Gareth Southgate's surprise England call may never come for Leeds United's Luke Ayling but he can still sleep soundly

The Flop™ on the world stage, just picture it.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 18th March 2021, 5:45 am
WHY NOT? Leeds United defender Luke Ayling has fearsome competition for a place in the England squad but if Gareth Southgate wants form, fitness and versatility, there are few better. Pic: Getty
WHY NOT? Leeds United defender Luke Ayling has fearsome competition for a place in the England squad but if Gareth Southgate wants form, fitness and versatility, there are few better. Pic: Getty

It’s actually not all that difficult to imagine Luke Ayling in an England shirt. They play against elite opposition, just like he does, very well, on a weekly basis. They even play in white.

It was arguably harder to envisage the right-back ever playing in the Premier League, never mind being linked to an international call-up, when he was picking up more yellow cards than plaudits in League One.

Winning the Championship and going on to become a mainstay of a mid-table, top-flight side are the kind of pipe dreams that never materialise for most teenagers released by big clubs, like Ayling was by Arsenal.

His dreams came true, however and, with a good few years left in him, Ayling can already look back with pride at a fine career in the game.

It could yet get even better, with Leeds setting their sights on something a little grander than just surviving in the top tier.

And yesterday, a national newspaper fired the starter’s pistol on speculation that Gareth Southgate was considering making another of the defender’s dreams a reality.

An England call-up would raise eyebrows across the country, even in Leeds, even on the strength of a magnificent first season of Premier League football.

The competition for a right-back berth in Southgate’s Three Lions camp is fearsome, to say the least.

Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier, Reece James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Matty Cash are all options for Southgate, although, as he’s proven before, the England boss is not afraid of a little experimentation. Given the talent at his disposal, the proximity of the Euros and the limited chances to give players a run-out and take a look at them before the big summer kick-off, you’d have to call this month’s set of international games the last chance saloon for anyone considered an outside bet.

Ayling is certainly that. Barring what would be an injury crisis for Southgate, the Leeds man is a long, long shot.

He’s also a very good player, however. There might be more talented specialists in his position and players with more time on their side but, if Southgate was looking for form, versatility and crucially right now, fitness, you could maybe see it.

England have gone with a back-three under Southgate, so a right-back who can also play centre-half would be useful.

Ayling started his career as a centre-back at Arsenal and has played over 100 games in that position, including 11 at the highest domestic level.

His performances in the centre of Bielsa’s defence, during a defensive injury crisis, were a lot more than adequate.

His ball-carrying ability worked a treat from centre-half and Leeds’ head coach, himself a former two-country national team boss, was happy to declare that Ayling was shining, in the role.

In fact, so comfortable was the 29-year-old, alongside youngster Pascal Struijk, that the loss of internationals Liam Cooper, Robin Koch and Diego Llorente and this season’s total of 18 different centre-half pairs did not present much in the way of difficulty in Bielsa’s estimation.

He paid tribute to Ayling in yesterday’s press conference, without breaking his personal policy of refusing to endorse players for another man’s football team.

One thing is for certain, at a time when injuries are rife and teams with title and European aspirations might be a little squeamish about overloading tired players, Bielsa is not the type of coach to quietly request that his man not be selected. He would be all for it.

He would be a proud man were Ayling to join the already capped Phillips and the more likely England new boy Patrick Bamford.

All of Leeds, even those who doubt his suitability for England, would be proud.

It would take the hardest of hearts to begrudge him an extra-special addition to what is already a footballing fairytale.

Ayling is a leader in the Leeds dressing room, a popular figure in football with many friends from his previous clubs and someone widely regarded as a good human being.

He’s honest, holding up his hands when he’s been personally at fault, and defies a stammer to step up to the broadcast microphones week in and week out.

These qualities, this character ticks boxes that Southgate has spoken of, when discussing the culture, behaviour and standards he wants in his camp.

That said, if Ayling were to be called up, at any stage, regardless of circumstance, it would be on the merit of years of toil and not because he's a good bloke.

If it never comes, and there’s a good chance it may never come, he can sleep soundly at night knowing that he will wake up the next morning to carry on living the dream as a Premier League footballer.