If David Platt wants to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as England's manager one day – and all the signs are that he does – the next four weeks will provide some useful practice. Like the Swede, he must take a group of players who would rather be starting their summer holidays and find exactly the right balance between work and play, comfort and commitment, winding them down and then up again for a friendly match before a competitive game vital to their current qualifying campaign.
Eriksson's diary features a match in South Africa on Thursday, followed by a week of r 'n' r in La Manga, a friendly against Serbia and Montenegro and then the European Championship tie at Middlesbrough against Slovakia. Platt and his Under-21s will be in Sardinia rather than South Africa, then meeting the same two opponents as the seniors, at Hull (2 June) and Sunderland (10 June).
Some players will need lifting up from the mental misery of relegation, others calming down after touching the heights. The common denominator, almost 11 long months after reporting for pre-season training last July, is fatigue. "Every player in both squads needs a rest, mentally and physically," Platt admits. "Unfortunately what they've got is games in the middle of June, when the Premier League season's finished a month previously. There's a month this year, and then next year before the European Championship, there's probably a week. That doesn't add up to me, but there you go.
"The whole issue of players being tired encompasses far more than two international games in the summer: it encompasses a Premier League that's too big, too many games over a small period of time, too many cup competitions. That needs addressing in the future. The Italians, for instance, delayed the start of the season after the World Cup last summer until 1 September. That's another thing that needs looking at. You get [English] players coming back from a World Cup on what, 26 June? And their teams go back on 8 July to prepare for a season that starts on 17 August. There's a million and one things that need sorting out to reduce the physical demands on players."
Although well aware of the issues, Eriksson's former Sampdoria midfielder is also sufficiently worldly-wise to appreciate the difficulties involved in solving them: "Sven's sat round a table with the managers talking about these things. It's easy for me to sit here on a soap-box and say 'do this, do that, cut the Premier League to 18 teams'. We can all name the chairmen who wouldn't be happy about that and understandably so."
One day, my son, when the head coach is carried away a gibbering wreck, these problems could all be yours. In the meantime, here's another one: hardly had Platt finished describing the shortage of central midfield players in his squad of 21 (diplomatically reduced to a minimum because of the Football Association's financial predicament) than Joe Cole was air-lifted out of it to join the senior squad for the first time since September. Perhaps Platt should have been less fulsome in his praise for the West Ham man, of whom he had just said: "He's been exceptional every time he's been with the Under-21s. So much was written and expected of him, because of the ability he's got with a football, but I think there's been an improvement in Joe Cole this season.
"There was no point in adding to his array of tricks. What he had to do was add tactical know-how and professionalism and I think he's done that very, very well. Less than 12 months ago, if you'd said to me he should play central midfield, I'd have said, 'Don't be stupid'. Now I wouldn't because I've seen him do it for West Ham on several occasions and do it very well. What it does, playing central midfield, is give you more awareness about the game and understanding of what's going on all round the pitch."
Cole's misfortune internationally – apart, of course, from being used for precisely 16 minutes during the World Cup finals – was that Jermaine Jenas, sent on ahead of him at Upton Park against Australia, made the impression he did. The Newcastle man is now such a fixture in the senior squad that Platt, who helped nurture him at Nottingham Forest, says: "I don't think I'll see him again. I know J J very well. If a door opens for Jermaine, he walks through it and shuts it behind him, doesn't come back, you know."
The door is ajar for two other players of the same first name, who he believes can reach the senior squad. Jermain Defoe may not be as loyal as West Ham supporters were hoping – Charlton Athletic could have told them that – but Platt, who shares the same agent, remains a fan of "a very natural scorer, whose record speaks for itself". Similarly, Arsenal's tricky winger Jermaine Pennant has been forgiven his trespasses in breaking a curfew on the last Under-21 trip, before the costly 4-2 defeat in Portugal. Neither is quite ready for the full squad yet, though Defoe should be encouraged by Wayne Rooney's dramatic breakthrough, and Pennant's dribbling and shooting could soon make him a more attractive option than Trevor Sinclair, who must be considered fortunate to be back in the senior squad this week.
If, as seems likely, Rooney cannot play in Durban on Thursday because of his wounded knee, the only strikers available will be Michael Owen, Emile Heskey and Darius Vassell. James Beattie – dropped with indecent haste after 45 minutes against Australia – might have preferred to be given another opportunity, rather than being rested like the other FA Cup finalists, Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge, for whom Danny Mills or Phil Neville will cover at left-back. The chance of a first cap will, however, come for Chelsea's John Terry or Birmingham City's Matthew Upson in the centre of defence.
David Beckham's utterly unnecessary suspension for the Slovakia game – the result of his headless-chicken opening spell against Turkey – would have put Kieron Dyer in the frame to make an impression at last, but the need to rest shin splints means that the Newcastle man is in serious danger, despite 25 appearances, of becoming an international might-have-been. Liverpool's Danny Murphy, like Rooney, will report to the England doctor for a verdict on a neck injury.
Bridge, Terry and Vassell all graduated from the Under-21s under Platt. If he could only find a left-sided player whose name was not Gareth Barry (which, like Graeme Le Saux's, appears to be a disqualification). In the meantime, Eriksson's apprentice must keep polishing his diamonds – especially the midfield one – while emphasising, "it's a difficult squad to get into. Performance, performance, performance".Reuse content