Can England Under-20s lift the national gloom? Don't count on it...
Peter Taylor's squad go into the World Cup in Turkey hampered by a familiar lack of experience
England play their first game in the Under-20s World Cup in Turkey on Sunday, and for those who know the country's record in this competition, the Under-20s are, quite frankly, the worst of all the Football Association's national teams.
For other nations, the Under-20s World Cup has been an important milestone for some of their most famous players. In 2005, Lionel Messi scored Argentina's goals in their 2-1 win in the final over Nigeria. Two years later they retained the title with a squad that included Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria. Chelsea's Oscar scored a hat-trick in the final two years ago in a Brazil team that included Willian and Philippe Coutinho.
Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Carlos Tevez and Cesc Fabregas are also among those who have played in past Under-20s World Cup finals. As for England, they came third in 1993 with a squad that included Nicky Butt, Nick Barmby, Julian Joachim and the current England goalkeeping coach Dave Watson, but more recently the record has been dismal.
In Colombia in 2011, Stuart Pearce's team were eliminated 1-0 in the second round by Nigeria, having failed to score in any of their three group games – bizarrely three goalless draws were enough to get them through.
Of the last seven Under-20 World Cups, including 2011, England have qualified for four and their record has been an embarrassment to the FA. The have played 13 games in those tournaments, losing eight, winning none and scoring just once – Alex Nimely's goal in a 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan in 2009. You have to go back to 1997 in Malaysia for the last victory, when a team that included Michael Owen, England won all three group games before being beaten 2-1 by Argentina in the second round.
In recent years, the problem for the FA has been the timing of the tournament. Two years ago it was in late July, when many clubs has started their pre-season and were, typically, less willing to release players. In 2009 it was in October which made securing players' release even more difficult.
The FA lobbied Fifa and this time around, the tournament is earlier. The manager Peter Taylor has visited clubs trying to convince them of the benefit of releasing players and has got a better response. The FA estimates it has missed out on eight eligible players who were selected in senior or Under-21 squads (the likes of Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Josh McEachran and Nathaniel Chalobah, both of Chelsea) and a further seven (including Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw and Sam Byram) who are injured.
That is an improvement on 2011 when the FA estimated it had lost out on 41 eligible players. However, with the Under-21s' dismal performance in their European Championship, the pressure is on. On Sunday England play Iraq, who – understandably, given recent world events – have not qualified for the tournament since 2001.
England's problem is lack of experience. Arguably the best-known player in the squad is the Everton midfielder Ross Barkley, 19, who has 18 senior appearances for his club as well as two Championship loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United. The captain Conor Coady, 20, has just two senior appearances for Liverpool.
Compare that to France, one of the favourites, who have players with Champions League experience. Their squad includes the former Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba, now at Juventus; Arsenal's prospective new signing Yaya Sanogo and the likes of Lucas Digne (Lille), Kurt Zouma (St Etienne), Geoffrey Kondogbia (Seville) and Samuel Umtiti who scored a spectacular goal for Lyons against Tottenham in the Europa League last season.
The bookmakers' favourites are, naturally, Spain who last won the competition in 1999. A year ago Spain triumphed in the Under-19 European Championship that serves as a Uefa qualifying competition for the Under-20s World Cup. They have the starlets Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona) and Oliver Torres (Atletico Madrid).
The FA, with a small pool of players to choose from, finds that its hands are tied. With Chile and Egypt also in the group, and games live on Eurosport, the team must do better than previous years. Fifa has been assured by the Turkish government that the political unrest in the country will not affect the tournament.
The England squad arrived at their training base in Antalya eight days ago. Among the staff is the former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender Ugo Ehiogu, who was capped by England at senior and Under-21 level.
Ehiogu told The Independent: "We are trying to give young players that experience so that they will one day be ready for the first team. It is a lot harder to get into the first team [of top club sides] and you can see that from a lot of experiences and a lot of examples, like Josh McEachran [at Chelsea] and Scott Sinclair [at Manchester City.
"It's a tough one. It comes down to managers being given on average 14-15 months in the job. No-one is looking at the long-term. It is immediate and results-based."
Ehiogu won four senior caps for England including one against Spain in 2001 when he scored the third goal in 3-0 win. More recently he has completed the first part of his Uefa A Licence coaching qualification. He said working with the Under-20 squad had convinced him that there was still a great desire among the players to represent England.
"I don't think any player selected for England lacks an intention to play well. When I played you would run through a brick wall to do what you needed to do. Whether the hunger and desire is still there [in general] I don't know. The way the game has changed in the last 10 years has still had an effect.
"The [Under-20s] lads will have seen all the negative response to the Under-21s and you would like to think that they want to go out and give a good account of themselves. I have got the impression they are hungry for success and a lot of them haven't played many [senior] games and there is a desire to do well. Hopefully we can hone it and have some success."
England Under-20s: World Cup squad
S Johnstone (Man Utd), G Bigirimana (Newcastle), D Potts (West Ham), J Flanagan (Liverpool), E Dier (Sporting Lisbon), C Coady (Liverpool), J Ward-Prowse (Southampton), L Cole (Man U), H Kane (Spurs), C Long (Everton), A Reach (Middlesborough), G Long (Sheff U), C Ripley (Middlesborough), J Stones (Everton), J Lascelles (Nottingham Forest), T Thorpe (Man U), L Williams (M'boro'), J Lundstram (Everton), A Pritchard (Spurs), L Garbutt, R Barkley (both Everton)
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