Watching England’s U21s labour to defeat against Israel yesterday, I kept thinking of something my dad always used to say when I was a teenager. Surveying me and my mates shambling about the place, he would raise an eyebrow and opine: “if you lot are the cream of the country, God help the skimmed milk.”
It was not the most elevated of 90 minutes, not the most encouraging, not the most uplifting football match I have ever seen. It was not one that filled you with optimism. Actually, Andre Wisdom aside, it was about as sorry a showing as I can recall from a representative side. Players bereft of confidence, of technique, of invention, players woefully lacking in direction or character, players whose second touch was generally a tackle: was this really the best we have to offer? What, you wondered, have the Premier League academies been doing for the past twenty years if this is all they can come up with? Never mind the arguments about whether the best players should be fast tracked into the senior side or encouraged to play for the U21s in a tournament, never mind whether as a competition its significance has been over-played, this was utterly depressing. No wonder the senior team’s prospects of making it to Brazil are narrowing by the day: even if the best were elsewhere, even if Jack Wilshere was injured, what this game said about the lack of depth in the English game was frankly alarming.
Inevitably much of the blame was laid at the door of the coach. Though, in his unexpectedly spineless public reaction to defeat, Stuart Pearce was anxious to park responsibility on anyone but himself. Last week he had said the loss to Italy was the result of the players he was not allowed to pick – those like Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, preferred for full international duty. This time it was the players he did have to choose from, all of whom – bar Wisdom – he said would benefit from a long hard look at themselves.
There may be truth in that. But it seemed the last defiant action of a departing manager, not so much railing as drowning. And the really telling point about the condition of English football is raised when you try to work out who might replace him. It is not only the playing side that is suffering from a talent deficit. There is not exactly a production line of decent English coaches either.
The U21 job may seem an ideal staging post for a top flight manager, perhaps even a future England boss. That was why Pearce was given the job; though he didn’t get it until after he had been employed in the Premier League, at Manchester City. It was supposed to be a smooth accession process, a learning curve by which a member of England’s last reasonably decent team made the transition to running the national side. It was a nice theory. The problem came when he proved not up to such promotion.
So what now? Pearce was not the first among equals, he was the one and only. He has no contemporaries even close to his level. Of that 1990 team, only Terry Butcher is currently in gainful employment in coaching (though David Platt was on the City bench until May). Most of the rest - like Gary Lineker, John Barnes and Chris Waddle – make a living on the media circuit. While the Scots seem to be able to produce managers by the truckload, the well of English coaches is almost entirely dry.
Indeed, so bare is the cupboard the name that is being most frequently bandied about in the wake of the Israel debacle as a replacement for Pearce is that of Glenn Hoddle. That’s Glenn Hoddle who has not coached anything beyond an academy side since he failed ignominiously at Wolves seven years ago. Has it really come to this? Such is the paucity of coaches of sufficient calibre to take on the U-21s, the bloke most advocated is the one who happened to be the one watching the tournament from the Sky studio?
Mind you, who else is there? Take a look at the list of young English managers – those in charge of league clubs born after 1975 - and it runs out after Phil Parkinson, Lee Johnson and Eddie Howe, currently residing at Bradford, Oldham and Bournemouth respectively. And none of them – shrewd, determined and going places though they might be – is exactly over-burdened with international experience.
So thin is the list, the most plausible candidate seems to be Phil Neville. It is said Neville Junior was a model pupil during his coaching badges. But then so was Pearce. He has no experience. Nobody yet knows if he has what it takes. Watching the U21s in action what they need is someone who knows precisely what he is doing to help them, not someone feeling his way. In fact, so wretched is the competition, the FA might be forced to consider someone who is this summer taking the final modules in his pro licence course. Step forward Joey Barton. Only joking.