Pearce has praise for Young Lions

England Under-21s beat 'hardest' qualifying system to reach European finals
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The Independent Football

Stuart Pearce believes that England have come through the hardest qualification system in football to reach the European Under-21 Championship finals.

Pearce's Young Lions made next summer's finals in Sweden by the skin of their teeth after a 2-2 draw with Wales at Villa Park took them through 5-4 on aggregate on Tuesday. Spain have also booked their place in the eight-team competition, along with Belarus and Finland, while Germany, Italy and Denmark put their hopes on the line last night against France, Israel and Serbia. Netherlands, the defending champions, did not make it that far.

With such an elite field, Pearce knows England will have their work cut out to do better than their appearance in the semi-finals two years ago. "We are pleased to be through," he said. "This is the hardest qualification campaign of any football I can think of.

"At least in the World Cup and European Championship, the top teams in their groups go through. Here, Spain won every game and had to go into a play-off. We won seven out of eight and drew the other one but we had to go through it as well."

Remarkably, England have never lost in normal time under Pearce. Their only defeat in that period came in a penalty shoot-out to the eventual winners, the Netherlands, in Heerenveen during the 2007 tournament.

Since then, Pearce has been co-opted on to Fabio Capello's senior England coaching team, meaning that he flew overnight on Tuesday from Birmingham to Belarus, taking Joe Hart and David Wheater with him, for last night's World Cup qualifier in Minsk. Pearce offered to leave both players, and the striker Gabriel Agbonlahor, out of Tuesday's game, but the coach, Franco Baldini, turned down the offer.

"Franco just said definitely not – the game was too important," Pearce said. "Part of my job is to get results, educate them and get them through to the seniors. We had planned on taking three of them. They were proud to be asked this morning. Unfortunately, Gaby will not be going, but the other two are proud to."

"David Wheater has had a tough game," Pearce said. "There is no doubt about that. But if I ask a player whether he wants to travel [with the seniors] or go back to his club, he would want to be on that jet. They want to be part of the seniors. That is why they work so hard.

"I spoke to [Wheater's manager at Middlesbrough] Gareth Southgate about it yesterday. They want to play for the seniors. We will try to take care of him the best we can."

Discarded by Manchester City as the short-lived but eventful Thaksin Shinawatra revolution began, the former England captain Pearce is a man in demand. "I am very pleased to have a foot in both camps because it is very exciting time for England," Pearce said. "It gives a great lift to everyone for Joe and David to come as well. It just shows there is a production line starting to take shape as Theo Walcott is there already."

Pearce would have had even more company on his night flight, but Agbonlahor was forced to pull out with a minor hamstring injury, although he should be fit for Aston Villa's Premier League meeting with Portsmouth. "We took Gabriel off as a precaution," Pearce said. "He should be OK for Saturday but the last thing we wanted was for Gabriel to break down on us and get an injury that might keep him out for a number of weeks."

Pearce was also keen to commiserate with his Welsh counterpart, Brian Flynn. "I feel sorry for Wales because we could both have done the British Isles proud next summer," Pearce said. "It was as stern a test as we have had in my time as manager. We have been pushed hard by Spain, Italy and Holland, but Wales were right up there."