Jim White

Hodgson missed a trick this international window

Jim White

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It is impossible not to sympathise with Roy Hodgson this weekend.

Here he is trying to co-ordinate England’s World Cup finals campaign, work out his best players and their positions, sort out combinations and patterns on the training field, all vital stuff. And the vehicle he has been given is a couple of friendlies which leading club managers see as nothing more than an opportunity to rest and recuperate their players for more significant domestic matters ahead.

Even so, you can’t help feeling the England boss has missed a trick. He had a chance, in the most useful of laboratory conditions, to see whether some of the promising young talent suddenly appearing on his radar might actually have within them the wherewithal to make the step up. Instead, in the manner of Darren Bent confronted by an open goal, he appears to have squandered his opening.

Speaking earlier in the week, Blackpool’s Tom Ince made some astute observations about the development of young players. What he said was lacking in English football was not ability, skill or application. What is in such short supply is opportunity. Give a guy a chance and you never know where it might lead.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the case of Andros Townsend, the poster boy for the forgotten generation. After being shifted around nine different loan spells, he has seized the chance of an England cap and extended run in the Premier League to demonstrate what he has to offer. It took its time arriving, but now it has Townsend is repaying his promotion with interest.

And Ince insists he is but the tip of the skills iceberg. England’s current bunch of under-21s, he reckons, is so overwhelmed with excellence Adnan Januzaj would be lucky to get a game if he decided to pledge his international future to the Three Lions. While that analysis might serve as the very definition of over-optimism, there is no doubt something is stirring.

Gareth Southgate’s U21 team won their fourth game on the bounce last night. More to the point, they could count on half a dozen players – Saido Berahino, Luke Shaw, Ravel Morrison, Raheem Sterling, Jack Butland and Wilfried Zaha – who give hint of a real future.

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Hodgson was there to watch them beat Finland at Stadium:MK and he will have noted the enviable resources of attacking verve available to Southgate. But how much more useful an exercise would it have been had he elevated a couple of them into the first team this weekend? With nothing at stake this was the moment to test out whether they had the right stuff, to see if the senior side could receive a helpful injection of youthful self-belief.

There is a precedent for this. Germany promoted wholesale their under-21s into the World Cup side in 2010. No-one who saw them demolish a pedestrian England in Bloemfontein would suggest it was a backward step. And while it might be ludicrous to compare what England has on offer to the likes of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller, for the first time in a long while it might be worth taking a look. After all, England is not exactly over-endowed with established performers right now.

Hodgson has, to be fair, widened his search for potential in the selection of the Southampton pair Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez. But it would surely have been profitable during these friendlies similarly to test the best of his effervescent under-21s. Just to see if there is another Townsend there, with the capabilities of making the step up.

Not all of them will have the wherewithal to make it, even in the league game. Still, to see how the more gifted fare in the real thing is a more useful exercise than watching them continue to thrive in the understudy side.

Three of those players seem to me worth a look: Morrison, Berahino and most of all Shaw, whose singular misfortune it is to excel in the one position in which English football is richly endowed. His time will surely come, though maybe only after Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines and Kieran Gibbs have cleared from his path.

History suggests that England have benefitted hugely from a young enthusiast suddenly making their way into the squad for World Cup finals. Paul Gascoigne illuminated Italia 90, while Theo Walcott might have done the same in 2006 had Sven Goran Eriksson not suffered a failure of nerve at the last and actually played him.

And Hodgson might argue he still has time to find his Gazza. After all, most famously, Geoff Hurst did not make his debut in the national side until March 1966.

Yet the best thing the current manager has done in his time is unleash Townsend. It seems odd he has missed the chance this weekend to see how many others like him are out there.

By Jim White - follow on Twitter @jimw1

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