As England's international footballers prepare for a bleak mid-winter of doubt and recrimination, at least their junior brethren can offer some welcome sustenance, in the form of tantalising promise. On Tuesday night in Leverkusen, Peter Taylor's Under-21s produced the "character, pride and attitude" that Steve McClaren was to demand the following night, and were rewarded with a stirring 2-0 triumph that immediately projected certain names as prominently as the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus.
England's senior head coach had spoken of "players in the Under-21s knocking on the door" and how "we will be looking at them very, very closely". They would include West Ham's Nigel Reo-Coker, Watford's Ashley Young and, most notably, Theo Walcott, whose two late goals as substitute thrust him forward as a potential answer to McClaren's strike-force dilemma.
Yet Taylor, for whom the victorious double-header against Germany (following a 1-0 home win the previous Friday) could be his final achievement with the young understudies, counsels caution when it is contended that Walcott could provide a talented, pacy foil to Wayne Rooney come the spring, and the return to attempting to qualify for the European Championship finals.
"I've only dealt with him for four matches, and he's a pleasure to work with," says Taylor. "He's scored four goals in those four games, and he's played well - in patches.
"I'm sure he'd be the first to admit that the home game against Germany in the first leg was not his best. Those were two fantastic goals he scored on Tuesday night, but Germany were down to 10 men, and it was apparent that they were tired by then."
The coach, who, significantly, only thrust the Arsenal man into the fray 14 minutes from time in Leverkusen, adds: "I'm not so sure he's ready to play against Israel away [England's next senior competitive game] when you consider the circum-stances. It's now a massive game for us, and I think it would put too much pressure on him."
The coach, whose alter ego is manager of Crystal Palace, passes a similar verdict on other personnel among his emerging young players. "I know what people are saying. That they should be given a chance, particularly because of what happened the other night in Zagreb. And it's true, those were a fantastic two nights for us against Germany. But I'm a bit more careful than that. It's good that many of those young players are now playing every week in the Premiership, and there's no doubt in my mind that eventually some of them will get in - but only when the time is right.
"I haven't spoken to Steve since Wednesday, but I'm sure he's still got faith in the squad he has and players who, overall, have done well for England."
Taylor admits, though, that he is concerned about England's long-term future. "You've got an exciting Under-21 squad at the moment, but after that I honestly don't know how much there is coming through," he says. "People say they aren't, but sometimes these players can emerge, and it can surprise you. However, it really worries me that a lot of English players are not playing in the Premiership regularly, because of other nationalities."
Ironically, while McClaren's long-term tenure of his own job suddenly becomes the source of national debate, it is the successful Taylor who is more likely to lose his post. McClaren has decreed there should be a full-time Under-21 coach; one who has the time and opportunity to scrutinise the Premiership fully. There is some sense in that - if the FA can recruit the right man. But in the meantime, why discard a good man? All rationale suggests that Taylor should take his players to next year's European Under-21 Championship in Holland, the first time England have qualified since 2002.
The Under-21 coach says: "My mum was Dutch, and I'd be very proud to take England to the tournament in Holland. I'd love to do it. Nobody would want to give that up. But I understand if Steve wants to bring in someone full-time. Hopefully, they'll make a quick decision, one way or the other. It would be important for the new man to have as much time as possible with the players."
Taylor watched the seniors' capitulation in Zagreb. "I do feel for Steve," he says. "England started off well under him, then we had that disappointing game against Macedonia, though we could still have won it when Steven Gerrard hit the bar.
"All of a sudden, the players come in for a lot of heavy criticism, and they're under pressure. Because of that, in the next game, I didn't feel they played with freedom. An early goal for us might have changed all that, but it was not to be. The second goal killed us off."
He adds: "It was not a good night, but Croatia have been unbeaten for 12 years [in competitive games] there. No matter what system we played it would have been very difficult. I'm fine with 3-5-2 - if you've got the right players. At the moment, I'm going with a 4-3-3 with the Under-21s, but that's because I think it suits my players."
Taylor is convinced, though, that England are good enough to qualify. "Definitely. I've no doubt at all that we will win the next game." Even without the need to promote Walcott prematurely.
Whether Taylor himself will be contributing to England's future by then... well, that's quite another matter.Reuse content