Gareth Southgate has urged Emile Smith Rowe and Conor Gallagher to make themselves permanent fixtures with England’s senior team and press their case for World Cup places.
Smith Rowe and Gallagher were both initially selected for England Under-21s for this international break but got unexpected opportunities as a result of injuries and the Arsenal winger made his debut as a substitute in Friday’s 5-0 thrashing of Albania.
The on-loan Crystal Palace midfielder was added to the squad on Sunday and could get his bow in Monday night's game against San Marino, when England need a point against the team 210th and last in Fifa’s rankings to book their place in next year’s World Cup.
They could have a chance to play in Serravalle after Jack Grealish, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling withdrew from the squad following the Albania game. Mason Mount, Marcus Rashford, James Ward-Prowse and Declan Rice had already pulled out before then, meaning Smith Rowe and Gallagher are among just eight midfielders and forwards left.
Both were chosen ahead of more experienced players such as Jadon Sancho, Jesse Lingard, James Maddison and Dele Alli but while Southgate stressed the two 21-year-olds were picked on merit, he stressed it was easier to move them up from another England squad. Callum Hudson-Odoi had rejected an Under-21 call-up.
“Those two boys have earned their opportunity,” Southgate said. “There is great competition for places. If they play well, there is the chance to stay with us.
“It would be easier in the short term to bring in an older player but we think Conor and Emile are playing better than others we could have called in. The door is never closed [to older players]. I like the idea of bringing in young players because you are investing in England’s future.”
Gallagher and Smith Rowe, who have both scored four Premier League goals this season, were both in the England team who won the Under-17 World Cup in 2017 and Southgate said of the former: “I have been very impressed with him. He started the season very well at Palace and we talked about him when he named the original squad as someone we were keen to keep an eye on.”
Sterling has a personal issue while Henderson and Grealish have been ruled out with minor injuries that Southgate feels should not sideline for them for long.
It means he has to make at least two changes, with Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka the potential beneficiaries, but Southgate said: “We want to make sure that the team we start with is a statement that we are here to mean business, that we are taking this very seriously. We haven’t qualified yet for the World Cup and whenever you are bringing players into the team, you want stability as well. We always want strong leadership on the pitch.”
The absence of the vice-captain Henderson and Sterling, who has also skippered his country in the past, and that desire for leadership could afford Harry Kane a chance to get closer to Wayne Rooney’s national record of 53 goals.
Kane, who has 44 goals, has not started any of the three 2021 matches against Andorra and San Marino as his understudies got chances and Southgate said: “He is quick to let me know that he hasn’t played in those games and there is a balance. One of our strengths in the last few years has been that we have had a really good squad mentality. Guys who have been starting in some of the bigger matches recognise they have a role to support everyone else when the time is right.”