James Lawton: In an age of such English austerity, don't reach for the champagne too soon

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The Independent Online

It is quite right to celebrate early indications that Wilfried Zaha may well be launching an international career for England in Stockholm tonight instead of listening to the overtures of the Ivory Coast, the land of his birth.

Zaha, like his prospective teenaged team-mate Raheem Sterling – who is also balancing the blandishments of England against those of a rival suitor, in his case Jamaica – is a young player of brilliant potential.

You needed only the most casual look at his contribution to Crystal Palace's League Cup defeat of Manchester United last season to recognise the kind of poise and originality that so often announces the most outstanding career.

Similarly, Sterling has produced for Liverpool the most arresting sense of a young player running brilliantly ahead of his years.

However, if Zaha and Sterling might just prove to be remarkable assets for an England cause which in many ways has never looked more forlorn, we should probably skimp on the champagne and bunting for the time being.

The truth is that Zaha and Sterling are increasingly rare animals, players qualified for England who are also being given regular first team action by their clubs.

Even if Zaha has announced extraordinary qualities at the age of 20, his frequently spectacular performances for Palace in the Championship could well be rather sparse after the January transfer window. Then he might well find himself on the edge of the Premier League action.

He might have to learn how it feels to be Daniel Sturridge, the cameo Chelsea star who hopes to re-ignite his aura in Stockholm. He might, depending on the speed of his adaptation from the inviting pastures of the Championship to the more rigorous demands of the top echelon of the Premier League and the Champions League, have to feel the despairing reality of someone hired, for all their promise, as superior bench-warmers at a pivotal stage of their development.

It is a fate that dismayed Adam Johnson, who was briefly considered one of the young hopes of the England team, at Manchester City and drove him back to his native North-east – and now it afflicts James Milner, who won such prominence in the regime of Fabio Capello. Capello's successor Roy Hodgson has long trailered the growing weakness of anyone asked to run the England team. Observing an ever-shrinking talent pool, anticipating the kind of pressure he is now under from the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger as Jack Wilshere recovers from long-term injury and resumes his England career at the same time, Hodgson was quite matter of fact.

There were times when he would be obliged not only to select – but give starring roles – to players who had failed to establish first-team places with their club. It means that if there is understandable excitement about the fact that potential A-listers Zaha and Sterling may confirm themselves as England property, it is not an excuse for any lessening of the rage.

The rage, this is, that after 20 years of the Premier League a central betrayal of its inception in 1992 has never been more pronounced.

The new Premier League, some may remember, was painted as something other than a naked grab for the bulk of TV revenue. If it would inevitably shape an elite in the English game, it would certainly not shut doors on the ambition of us at first denied a place in the golden circle. Also, there would be an immense bonus for the national team after its long decline from the glory of the 1966 World Cup triumph.

Not only would there be new, regular international breaks, the players selected would be in much less danger of metal fatigue. The Premier League would eventually be cut to 18 clubs. A balance would be struck between the clubs and the nation.

It is an idea that shrivels against the desperation of England's pursuit of true international class. The Premier League, year by year, slips further behind in the European table listing the percentage of homegrown players operating in the top league. Of course Spain, world and European champions, Italy, France and Germany, have the much superior figures and, inevitably, vastly greater achievement in the two decades of the Premier League.

Maybe we should remind ourselves of quite how huge is the gulf, with World Cups for France, Italy and Spain, and the regular attendance of the rest in the closing stages of the two great tournaments.

Meanwhile, England hope that Zaha and Sterling indeed come on side for a long journey, that Sturridge profits and grows strong on the merest scraps of action at Stamford Bridge and Wilshere continues to make a lonely stand against the bleak idea that his nation is no longer capable of finding and effectively nurturing true world-class talent.

None of this is any reason not tobe charged by the idea that Wilfried Zaha might indeed bring some light in winter to Stockholm tonight. However, the greatest need for English football has to run beyond the grace of an adopted son.