12 Jun 2013

England’s under-21s – why such poor form?

The dismal showing by England’s under-21 side at the Euro championships in Israel reopens the debate over why the national team has been performing so badly, writes John Anderson.

Once the 1-0 defeat by hosts Israel had concluded a campaign in which England also lost to Italy and Norway without scoring a single goal from open play, Stuart Pearce was quick to observe that “if you don’t turn up and work hard enough at any given tournament, you won’t get any success”.

The clear inference was that the players did not approach the tournament with sufficient appetite or attitude to make any kind of impression upon it.

This is clearly not a problem shared by the coaches of Italy, Spain and Holland, who all reached the semi-finals comfortably. In youth football as well as at senior level, England are lagging behind our main rivals when it comes to tournament success.

England last won the European title at under-21 level in 1984. Since then the Italians have won it five times, Spain three times, Holland twice and Germany and France once apiece.

When we did reach the final in 2009, a German team featuring Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, who would haunt the senior side in South Africa the following year, thrashed Pearce’s side 4-0.

Just this week the England under-20 side flew to Turkey for the World Cup at that age level amid very little fanfare and with few predicting glory. It is a tournament traditionally dominated by Brazil and Argentina, in which the Three Lions have never reached the final.

At the under-17 World Cup the showing is even worse, with Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Saudi Arabia and even, God help us, Scotland all boasting a better record than the English, who have only ever qualified for the finals twice.

The only real light amid the gloom came three years ago when the under-17s won the European Championships in Liechtenstein, inspired by the goals of Connor Wickham – ironically, one of the under-achievers in Israel.

Falling short

A familiar trait displayed by England teams at all levels is that, while they generally have little trouble in qualifying for tournaments, they are then eclipsed by superior teams when pitted against the real elite.

We are continually being told that we have world class players and yet, when it really matters, they fall short.

The Brazilians, Argentinians and Spanish, in particular, have long held the belief that youth tournaments are the training grounds for future World Cup winners. The likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Ronaldinho, Neymar, Xavi and Andres Iniesta all cut their teeth in junior events and grew up with an inherent understanding of the nuances of tournament football right from their teenage years.

The same now applies to the emerging African nations such as Nigeria and Ghana.

A good example of how seriously these nations take such events came earlier this year when Brazil suffered the humiliation of failing to qualify for the under-20 World Cup which they had won two years previously.

Their reaction was to jettison most of the squad and focus on teenage talent for the recent Toulon under 21 tournament, which they duly won. In the same situation one could imagine England responding with a shrug and a resigned “better luck next time”.

Senior service

Here the emphasis seems to be overly placed on the senior side at the expense of everything else, with the squads below it merely there for players to tread water until they get a full England call-up or hang around in limbo if they are not considered A team material.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Rodwell and Phil Jones were all eligible for the under-21 squad in Israel but were instead selected for senior friendlies against the Republic Of Ireland and Brazil.

Surely their development as international footballers would have benefited far more from a genuine taste of the tournament experience than a whistle-stop trip to Rio?

Incidentally, Rodwell’s contribution to those matches, which were part of the Football Association’s 150th anniversary celebrations, totalled a mere seven minutes of playing time. He got to meet a few dignitaries but learnt little about life at the sharp end.

Too many English players are fast-tracked into the senior side (from which a return to the under-21s is considered a backward step) and arrive at the World Cup or European Championships with no previous experience of tournament football.

How painful can failure be?

Although Pearce’s tenure as under-21 coach will surely end as a result of the Israel debacle, he makes an interesting point about his side’s lack of effort.

If the junior national team is considered a sideshow to the real thing, then how painful can failure really be?

The clubs who employ the players – on the kind of ludicrously inflated wages that many of those in the Brazilian or Spanish under-21 squads could only dream of – will not be in the slightest bit bothered about their early exit.

For the players, the disappointment will no doubt have started to ebb away as soon as they settled into first-class seats en route to holidays in their expensive foreign villas.

Too much, too soon, appears to be the motto for young English footballers who are increasingly being rewarded for simply belonging to a club rather than actually doing anything on the pitch.

Would you sweat buckets at work if you were paid a fortune just for waking up?

The FA needs to set a higher priority on junior international tournaments and field proper full-strength sides, with eligible players released from senior duty if necessary.

Measuring success

Pressure must be put on clubs to make their best youngsters available at all times and the players themselves have to accept that, even in football, a period of apprenticeship might help them attain greater things in years to come. Success can’t be measured simply in cars, tattoos and jewellery.

The beginnings are afoot at St George’s Park where, at last, the junior teams have been given a higher profile and work alongside the seniors rather than in isolation.

But if the past week has taught us anything, it is that, as usual, we are still miles behind many of our foreign counterparts. It is time to give our youth players a proper grounding in what it takes to prepare, compete and succeed in a tournament environment.

The European under-21 championships and the under-17 and under-20 World Cups are not consolation prizes, they are dress rehearsals for the day when we might finally stop banging on about 1966.