Football: Owen on the rise

Julie Welch at Wembley sees England's future stars beat Brazil 1-0
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SEVEN YEARS ago, when England last met Brazil in a schoolboy international at Wembley, the side included Garry Flitcroft and Lee Clark. Yesterday's candidate for future honours was Michael Owen, who scored the game's only goal in the 70th minute. It was a beauty and England, even if they home advantage, were deserving winners.

Flitcroft and Clark have made it big, but many more of that team of 1988 did not. There was that big pacy striker called Steve Mulrain who was on Leeds's books but he got forced out through injury, as did Darren Christian after he went to Everton. Other boys ended up being released by their club, given free transfers and playing out their careers in non- League football. These schoolboy internationals might be great for talent- spotting, but they are always poignant affairs, reminding you of the fragility of boys' dreams.

But schools football has also produced Kevin Gallen, Ryan Giggs, Jamie Redknapp and Nick Barmby. Were there any like them on the Wembley pitch yesterday? There was Owen, of course; he is on Liverpool's books and had already staked his claim to a glorious future after his hat-trick in England's 7-0 pasting of Belgium earlier this month. More interestingly, there was Aaron Brown, an associated schoolboy with rather more humble Bristol City, and a distinctly adult presence whose left-sided running gave England most of their attacking momentum in the first half.

The game was played to the nerve-jangling sound of a crowd of nearly 30,000 whose voices have not yet broken. Every schoolboy in England seemed to be lining Wembley's concourse before the start, along with their ratty- looking teachers who were trying to keep tabs on them all.

The Brazilians took the pitch in a human chain, hands linked. Even at the under-15 stage, their names had the resonance of Pele and Romario; there was Julio Cesar in goal, Henrique their cool, elegant and composed captain, and Rafael who turned out to be a tough nut in defence.

The difference in styles was fascinating and definite, even at this level. England played in the way that good English teams do: unselfishly, bravely, with discipline but also with skill. There were one or two sightings of the long ball, but it was not a frequent ploy. Brazil, who do not have organised schoolboy football, were agile, informal and bewilderingly quick in front of goal; they had fewer chances to attack than England, but when they did there was always a whiff of danger.

Alex Douglas, who, despite his name, was in the yellow shirt of Brazil, produced the best chance either side had in the first half. From the right, he sent a sudden shot curving towards goal which Gareth Stewart did well to tip over the bar.

England's second-half goal was preceded by two substitutions, Michael O'Brien for Aaron Brown and Jamie Burt for Mark Jones. It was Burt who darted up the right and sent over the cross which led to England's winner. Cesar and Owen both went for it and when Owen went stumbling, he could well have held out for the penalty award. Instead he got up to thump a classic shot home. It was a courageous and talented piece of work and you only hope that Owen will be one of the boys who make it to the top.