Thursday night’s 3-0 defeat of Finland was England Under-21s’ fifth win in six unbeaten matches under Gareth Southgate, and Saido Berahino’s two goals gave him six in four appearances, but neither were the team’s most significant statistic of the week.
That was the fact that only one player, Tottenham’s Harry Kane, withdrew from the squad. Time was when an Under-21s call-up was treated like an invitation to tea with a maiden aunt. There was an obligation to attend, but often an excuse was found not to. This reached a peak last summer when a host of players were unavailable for the European Under-21 Championship. Stuart Pearce took a reserve side whose poor performances betrayed the reality that even some of those who did go to Israel would rather have been on a beach.
Not any more. The Under-21s is suddenly a team footballers want to play in. Pearce’s replacement by a coach who encourages his players to express themselves and pass the ball shorter is a factor, but more telling is a sense that, possibly for the first time since the late 1990s, when Glenn Hoddle was England manager and Peter Taylor the Under-21 coach, the Under-21s are truly part of the national set-up.
Roy Hodgson actually took charge of the Under-21s first match of the season, prior to Southgate’s appointment, and has kept in touch. That both teams share the St George’s Park training facilities is another bonus.
“One of the beauties of St George’s is that, like you would at a club, Roy is able to say, ‘Can four or five come across this afternoon and train with the seniors?’ That is brilliant for the youngsters,” said Southgate. “There is a pathway. The players can see that, they can see what is happening with Ross Barkley and Raheem [Sterling – like Barkley already capped at senior level].”
“There is a tremendous cohesion,” said Hodgson who, like Southgate, stresses the purpose of the Under-21s is to develop senior players. Winning matches is an aim, but mainly because that leads to tournament participation.
Indeed, Southgate will be entering a team in the Toulon Under-20 tournament in May as he feels his team need more demanding opposition – Finland, like most of England’s opposition in these European qualifiers, simply sat back and invited England on to them.
“We will play teams who press us higher up the pitch, keep possession against us and cause more of an attacking threat,” said Southgate.
The problem with one-sided matches is players get overindulgent. The young fans at Milton Keynes on Thursday will have gone home talking about the “tekkers” of Ravel Morrison, Sterling and Wilfried Zaha, but too often these players dwelt on the ball or tried to take on an opponent too many. This stage is a platform, but the desire to show off even led to Morrison and Zaha confronting each other on the pitch in a previous match. What these young players do not always appreciate is the likes of Southgate and Hodgson see beyond tricks. Southgate praised the impact of substitutes Will Hughes and Jesse Lingard who kept it simple and moved the ball more quickly.
“Sometimes doing the simple thing at the end of the run is the hardest thing to do,” he said, but he added: “We have creative players who you want to give the freedom to express themselves, I certainly don’t want to discourage them from trying things, it is a case of making the right decisions at the right time. They will learn when is the right time to do things, and a lot of that is trial and error.”
The most impressive performer was Southampton’s Luke Shaw, who has the misfortune to have Leighton Baines, Ashley Cole and Kieran Gibbs ahead of him in the seniors. But a spell of learning in the Under-21s will do him no harm, especially if they progress as a group. Too often players move up too early, leaving the average players in the Under-21s. Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes won 15 Under-21 caps between them – Tom Huddlestone, Fabrice Muamba, Michael Mancienne, Steven Taylor, Danny Rose and Scott Carson each won 29 or more. The former group had fine international careers, but might they not have done better at tournaments with previous experience of them?
Part of the problem is English players, after joining the senior team, have regarded returning to the Under-21s as demotion. Hodgson has made clear it should not be. “I would expect players who are not playing an important part in the first national team to be available for the Under-21s,” he said. “As far as I am concerned there is progress to the first national team, but it is a flexible flowing process, you can move up, and may have to move back down again.”
It is the Spanish way – Juan Mata went from winning the World Cup in 2010 to winning the European Under-21 Championship in 2011. In his new book, Spain: the inside story of La Roja’s historic treble, Graham Hunter stresses the importance placed on age-group football by the world and European champions and notes the XI that started the Euro 2012 final had 332 age-group caps. By comparison the England team that went out in the quarter-finals had 221, 50 per cent less per man (and 70 of those caps had been won by James Milner). Spain have won 11 age-group tournaments in 12 years, England one. That was the Under-17s in 2010. Of that group only Barkley and Berahino are playing regularly in the Premier League.
There is a lot of promise in the Under-21s, and not just in the headline-attracting forward line. As well as Shaw Hodgson will have admired the ball-playing confidence of centre-halves Michael Keane and John Stones, but, cautioned Southgate, “We are aware the rate of acceleration into the senior team must not be too early. There is still a long way to go for all of them.”