Pearce praises battle-hardened young side after Portugal draw

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The Independent Football

Stuart Pearce believes the willingness of his youngsters to play through the pain barrier shows how seriously the England Under-21 team are now taken. The coach was angered in the summer when David Bentley pulled out of the European Championships through tiredness, while Gabriel Agbonlahor could not be contacted to confirm his call-up.

But Pearce has been encouraged by a change in attitude. Agbonlahor has returned to the squad for the 2009 qualifiers and travelled to play against Portugal this week, even though his twisted knee made him a doubt.

The Aston Villa forward just failed a fitness test for Tuesday night's 1-1 draw in Agueda, but the captain, Steven Taylor, played 45 minutes carrying a back injury. Pearce also had to send a host of injured players back to their clubs before the international break, despite their eagerness to be part of the squad.

"It would have been easy for Gabby to say he didn't want to travel," said Pearce. "He wants to be part of this set-up. The more that do that, the better it is for me."

Agbonlahor picked up his injury last Friday against Bulgaria – and although England lost their 100 per cent record in qualifiers with their result in Portugal on Tuesday, a draw keeps them on course for the play-offs to reach the finals.

"It shows how far we've come when I see the likes of Gabby desperate to be here," said Pearce. "He came off on Friday, and I thought he had no chance. The injury settled down, and the treatment was good. We feel he is very close to being fit and think he will be fit for his club this weekend. But we couldn't take that chance."

Pearce has assured club managers that the fitness of his players is of the highest importance to the Under-21s' staff.

"I'm frustrated with it as well," he added. "I want to take the players away from their clubs and gain experience as well as camaraderie and a good performance – then return them to their clubs fully fit.

"Clubs can rest assured that we do everything to make sure the individual is taken care of.

"It would have been easy for me to put pressure on Gabby to play. He was very close to passing a fitness test, but it wouldn't be fair on him or Aston Villa. That is my main concern.

"At half-time, I had Steven Taylor telling me he was fit to play on. My medical staff tell me he isn't."

Pearce's young side remained top of Group Three with their well-earned draw in Portugal, Adam Johnson cancelling out an early penalty by Vieirinha.

"It was massive," said goalkeeper Joe Hart. "We proved we have strength in depth with this result. People were dropping off like flies, but others came through like heroes. We've all dug in and got the result."

England ended up with none of their first-choice defence on the field at the final whistle, while Theo Walcott put in a mature performance on his own in attack.

"The injuries affect you, but you see players hungry to impress and help the team," Hart added.

The youngsters have not been beaten outright in a match for two years, but their record was under threat after three minutes at Estadio Municipal de Agueda when Vieirinha put Portugal ahead with a penalty.

It was the first goal England had conceded in qualifying for the finals in Sweden, but they responded well and started creating chances.

Walcott missed a one-on-one opportunity and David Wheater headed over the bar twice from corners. Johnson equalised three minutes after the break with a sweet volley into the far corner after Joe Mattock's throw was allowed to bounce.

Pearce's youngsters finished the game strongly and Tom Huddlestone, Walcott and Johnson could have stolen a winner.

The performance was more impressive given the injuries Pearce's squad has suffered – Matt Derbyshire damaged his quad in a morning training session to join Agbonlahor on the sidelines.

Taylor's back injury reminded Pearce of the finals in the summer when England reached the last four in the Netherlands. "It rolled the clock back to the summer," said Peace.

"We went into the game nervous and gave ourselves an uphill struggle with an early penalty after a nervous tackle in the penalty area.

"That's why these players are playing at this level – to take that experience with them. The more the game went on the more confident and galvanised we looked. We felt more and more comfortable.

"I'm immensely proud of them, bearing in mind we had 14 players unavailable and six forwards out. They gave everything they had and I'm just disappointed they didn't win the game."