Football: Taylor's task to build next generation

Glenn Hoddle wants continuity between England Under-21 and the senior team.
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IT WAS a wet springtime night in Manchester and Glenn Hoddle had company.

Within minutes he noticed he was not the only one, every outfield team- mate in England's under-21 side had an Italian partner dogging his every move.

Twenty years on he still remembers that night at Maine Road. "I was 20 and playing for Tottenham but I'd never come up against anything like it," he recalled at Bisham Abbey yesterday. "Every single person was man- to-man, even the strikers. To try and find space was incredibly difficult but it was such an education."

Hoddle played in the first under-21 game in 1976 (coming on for Everton's Andy King against Wales in front of 4,000 spectators at Wolverhampton) and went on to win a dozen caps, but he never felt the side was being used as a stepping stone for the senior team. Thus, when he became national coach he determined to enhance the link between the full team and the under-21s, who play their first home match this season, against Bulgaria, at West Ham tonight.

"We've really worked at it," Hoddle said. "When I took over I insisted on a full-time manager and a scouting system. It is not about guaranteeing we win the under-21 championship, it is about forming a bridge to the senior side."

Peter Taylor, a former Spurs team-mate and long-time Hoddle associate, got the job. Hoddle added: "We work together daily and are on the same wavelength so it is much easier for a player when he comes here."

Taylor explained: "I look at the system and the players Glenn has in the senior squad and I look at players who could be them five years later," Taylor said. "For example, I look at Les Ferdinand and think that could be Emile Heskey in two or three years' time."

Obviously, the success of this policy, which involves the under-21s playing 3-5-2 like the seniors, can only be judged in years to come. There has always been a progression, all but five of the 26-man senior squad played under-21 matches, but it has been uncertain. Rob Lee won his caps while at Charlton, many years before gaining full recognition, David Seaman, capped at Birmingham, and Teddy Sheringham, recognised in his Millwall days, had a similar wait. In Hoddle's day it was even more hit-and-miss. Only he, Ray Wilkins, Brian Talbot and Peter Barnes went on to win senior caps of the 13 involved in that first match while the likes of Ged Keegan, Dave Swindlehurst and the Southampton manager, David Jones, never even gained another junior one.

Four of the present senior squad, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Owen, have been capped by Taylor. Owen needed only one game before being promoted while Neville and Butt already had 11 between them but Ferdinand can fairly be regarded as the first graduate.

"He is an inspiration to all of us, we all look up to him and Michael Owen" said Frank Lampard, who will captain the under-21s on his home ground tonight. Lampard, who is tipped, along with Heskey and Michael Ball, to be the next to step up, added: "These games are great experience. I've not played European football with West Ham yet so it's a different game to me. You touch someone and they fall over and get a free-kick. You learn that decisions like that go against you.

"The matches are a great chance to impress Glenn Hoddle and the England management. They watch you week in, week out, but they want to see if you can play the international-type football. If you perform you will get in the team, they've already shown they don't worry about players' ages."

Ball, 19 last week and thus a year younger than Lampard, added: "It is a chance to experience the difference between playing Premiership and international football so when you do get called up to the first team you'll know what to expect.

"It is the same with the under-18 games. We played Russia and they were all big, strong lads so we thought it would be physical but once you touched them they rolled over. It was just cheating but a clever way of cheating and they were conning the referees. Then in Yugoslavia the atmosphere was a bit different with the war on."

Taylor said every game is an experience. "Against Moldova they played man-to-man markers with deep sweepers; Italy was very physical, you had to look after yourself. Ben Thatcher was unlucky to be sent off against them after the forward made a lot of it. He'll know next time. Better to find out in the under-21s than the first team."

In all 432 players have been capped at under-21 level in 168 matches. Of those 92 won full caps but Gary Owen, who holds the record with 22 under-21 caps, was not among them. Lampard hopes to be the 93rd but for now he is concentrating on tonight's game

"It'll be strange playing for England at Upton Park, it'll be exciting and hopefully it'll be a special night," he said. "As Peter has said it is not so much results, if he can get players coming through and performing in the first team he's doing his job right. But we still want to win."