England must look to Under-17s side to build a convincing future
Fabio Capello's articulation of his next generation of players was not one to lift the heart yesterday. He listed Michael Dawson (aged 26, who left South Africa without a minute's action last night), Bobby Zamora and Owen Hargreaves (both 29), before struggling with the pronunciation of Jack Wilshere.
There are others whom he has been slow to seize upon, notably the huge promise of Everton's Jack Rodwell, who having opted for a new contract at Everton will receive the exposure to Premier League football which his nation needs for him. The ability of Phil Jones to handle the pressure of top-flight football with such assurance at Blackburn also presents some hope about the central defensive options Capello must despair of. Joe Hart and Kieran Gibbs should also both go immediately into the squad for August's friendly against Hungary.
But the bad news for England is that there do not seem to be the players who have the capability to turn a game in a moment of brilliance – "the unexpected part, the disguised pass, the movement," as the Football Association's development director, Sir Trevor Brooking, describes it – in the way that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have done or that Mesut Ozil has done for Germany.
For the players who can turn England into a force to fear for 2014, Capello needs one of the group of Under-17s who won the European Championship to break through. The individuals who have generated most excitement from that cohort are Josh McEachran, Chelsea's left-sided player who is creative and can operate in the hole, and the young Ipswich Town striker Connor Wickham. He scored two good goals in the semi-final against France at the Euros, is a strong striker and is technically excellent.
But predicting which Under-17s might take the steps up to succeed at senior level is impossible, in all but the most extraordinary cases such as Wayne Rooney's. Capello has viewed a DVD of the Under-17s and is also aware of Ravel Morrison, the raw striking talent who excites Sir Alex Ferguson but is still learning the disciplines of football. Ferguson also tipped off Capello as to the ability of Danny Welbeck, who he said last year deserved consideration for a World Cup place. He will be back at United from a loan spell at Preston next season. We cannot bank on any of them.
The Under-19s tournament in France at the end of next month provides another opportunity for players. The FA is asking Blackburn for the release of Jones and Aston Villa for the 19-year-old striker Nathan Delfouneso. But Brooking believes England need someone to surpass expectations. "World Cup 2014 will be difficult for England," he said. "I don't think there are the obvious quality ones coming through who can replicate what we have unless we can fast-track one or two of the younger ones and that's asking a lot.
"The 17s are the best passing group we have. Our biggest challenge is where are they going to play their first-team football? At Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool, where would they get their first-team opportunities? Every place in the Premier League is worth £750,000, so even at the end of the season, you don't get a chance to try out youngsters as you might lose three places that would cost you £2m in transfer budget."
The prospective team published here excludes other players who have faltered but whose career paths may take the right turn by 2014 – Arsenal's Theo Walcott and Manchester City's Micah Richards, who has vanished from the picture as fast as he arrived. But maybe the undiscovered, game-changing talent Brooking craves lies beyond these parameters. When Germany began worrying about the future of their national side four years ago, they looked to the large immigrant Turkish community which many in the nation had frowned upon. They found Ozil and persuaded him to select them ahead of Turkey. England's revived cricketing fortunes have much to do with seeking out South Africans with British blood so maybe it is time for the FA to follow suit. It will find members of London's Brazilian community on the Stockwell playing fields.
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