In the months before the summer's World Cup finals Fabio Capello became accustomed to answering questions about the likelihood of young players breaking into the England team with the despairing reply "Who? Who?" until reporters gave up asking him.
Almost five months since the remnants of England's fabled golden generation collapsed against Germany, Capello will tonight send out the youngest, most inexperienced side he has ever picked in almost four years as manager. The golden generation is on its way out and in their place comes a new generation born at the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s who struggle to recall a time before the Premier League, coloured boots and the Xbox.
It might prove more difficult to pigeonhole the players of this era given that there could hardly be a greater contrast between tonight's two debutants Andy Carroll, 21, and Jordan Henderson, 20. Carroll ordinarily spends Saturday nights on Newcastle's Quayside; Henderson spends Saturday nights on the sofa wondering how to occupy himself until Match of the Day begins. But whatever their character, the common theme for the new breed is that as long as they stay in the England squad they will be freighted with the same burden of expectation that has been carried by all their predecessors.
Against France tonight, Capello will also give Kieran Gibbs, 21, his first start for England in the absence of the injured Ashley Cole while Micah Richards, 22, is back in at right-back, although rather more because of the scarcity of other options. In comparison Theo Walcott (21 and 14 caps) and James Milner (24 and 14 caps) look like grizzled veterans.
The average age of the team that Capello said he would start with tonight is 25, although that would have been lower had Joe Hart, 23, not pulled out with a back injury. It prompted Rio Ferdinand to recall his own England debut in November 1997 when at 19 he played against Cameroon, the first of what will be 80 caps come tonight: "When you get your chance, it can all change. I came in, did OK and never looked back."
For Capello, not by nature a manager who likes to place his faith in youth, it was a chance to look back upon the occasions he has given young players a chance. He used an example from his time at Roma and the game in which he gave Alberto Aquilani and Daniele de Rossi their debuts. De Rossi, Capello said, rose to the occasion better than Aquilani.
Capello said: "For me, Aquilani was better than De Rossi. At half-time I told him: 'Why are you playing without confidence? Come on. The second half, you have to play like you do in training'. He played for 10 more minutes at the same level as in the first half. I put De Rossi on and he played like he did in training, so he was in the first XI from then on.
"It's down to confidence. Some of the players I've picked for England have played with fear. Afterward, they have improved. I won't tell you the names. Some players have not played with the same confidence here with the national team. I'm speaking about young players. Ashley Young? Yes, more or less.
"Another really important thing: I hope that the performance of the young players will be really good, but you have to understand that, possibly, sometimes we can burn these players if their performance is not good. We have to help them. They have to understand that, when you play here in front of 90,000 people, it's not the same as playing with the Under-21s. The value of this game is different than we play with their youth teams or in the Under-21s."
If the likes of Walcott, Milner, Hart, Carroll, Henderson, Gibbs, Chris Smalling, Adam Johnson and Jack Wilshere, who went home yesterday with a recurrence of his bruised thigh problem, are to take the mantle on, then it will inevitably be the Germany team of the last World Cup to whom they will be compared.
Germany's Mesut Ozil and Thomas Müller generation already have one World Cup third-place finish under their belts and if England are to compare then they need to catch up. Ferdinand observed that it was telling how England's young players already knew one another from the Under-21s and other junior national teams, which will have delighted the Football Association, which has poured such resources into those sides.
"Different people create different atmospheres, definitely," Ferdinand said. "That's inevitable when you've got such a big changeover of players. But these players all know each other. They've not come into a squad that's alien. They've got a lot of friends, people they've grown up with through England youth and Under-21s. It's only me and Stevie who probably don't know everyone that well.
"It's a fantastic opportunity for the younger players. They've got to grasp these opportunities when they come along because they don't come along very often. Anyone who does get a chance as a young player, you have to understand that a lot can be told from how you train. If you train well, the manager will notice that. It gives the manager something to think about. When you get your chance to play, it can all change."
It is already changing for England, although how well-suited these players will be to the trial of international football will only be revealed in the fullness of time. Capello's instincts are still conservative and if he is given reason to doubt the likes of Henderson and Carroll he will switch back to the tried – and only partially trusted – older players for the next Euro 2012 qualifier in March.
"Germany built the team step by step," Capello said, "and, if we want to do the same, we have to put these players in the team not five or six together, but two or three every time." He ignored the fact that this team had come together rather more by accident than design but, presented with the chance to play a young team, even he could see that there is a chance tonight to alter the bleak mood that still follows the England team around.
Who the new caps will face
Kieran Gibbs v Samir Nasri
Nasri has been outstanding for Arsenal this season, but the quick left-back Gibbs will be fortunate to have a good idea of what his club team-mate can do when he makes his first start for England tonight.
Jordan Henderson v Yoann Gourcuff
More used to his role as an attacking midfielder at Sunderland, Henderson will be expected to hold and look out for the Lyons playmaker Gourcuff, of whom France coach Laurent Blanc said is being "rebuilt" after a disappointing World Cup.
Andy Carroll v Adil Rami
The Newcastle target man uses his stature to hold up the ball and bring others into play, which will make him a constant threat to Lille's Adil Rami tonight. Carroll, however, may meet his match in the strong, 6ft 3in centre-back who enjoys a physical challenge.Reuse content