GARETH SOUTHGATE last night handed a shock vote of confidence to his beleaguered goalkeeper Joe Hart.
The on-loan West Ham keeper, who has conceded TEN in three games, had been expected to get axed by England.
But he will start against Malta here in tonight’s World Cup qualifier.
And boss Southgate said: “He’s been excellent for me. We’ve only conceded the two goals in Scotland in this group.
“So he’s rewarded me with the performances I wanted.”
Meanwhile, Southgate did not exactly inspire confidence by declining to name a permanent leader – which implies the captaincy of England might have become too big for one man.
So the office of Bobby Moore, Bryan Robson, David Beckham and the recently-retired Wayne Rooney remains vacant.
Ahead of tonight’s game in Malta, Gareth Southgate’s reputation for tough decision-making took a dent when he performed a U-turn and admitted he would continue to share the responsibility of skippering the Three Lions.
Before England’s most recent competitive match in Scotland in June, the England boss insisted he would name a permanent captain at the start of this season.
Harry Kane had skippered England in their last two matches and looked likely to get the honour on a full-time basis.
But with he and fellow senior pros Jordan Henderson and Gary Cahill all available for the first time in Southgate’s reign, the manager was unwilling to nail down his leader.
Southgate said: “I want to continue sharing that responsibility. It’s been healthy for us. We’re seeing good leaders emerging.
“People have talked about that not being the case in the past but, in my view, there are good leaders in the group, not just senior players but younger players as well.
“The more we give them responsibility and allow them to take a lead, that’s healthy for the team.
“You want people making good decisions on the pitch, being brave on the ball, and leading my example.”
Asked if he would ever name a permanent captain, Southgate said: “I’m not in a rush, I’ll give it some thought. It’s on my list of priorities, not high.
“Developing more people who can step up and influence, getting the bond of team strong, so we stand together is far more important than putting an individual in a position where, if they’re the only one we’re looking to, we won’t get the best out of the group.”
Manchester City’s £50million right-back Kyle Walker backed his boss, saying: “I’m happy to share the responsibility around the team.
“In recent squads, we always looked up to Wayne Rooney and he took the negatives for us. It’s good to share it around. It’s a team game.
“This group is very close — on and off the field. We’re all similar ages, we’ve all been through it now.
“The squad hasn’t changed much since the Euros and the lows we faced there.”
England are only one month shy of going an entire decade without losing a meaningful qualifier — heading back to Steve McClaren’s ‘Wally with the brolly’ night against Croatia.
Yet despite the modest World Cup Group F opposition, Southgate’s men are not home and hosed yet. They have failed to win an away match under Southgate in four attempts.
And if they don’t notch one here against a nation ranked 190th in the world then the manager’s nascent reign will be plunged into crisis.
Malta have won only five competitive games in their history — although one of those was against Iceland — and they did defeat Ukraine in a friendly this summer.
England should have no problems here — yet there is a feeling that Southgate is fudging too many issues.
He was happy to allow some mutually convenient fibs to be told when Rooney retired from internationals last week, apparently snubbing his offer of a comeback.
Yet still no permanent captain has been named, despite Kane having been identified by Southgate as the outstanding candidate some time ago.
On current form, Joe Hart is probably not one of England’s best four goalkeepers, yet he will remain in situ between the sticks here tonight.
Then there’s the fact that Southgate selected six centre-halves in this squad.
You get a lot of time to think in the England job and perhaps the more time you think, the less easy it is to make concrete decisions.
One clear opinion Southgate did have is that he sees Liverpool new boy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a winger, rather than in the central midfield role where Jurgen Klopp intends to play him.
Southgate said: “No, I don’t see him as a central midfielder — we really like him as a wide player.”
MALTA (likely): Hogg; Muscat, Agius, Magri, Failla, Zerafa; Kristensen, P Fenech, R Fenech, Schembri; Farrugia.
ENGLAND (likely): Hart; Walker, Jones, Cahill, Bertrand; Henderson, Livermore; Sterling, Dele, Rashford; Kane.
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