Football: Powell's prodigies herald a bold era: Jon Culley on the encouraging success of England's gallant Under-18 footballers

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE carefree band who make up England's Under-18 football team still have one step to take in their exhilarating quest to win the European Youth Championship, but even if the ultimate prize eludes them in today's final against the holders, Turkey, they have done enough to bring some welcome optimism to the perspective of the national game.

During three clear-cut victories in qualifying for today's contest, England's freshest young lions have shown off some wonderful technical skill, making nonsense of the notion so faithfully maintained by critics that football artistry is the preserve of foreigners while seriously diluting the theory that attempts at emulation are doomed.

In none of their performances, against France (2-0), the Netherlands (4-1) and Spain (5-1), have these bright young men confronted opponents of greater proficiency. Indeed the Dutch, some of whose predecessors have been the envy of the world, were outplayed. If these boys are truly representative of the coming generation of senior players, then we are at the beginning of an exciting era.

The team is managed by Ted Powell, a 52-year-old former schoolteacher whose part in the England coaching structure has until the last week remained largely hidden. Once a player with Sutton United, whom he captained in an FA Cup tie against Leeds United in 1970, Powell's extensive coaching experience earned him a full-time appointment to the Football Association staff in 1991. He took on his present duties in November last year. So far his team is unbeaten, but he declines to award himself particular credit for the fact, preferring to applaud the FA and a number of clubs for adopting an increasingly aggressive approach.

'It is not a coincidence that Leeds, Manchester United and Tottenham have provided the bulk of my players,' Powell said. 'Each has a very good youth development policy and an enlightened attitude. They have been very co-operative. But these players also reflect the success of the Centres of Excellence scheme and of the hard work that has been done by the FA over the last few years.'

The first Centres of Excellence, affiliated either to clubs or County FAs, were opened in 1984. There are now approximately 150, each serving some 8,000 children aged from nine to 14, with a particular emphasis on developing technique. Powell believes the high quality of the players he has been able to select is proof that the centres are achieving their aim.

Certainly, this is a crop to stir the imagination. Such was the enthusiasm generated by the Manchester United youth team, for instance, when they met Leeds in last season's FA Youth Cup final that the two legs attracted 60,000 spectators, an astounding turn-out.

But the two brightest stars in Powell's galaxy hail neither from Leeds nor Manchester. Julian Joachim, a small but strong forward with pace, vision, excellent touch and a total lack of inhibition, has confirmed the reputation he earned in Leicester City's first team last season by both scoring and providing goals, the beneficiary of his creative skills frequently being the fledgling Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler, who has operated behind the front two but still managed to score five times.

Both these players have shown splendid ingenuity, clearly revelling in the freedom of expression Powell allows them, and therein lies the most curious aspect of the whole story, for Powell is answerable to Charles Hughes, the FA's Director of Coaching, whose commitment to so-called 'route one' football is based on sound enough logic but tends to inspire sterile, unimaginative play. This is clearly not Powell's way, although he sees no real conflict of ideology. 'We will play the early ball, sometimes the early, long ball, but with quality and accuracy. What you will not find us doing is lumping the ball forward in hope.'