Estonia vs England: Roy Hodgson sticks by youth – aware he may not reap the rewards

England manager admits he may not be in charge when the likes of Sterling and Chambers reach their international peak

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The Independent Football

Roy Hodgson has conceded that he may not be England manager when his current generation of young players realise their full potential. But he hopes that his legacy will be that he gave them tournament experience at an early stage of their careers which should reap benefits for his successors.

Hodgson, whose squad leave on Saturday for Tallinn and their third Euro 2016 qualifier against Estonia, being played Sunday tea-time, has a contract that runs to the end of that European Championship. Against San Marino on Thursday night, he selected 10 outfield players with an average age of 24 years and nine months, in keeping with his policy of pinning the team’s long-term future on a very young group of players.

There have been no immediate plans to extend Hodgson’s contract beyond 2016, especially following the disappointment of this summer’s World Cup. As it stands, he will walk away, aged 68, in less than two years’ time, although at the back of the minds of the Football Association will be how it responds if the tournament goes well for England.

Asked about the likelihood of him not being England manager when the likes of Raheem Sterling, Calum Chambers, Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain reach full potential, Hodgson said that might well be the case. “I don’t know. At the moment it does not occupy my attention. I suppose, looking forward, realistically, this team is mostly 21 or 22. People will tell me people don’t reach their best until they are 27 or 28 so realistically, perhaps not.

“I am enjoying enormously working with them and even though there is experience to gain I am enjoying the moment where they gain that experience and they are providing a lot of things which give us a lot of satisfaction.”

 

Hodgson’s current squad includes two teenagers – Chambers and Sterling – and only two outfield players over the age of 30, Phil Jagielka and Rickie Lambert. The England caoch Gary Neville has written recently in his Daily Telegraph column that it was decided that the changing of the guard, from one generation to the next, could not take place during qualifying for the last World Cup in what was seen as a dangerous group including Ukraine, Poland and Montenegro.

After the victory in Switzerland last month, Neville wrote: “Roy’s idea was that we needed to take our time a bit, to protect the results, but once we qualified for the World Cup we could marry the older group with the future.

“The reason Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling were picked – not to mention Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere – was because there needed to be a bedding-in of the younger players in a tournament. The average age [against Switzerland] was 24 years and 290 days. There is no turning back now.”

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Roy Hodgson (right) listens as Wayne Rooney answers a question during an England press conference

 

Hodgson was more guarded on his youth policy after Thursday’s 5-0 win over San Marino, sensing that if he admitted to any hard-and-fast policy he would find himself under fire if he returned to any of the older age group. Nevertheless, his policy has been pretty evident since Euro 2012, which was the last time he selected Gareth Barry.

Ashley Cole was left out of the summer’s World Cup squad and Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe both named as standby players, unused as it turned out. The retirements of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Cole have taken that decision out of his hands. Peter Crouch remains on the outside after he decided not to accept a standby place for Euro 2012.

Hodgson said he would still be prepared to bring an older player back into the squad if it served a purpose. “I would still like to think there is a large element of pragmatism and I don’t want to get caught up with that when I feel embarrassed if I pick someone who is 28, 29, 30, because you are telling me I should only be picking 20-year-olds. I am picking people I think can do the job.”

There is an acknowledgement from him that there is an element of risk in placing so much faith in an untried generation, but the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign at least offers Hodgson a chance to do so in relatively untesting circumstances. Defeat on Thursday for Switzerland by lower-ranked Slovenia, as well as Lithuania’s victory over Sunday’s opponents Estonia, has opened up Group E beneath England.

The official take on the changes wrought by England is that they were a calculated risk and, as Hodgson himself says, there were no guarantees about how it would turn out for the team. “Strangely, it [the younger profile of the squad] has manifested itself,” he said. “We didn’t know Sterling would turn out a year ago the player he is today. We did not know from the early days of Jordan Henderson at Liverpool that he would become the player he is.

“We didn’t know Barkley would kick on. We didn’t know Welbeck when he got his chance, we didn’t know Daniel Sturridge when he got his chance, so to some extent, it is something which has happened. I have been lucky enough to be there when it happened and I suppose, bright enough to realise that I don’t have to hang my hat on 30-year-olds and if these guys are that good, I can put them in the team.”

Intriguingly, Hodgson mentioned that Lewis Baker, the Chelsea Under-21 player, had been promoted from the England Under-20s squad at St George’s Park to train with the England first team this week. Now he is part of Gareth Southgate’s Under-21s squad, big things are expected of Baker, although naturally the midfielder is a long way off a starting place in the Chelsea team – an enduring problem for the England manager, however enthusiastic he is about young players.

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