As a former schoolteacher Howard Wilkinson is as keen on the mantra of "education, education, education" as any politician. On Tuesday night his pupils in the England Under-21 squad received a lesson he hopes few will ever forget.
Luke Young and John Terry, both of whom were dismissed for violent conduct against Greece, suffered the bitterest learning experiences, but Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, seconded from the senior squad to strengthen the team, were not far behind.
With Sven Goran Eriksson and his coaching staff looking on, the West Ham pair, like everyone else in the team, were hoping to showcase their quality. Cole, asked to play behind the front two, tried to do too much, became frustrated and eventually lost control to the extent he was fortunate not to be sent off.
Carrick, initially given an unfamiliar wide-right midfield role, had his moments, most notably when he drilled home a late consolation, but for much of the time he looked an international novice. "I think Cole and Carrick needed that game," said Wilkinson, who was said, by those close to him, to have been upset at having to adapt his formation late in preparation to accommodate the pair.
Wilkinson added: "In the first half we did not get to grips with the shape we were trying to play. I wanted to play Joe where I felt he would do himself justice most easily rather than fit him into what we had been doing. But we were too close together in midfield, over-elaborate on the ball and woeful in our passing. In the dressing-room beforehand it was clear a few thought tonight was especially important even though I told them it is not about one game. They all know they did not do themselves any favours."
In reference to the black arts of the international stage, Wilkinson added: "The game showed players need the experience of international football. They were suckered. Sometimes players have to learn the hard way. What was good about tonight is that players should benefit from that match despite the pain."
It is better that players learn to simplify their game and control their reactions in Under-21 competition than in the senior side. But, being rare, opportunities to learn from involvement in international tournaments are even more valuable and, after Tuesday, this generation is unlikely to earn that benefit.
With Wilkinson the Under-21 team's results and discipline have declined four players have been dismissed this season. He has been an excellent Technical Director combining a clear vision of the way forward with the patience and administrative nous to realise it. But his control of the Under-21 team, which has now seen off Peter Taylor, Peter Reid, Brian Kidd and appears to be scaring off Alan Curbishley, is damaging. While Eriksson had left before the shaming final scenes Adam Crozier, the Football Association's chief executive, and the rest of the International Committee stayed until the humiliating end. One wonders what lessons they drew from it?Reuse content