It was an early night ahead of yesterday's first training session here for the England Under-21 squad, which meant missing the climax of the senior team's televised draw in Brazil. The game did not finish until just before midnight local time, and Jack Butland caught Wayne Rooney's goal just as he was heading to bed. The 80 minutes the Stoke City goalkeeper managed, however, only increased his desire to be in Brazil himself at the World Cup finals next summer.
The Under-21 squad has become an increasingly useful stepping stone on the way, with 10 of the group who represented England at the last tournament two years ago now boasting a full cap. Having Stuart Pearce working with both squads, as he did under Fabio Capello, helped the process and Butland and others must hope that promotion continues to work in the same way. Watching Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Rodwell – both still eligible for the Under-21s – come on as substitutes in Rio helped convince Butland it will.
"They got there through their performances for the their club but most importantly their performances for the Under-21s," he said. "The way Jack and Alex came on is only more motivation for us that we can get there, it's an inspiration. That's what we're all striving to achieve."
Butland, who agreed to join Stoke in January but stayed on loan at Birmingham, has already had senior recognition, having been given a first cap against Italy at Wembley last August. An ambitious as well as confident and eloquent 20-year-old, he believes that he is capable of playing plenty of Premier League football next season and ending it as one of England's top three goalkeepers.
"If I didn't think that, there would be no point," he said. "I'm not going to stand here and think three places are taken and just give up. I've got to prove that I'm good enough to go. I feel really good in this squad and I feel part of it. But this is the step to the next level and I feel very confident that if I get the opportunity to have a good tournament, and then a good season next year, then who knows? That's the target, to go to Rio."
Meanwhile there is a tournament to play, starting against Italy tomorrow. Pearce's team reached it by coming through a turbulent play-off in Serbia, where they suffered sticks and stones as well as racist name-calling during a commendable 1-0 victory. "There was all sorts [being thrown], from seats to what they were supposed to be eating," Butland recalled. "In the first half there were coins and other stuff. There were little stones, then towards the end a couple of rocks. That just gave us more drive in a difficult scenario to go on and win the game."
If not exactly the sort of character-building exercise that even "Psycho" Pearce would recommend, Butland said that it was useful in binding a close-knit squad even more firmly together. "We showed no matter what situation we are put in that we can handle it. What we were put through was an extreme test. You could feel in the dressing room that we had got through an extremely difficult scenario. When things got out of hand we handled it very well. After the game you could see that it made us all stronger and brought us all closer together."
The one negative is that as a result of altercations at the final whistle, Danny Rose and Tom Ince are suspended from the Italy game. A week after helping his former club Crystal Palace achieve promotion via the play-offs, Wilfried Zaha sat out training yesterday at the squad's base 20 miles north of Tel Aviv with an ankle injury and is by no means certain to start, although Pearce claimed: "He shouldn't be a doubt. He's obviously played a really full season. The plan was to do the warm-up and then work with the physios. We'll have another look at him and see where he is with regards to his fitness."
The only other strikers in the party are Connor Wickham and Marvin Sordell, neither of whom have been prolific this season, although in the Under-21s' remarkable run of nine straight wins, midfielders and even defenders have chipped in with goals.Reuse content