Football: Gary Cahill feared indifferent form with Chelsea would cost him England World Cup place

England's Gary Cahill speaking during a press conference at St. George's Park in Burton-upon-Trent, England, on May 28, 2018.
England's Gary Cahill speaking during a press conference at St. George's Park in Burton-upon-Trent, England, on May 28, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

(THE GUARDIAN) - Gary Cahill feared the worst when his phone flashed with a missed call from Gareth Southgate this month. He had ample reason to believe the England manager was preparing to deliver bad news.

After being appointed captain in March 2017, he found himself out of Southgate's plans a year later, omitted from the squad for two friendlies and struggling for form at Chelsea.

"I thought potentially it could be bad news because in my experience of being involved with England for seven or eight years you usually don't get the call - you just receive the information that you're going to meet up and what times," the 32-year-old said.

"So to get the call a different way, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit nervous."

Cahill was driving to training at the time, preparing for Chelsea's FA Cup final against Manchester United, and his thoughts were occupied by that fixture rather than the World Cup.

"I was desperate to go and be in the squad like anybody else," he said. "It was in the week leading up to the cup final so my emotions were all over the place. My mental state was fully focused on this final. That's all I was thinking about. And then that came along and obviously I was delighted to get the news. There were a lot of emotions for me in that particular week and both turned out to be very good news. So let's hope that carries on into the summer."

One of the hallmarks of Southgate's tenure as manager so far has been the way he has communicated with his players, even when delivering bad news. He phoned Jack Wilshere, Ryan Bertrand and Joe Hart to let the trio know they did not feature in his plans for Russia.

Cahill was extended the same courtesy when he was left out of a 27-man squad for friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy in March this year.

It was a significant fall from prominence for the defender who Southgate had chosen to wear the captain's armband against Germany in Berlin in March 2017 and played a key role in England's World Cup qualification campaign. But Southgate had grown concerned at Cahill's reduced role at Stamford Bridge, particularly after he was dropped from Chelsea's defence after costly errors in Premier League games. As a result, the phone call did not come as a shock.

"He spoke to me before he left me out. I respected him a lot for that phone call because I'd sooner find out from the horse's mouth than anywhere else and nothing surprises me in football," Cahill said.

"Everyone is judged in months and weeks. You have a month where you score two or three goals and you're the best thing since sliced bread. Or you have a month where you make a couple of errors and you're finished. That's the kind of way things go.

"I played the majority of qualifying games for two years and then I was left out for the World Cup squad in 2014 when it was announced. Other people were in form, playing well, it is what it is. The thing I keep harping back to is dig into your character and make sure you perform well for your club to give yourself the opportunity. That's all I tried to do.

"At that moment I took a knock - it's not the first I've taken and I've had a lot of good times in football. I just needed to work harder, get in the team and show what I could do. On the last day of the season I lifted the Cup and there was the turnaround. It can happen quickly."

With 58 international caps, Cahill is the most experienced member of the 23-man squad which will have an average age of 26 on June 18 when England play their first group game against Tunisia. He is also one of only 10 players in the squad who featured in England's Euro 2016 campaign, which ended with a humiliating defeat by Iceland in the round of 16. He insisted he would not be carrying mental scars from that early exit.

"It depends on your personality and character. If you're asking me that now I won't even think of that when I'm over there. I will in the aspect of not want to experience that feeling again - it will just make me more determined to do well.

"That game was so frustrating because we had unbelievable amounts of possession yet we never created anything with it. It took a long time to get over that. But we can't harp on about the past, we're looking to the future and we're going into this tournament with a positive frame of mind. I think that's the key for everybody whether you're an England fan - or yourselves - to go in with a more positive attitude and we'll see how far we can go."

The squad were enjoying the sunshine at St George's Park, the FA's centre of excellence on Monday (May 28). After a morning training session they posed for photographs for official FA promotional material, with Phil Jones still sporting a black eye he received during the FA Cup final.

Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold will not join the rest of the squad until Saturday at the earliest after featuring in Liverpool's Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid.

But their clubmate Adam Lallana, who is one of four players on standby, is expected to report early to the squad get-together on Wednesday, waiving the extra days Southgate was willing to let him take after the Champions League final. It is understood he wants to prove he is fit should someone drop out.

The 30-year-old came off the bench to replace the injured Mo Salah after 30 minutes in Kiev and is thought to be next in line to travel to Russia if any of the midfielders or forwards are forced to drop out.