Jim White

Why England’s U21 failure doesn’t matter

Jim White

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It’s all gone gloomy in Israel. Stuart Pearce has been bemoaning his lack of resources as England prepare for their next group game in the Under-21 European championships. Imagine if he could call on a front six of Danny Welbeck, Wilfried Zaha, Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Tom Ince. Now that is a prospect, he says, to put the fear of God even into the Spaniards.

We are never going to find out if Pearce is right. We will never discover if such a combination would have the Spanish team shaking in their maracas. An unholy mix of injury, suspension and full international call-up means he will be lucky if is able to field Ince and Zaha.

His point is, however, that it would do English football good if the U21 finals were regarded as a priority for young players. Get them some tournament experience. Get them into a winning frame of mind and the benefits for the national team would be much greater than sending them out for a friendly with the seniors. Much better than allowing them to sit on a beach for the next week.

Which is, of course, garbage.

Sure, it is good that Pearce is defending his patch. It is right he should big up the competition he is attempting to win. The trouble is there is absolutely no precedent to suggest that a winning U21 side naturally graduates into a winning senior side. True, some of the Spanish World Cup and European Championship team first got the winning habit in the U21s. Yes, a core of the German team that utterly destroyed England at the last World Cup had been together as U21s. But there is an odd law about progression through the age groups: it seems to stall at the U21 stage. Why? Because if a player is really any good he will already have been promoted.

If Pearce wants to see how much influence a U21 championship winning side has on subsequent senior international success, he should study for a moment his own nation’s record in the competition. Back in 1984, England won the European U21 title. After their victory over Spain in the final, there was a real sense that these were the coming boys, the lads who would restore the national team back into world prominence. Especially in a year in which Bobby Robson’s senior side had failed to make it to the Euros, knocked out in qualifying by Denmark.

Dave Sexton’s team that beat Spain in the second of a two-legged final in June 1984 started like this:

Gary Bailey; Mel Sterland, Dave Watson, Derek Mountfield, Nick Pickering; Nigel Callaghan, Paul Bracewell, Kevin Brock, Steve Hodge; Howard Gayle, Mark Hateley.

Not exactly brim-full of historical resonance that line-up. Nor did it have much influence over subsequent full international selections. Hateley went on to win 32 England caps. Hodge played 24 times for the senior team, including turning out against Argentina in the 1986 World Cup quarter final. After that game he managed to swap shirts with Maradona. The hand-of-God item of sporting wear is now reckoned so valuable it resides in a bank vault; Hodge happily concedes it constitutes his pension.

The rest of the players had fewer memories of their times with the seniors. The other nine players accrued just 19 full international caps between them.

In other words, even an all-conquering, championship winning U21 team is unlikely to progress into an all-conquering, championship winning full international side. In Mel Sterland’s case, it produced just the one cap. Howard Gayle wasn’t even that lucky: the win over Spain marked the high point of his representative career.

Pearce, however, doesn’t think it should be like that. Accepting that injury is always going to be part of the summer tournament equation, what he wants is a change of attitude to ensure the best fit players are made available to him. He believes Welbeck, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Phil Jones should now be with the U21s, even after they have done their bit for the full squad in end-of-season friendlies. He says such a use of resources would be much better for the long-term good of England.

Which is nonsense. If they are good enough now to play for the seniors, sending Welbeck, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jones out to Israel would be pointless. They are already full internationals, so what are they going to learn playing for the U21s? Finding out how to play against opponents not quite as good as the ones they will face in the World Cup qualifiers: is that really the most sensible use of their time? With rather important matches to come for their country in the autumn, it might be more expedient to give them a decent summer of rest and recuperation.

Because that is the stark reality of England’s current position: qualifying for Brazil is really the only thing that matters right now. Frankly, the future can wait. And if it means Pearce’s options are so dramatically reduced he is obliged to play Connor Wickham and Marvin Sordell up front, well, so be it. That’s the real point of U21s. To see what – if anything - lies beneath. In Pearce’s case what he has found in English football’s subterranean layer is not encouraging. But that is another story altogether.

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