Lennon the prodigy Eriksson cannot ignore any longer

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The Independent Online

Sven Goran Eriksson may not be aware of it, but Aaron Lennon spent much of his early career playing as a striker at Leeds United's academy. He was transformed into a winger when he broke into the first team at the age of 16 and now, under the England manager, he has a new position. Unfortunately it is substitute.

It is hard to remember a young player who has accomplished so much of what has been asked of him and for so little reward. He transformed the match against Trinidad & Tobago, against Ecuador he sparkled in the space of four minutes. Watching him calmly run down the clock in possession, or burst through the Ecuador midfield, Lennon begged the question of Eriksson: How much longer can you do without me?

Precocious young talent has a habit of doing that. It forces the most conservative, unswerving managers to examine what they thought they knew and change their minds. Lennon's emergence is no different in that respect to that of Bryan Robson, Paul Gascoigne or Wayne Rooney when they broke suddenly into the England teams of past and present generations.

The difference is that Lennon has arrived at a point in the history of the national side like no other. He waits patiently at the door for a place in an England midfield that has all the flexibility and inclusiveness of the House of Lords before the abolition of hereditary peerages. Sure, Eriksson swaps people around, he adds the occasional holding player, but the England midfield quartet - and we know who they are - seem to have jobs for life.

This is not a treatise against David Beckham, or Frank Lampard or Joe Cole in particular, but it is recognition that Eriksson now has a player in Lennon whom he can no longer ignore. Lennon gives England something no one other than Rooney has: pace, and the precious ability to go past a defender.

On the two occasions that the 19-year-old has come on to the pitch he has looked like a World Cup footballer, the kind we would be prone to eulogise if he was South American or African and unknown beyond his own country. Lennon might be young enough to still experiment with shaving lines into his eyebrows but when the camera settles on this teenager, he has an unflinching, icey look. As a bedraggled David Beckham garbled encouragement into his ear on the touchline on Sunday evening, Lennon barely gave him a glance.

He came on and suddenly England seem to be playing the same pacey, edgy game that Argentina, Spain, Ghana, Germany and even the newly departed Netherlands, have exhibited at their very best. Jürgen Klinsmann has talked about a new kind of European football, in the counter-attacking style of Barcelona or Chelsea, that he wants for his Germany team - Lennon is England's natural exponent of that approach.

The irony is that for all the sluggishness and muddle of England going forward, Eriksson actually picked a squad that seemed capable of stretching and out-pacing the opposition. He took Lennon, Rooney and a striker called Theo Walcott who has passed from view so completely that even Eriksson is no longer asked about him. The faith the England manager placed in youth seems not to have lasted much longer than the three friendlies at the end of the season.

Walcott's position is an unfortunate one for a young player who has, by all accounts, acquitted himself well in training in the recent weeks. Walcott expected to have some kind of role against Ecuador, but as his more senior team-mates made such hard work of disposing of the South Americans, his chances, perhaps of ever playing at this World Cup, evaporated.

Eriksson has failed to keep his side of the bargain with Walcott, but he has a chance to redeem himself with Lennon. In his five and a half years in charge of the England team, Eriksson has never spotted a player ahead of a club manager, or recognised and developed a quality that no one had seen before. It took Jose Mourinho to make an international out of Joe Cole. Frank Lampard was moved around the midfield until Paul Scholes retired.

In Lennon, Eriksson can seize that chance. Of course the player had impressed for Tottenham this season, but he was by no means a certainty to supplant Shaun Wright-Phillips. Eriksson's decision was bold and Lennon has responded to his faith in splendid style.

A clue to Lennon's character is that he has been a football prodigy since the age of 10 when he was signed by Leeds' academy. He is an unpretentious character who has spent his spare time in Baden-Baden with his brother Anthony. Raised in the Little London district of Leeds, it was there with his family he spent his last few spare days before he met up with the squad last month.

Everything so far suggests that Lennon will have a very long international career. History will tell us that Eriksson recognised the first glimmer of an international in Lennon when he took him, uncapped, to the World Cup finals. But over the next week, the Swede has a chance to leave a more profound legacy - by finding a place in the team for the next generation.

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