Football: Keegan led by innocence of youth

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The Independent Online
THE HUNGARIAN media revived Kevin Keegan's old nickname, Mighty Mouse, when he arrived in Budapest this week, but, to judge from his belief in youth, the England coach has more in common with Disney's famous rodent.

Though the senior players were England's best performers in the Nep Stadium on Wednesday night Keegan's first thought, after revealing he had decided to take the job long-term, was of the young players whose promise had encouraged his decision.

He was not just talking about the five debutants on Wednesday night but of others with him in Hungary and back in England. "At the moment we have the best crop of young players coming through for 15 years and their potential was a factor in taking the job," he said. "You need a blend, young players need to be able to look up and see a David Batty or Alan Shearer alongside, and that's what I will give them, but they are our future."

This promise has been evident for several years now and Keegan's predecessor, Glenn Hoddle, spoke similarly about his own reasons for becoming England coach. His 10 new caps included David Beckham, Michael Owen, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Nicky Butt and Lee Hendrie, all of whom are still under 25.

With Terry Venables having previously capped the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, Sol Campbell and Robbie Fowler, Keegan thus inherited a nucleus of young players who already had some knowledge of the international scene.

This week he capped, or called up, another eight youngsters (Michael Gray, Emile Heskey, Jamie Carragher, Wes Brown, Frank Lampard, Francis Jeffers, Michael Ball and Jonathon Woodgate) plus the late-developing 25-year-old Kevin Phillips.

Not all prospered: Brown was not ready; Phillips faded after a bright start; others had less chance to make an impact; but all will have learned and most should get another chance.

Keegan said he would not be judging anyone on 90 (or 15) minutes and added: "People will judge them on one game but I will judge them on the three days I've had with them and from training. We didn't have it all our own way so [those who played] have had a true test of what international football is all about. I thought they did very, very well. You wouldn't come out and rave about them but you'd look to them to progress off the experience, like you would a racehorse that had been given a first run.

"Kevin Phillips did OK and Wes Brown battled away; the youngsters did great. Some of them will not be in the next squad, we know that, but there are future squads for them."

The previous night a weakened Under-21 side had shown character and skill to recover from a 2-0 deficit to draw with their Hungarian counterparts and, looking further ahead, the Under-16 team this week moved into the quarter-finals of the Uefa Championships in the Czech Republic.

Those players will have to wait (though it is only three years since Michael Owen was playing at that level), but there are others close to stepping up. Richard Wright and Kieron Dyer of Ipswich, West Ham's prodigy Joe Cole, Stephen Gerrard of Liverpool, Aston Villa's Gareth Barry, and Lee Bowyer and Alan Smith of Leeds are all in the frame.

Not that Keegan undervalues the benefit of experience. He added: "The experienced players were the real bonus against Hungary: Martin Keown, Alan Shearer, David Batty and David Seaman."

Keown, in particular, appears to have won himself a regular place with Tony Adams and Campbell, competing in June for the right to play alongside him.

"In the last two games he has been unmovable," Keegan said. "He has earned the right to stay in the side. It is a case of looking to see who is going to partner him."

Steve McManaman's place is less certain after another fitful display though Keegan remained upbeat. "He was good in the first half when we were doing things. Then, when we got under the cosh a little bit, he tried to do the things that sort of player finds difficult. I was very pleased with him and I told him so after the game, he showed he wants to be part of the squad."

At 27 McManaman has reached the point where potential should be translated into performance but the others have time on their side. Some will fall away, the fate of Nick Barmby, whose glowing future seems a distant memory though he is still only 25, shows that. Many, however, will prosper and Keegan now has the chance to do so with them.

ENGLAND'S YOUNG LIONS

UNDER-25 XI

Wright (Ipswich, age 21); *G Neville (Manchester United, 24), *Ferdinand (West Ham, 20), *Campbell (Tottenham, 24), *P Neville (Manchester United, 22); *Beckham (Manchester United, 23), *Butt (Manchester United, 24), *Scholes (Manchester United, 24), *Hendrie (Aston Villa, 21); *Fowler (Liverpool, 24), *Owen (Liverpool, 19).

UNDER-21 XI

Simonsen (Everton, 20); Woodgate (Leeds, 18), *Ferdinand (West Ham, 20), Barry (Aston Villa, 18); *Brown (Manchester United, 20), Cole (West Ham, 17), Lampard (West Ham, 20), Morris (Chelsea, 20), Ball (Everton, 19); Jeffers (Everton, 18), *Owen (Liverpool, 19).

* denotes full international

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