2-0 win at Southampton on Wednesday with Southgate unable to ignore his form.
“The fact is he is playing and is available for his club, there hasn’t been a trial or any judgement so I don’t know on what basis we wouldn’t pick him,” said Southgate.
“Before the World Cup Callum Wilson had a brilliant run of form, he hit form just at the right time, but he has had a little bit of an injury which has inhibited his performance in the last few weeks.
“Ivan has been consistent across the season. As soon as we announced the (World Cup) squad he had a brilliant game at Manchester City which was typical but he is playing really well.
“I like his presence in games. I saw his game at Arsenal where I thought he was outstanding and he deserves his opportunity.”
Manchester City full-back Kyle Walker is also in for the trip to Naples and visit of Ukraine despite being investigated by police after allegedly exposing himself in a bar.
“It’s a complicated situation, I’ve spoken at length with him. He is back playing with his club, there’s no conclusive evidence to leave him out at this stage,” said Southgate.
“I have to be very careful on being the moral judge on things. We feel we want him with us, we feel it’s the right thing to do.
“When you are an England international there is an even higher bar on how you conduct yourself. I don’t think we are taking those decisions lightly.”
Walker, Reece James – who is back from injury – and Kieran Trippier are in ahead of Ben White and Trent Alexander-Arnold while Conor Coady and Wilson also miss out from the World Cup squad.
Southgate confirmed Chelsea forward Raheem Sterling is not fit while Crystal Palace defender Marc Guehi returns along with left-back Ben Chilwell, back for the first time since the 10-0 win in San Marino in November 2021, with Leicester playmaker James Maddison keeping his spot.
Kalvin Phillips and Harry Maguire have been included, despite their lack of action.
Phillips, who was a doubt for the World Cup with a shoulder injury, has not started in the Premier League for Manchester City this season. Manchester United defender Maguire has started just two top-flight games this year.
But Southgate defended their call-ups and sounded a warning about the future.
“We have got to pick our best players where possible,” he said. “Do you go with a certain level of player who is not playing quite so regularly or a player who is physically fit and doing well? I’m not talking about specific players but just as a general principle.
“It’s interesting talking to coaches of other national teams, you have to try to pick your best players as long as they can get to a good physical level.
“That’s where we are with it. We are shorter than the other big nations on depth of selection. In certain positions those numbers are deteriorating rapidly in the Premier League. That’s not a concern for me in the next 18 months but in the next four or five years time we have to be really careful.
“I’ve got to pick a team and squad I think which gives us the best chance.”
England go to Italy on March 23rd before hosting Ukraine three days later and Southgate believes his players are prepared to resume their international battles following the mid-season World Cup.
He said: “Everybody wanted to be there, the fight for places was immense. Now you have to start again, I know where the most senior players will be at with that challenge – they are ready.
“We have a couple of days on the training pitch to prepare for a humdinger of a game in Naples. It’s a good test for us. These are the sorts of games where we’ve got to show we can go to these places and win.”