The sight of Phil Jones and Jordan Henderson out on the training pitch here yesterday convinced the England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce that there is bright young talent coming through the ranks, even if he is inclined to raise an eyebrow at the fees it can command.
Although neither player's transfer had been formally completed at that point, Pearce had been keen that the pair's part in negotiations and medicals should be over in time for them to join his squad late on Wednesday night, ahead of yesterday's first training session in preparation for the European Championship beginning this weekend. They duly threw themselves into practice, showing little sign of being burdened by a combined fee of £37m.
"I know what sort of players I'm dealing with," Pearce said. "They're fantastically focused players and an absolute pleasure to work with. I had contact with both of them beforehand to go and tie up individual deals this week with the clubs. If I was in their position I'd want a deal tied up before I went to a major championship, I wouldn't want to be worrying about it and I think that was their mentality as well.
"I think the market's a little bit distorted financially, but I'm not taking anything away from the real talent there. If I was a club manager and I had the finance to buy those two, I would do it at the drop of a hat. For their ability and also for their mentality to want to get better and be level-headed kids."
Keen as he is to see young English players given an opportunity at the biggest clubs, even Pearce has been surprised at Chris Smalling's progress, admitting that he never expected to be watching him in a Champions League semi-final this season. That was a bonus, as one of the problems for an Under-21 manager is that he needs people who are playing first-team football as often as possible rather than low-key reserve games. He may be prepared to make an exception for Jones next season.
Manchester United and Liverpool's new acquisitions seem certain starters in Sunday's opening group match against Spain, having played important roles in England's qualification. Indeed, Jones, who will be alongside his new United club-mate Smalling, has never lost an England game at any level. "They've got a steely determination between the two of them," Pearce said of the partnership that helped his team through a tricky play-off over two legs against Romania.
"They want to defend, they're happy to get hit with the ball to keep it out the back of the net. That's a real trait to have. Look at the likes of [Nemanja] Vidic, and see how he enjoys defending. People don't like playing against him. I think these two have got a bit of that in them as well."
The Ipswich striker Connor Wickham may agree after being forced out of training yesterday with a knock on the ankle following a collision with Jones, but the injury is not regarded as serious. Another striker in the squad, Aston Villa's Nathan Delfouneso, summed up Jones well as "a bit old-school and a bit modern in that he has a physical side but also technique".
With Kieran Gibbs having been ruled out of the tournament because of an ankle injury, Pearce enjoyed himself playing at left-back in a training game yesterday, watched by several hundred local children at the ground of Fredericia FC, a Danish club whose new manager is the former European Footballer of the Year (and, briefly, Charlton Athletic player) Allan Simonsen.
Afterwards Pearce emphasised the points made in The Independent yesterday by Sir Trevor Brooking about the importance of experience gained in tournaments like these – and of winning them: "I think we've got a lot of lessons to learn and the one reason I would say that is you have to look at the trophy cabinet. It never lies."
Clearly still sore about Arsenal's reluctance to release Jack Wilshere, Pearce replied when asked for one specific lesson to be learnt: "You need to turn up to tournaments with your best players for a start. I fought tooth and nail to get Theo Walcott here two years ago. Doing my job the best I can, I have to make sure the best players in England are here. And it's a mouthwatering prospect for our players to take on the best Spain have to offer on Sunday."Reuse content