After a summer that raised some awkward questions about the health of the young English footballer, the Under-21s are back in action tonight against Scotland in a friendly at Bramall Lane.
An anticipated crowd of 25,000 suggests the public’s appetite remains curiously undiminished but talk of a fresh start may be pushing it a little, given England go into the fixture still without a manager, following the end of Stuart Pearce’s six-year reign.
It is eight weeks now since confirmation that Pearce’s contract would not be renewed after his team lost all three fixtures at the European Under-21 Championship, against Italy, Norway and Israel. The Football Association has said a successor will be in place for the start of the next qualifying cycle next month – when England host Moldova and visit Finland – yet it is hardly a triumph of planning that Roy Hodgson, the senior manager, will be the man sitting in the home dugout tonight.
Hodgson, who took the Under-21s for lengthy sessions both on Sunday and yesterday, insisted he was happy with the extra responsibility, even if it cost him an afternoon in front of the Ashes. “I’ve worked with the seniors this morning, and instead of resting this afternoon I’ll do a coaching session with the U21s. Otherwise I’d just have been watching the cricket, which I’d have enjoyed, I must say,” he said.
On the pitch tonight, the squad’s Liverpool centre-back Andre Wisdom is hoping a positive result will provide the first step towards putting a disappointing summer behind them. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got over it,” he said. “Hopefully, we can just learn and when we play again, prove wrong the critics, the people saying we might not be good enough. We can only do that by winning.”
Seven survivors from the Israel debacle are expected to start tonight, while there could be first caps for Everton defender John Stones and Sporting Lisbon centre-back Eric Dier. That pair were part of the England squad who flopped almost as badly as their Under-21 counterparts at the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey, finishing bottom of a group containing Iraq, Chile and Egypt. Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling will make his return after missing out on Israel because of injury.
England Under-21s (probable): Butland; Stones, Dier, Wisdom, Robinson; Shelvey, Chalobah, Carroll; Sterling, Wickham, Redmond.