Pearce prepares for a magic moment

England's Under-21s have the commitment to win a rare trophy tomorrow

It is easy to forget when talking to members of England's Under-21 squad just how young some of them are. Everton's Jack Rodwell was saying last week that he could "vaguely" remember the 1998 World Cup. Remind them about 30 years of hurt and it sounds like an ancient history lecture. So, as they prepare for the European Championship final against Germany in Malmo tomorrow, Stuart Pearce will not be burdening them with tales of 1996 and all that; let alone 1966.

There is much he could say, of course, about how, given the banishing of Scotland, Germany have become the new old enemy; vanquished at Wembley on the greatest day in English football history, humiliated 5-1 in their own backyard, but extracting painful revenge in between times – normally on penalties. "We don't sit there with a bedtime story [about] Stuart Pearce's career," their manager said at the team hotel yesterday. "Players are not interested in that."

Yet the least inquiring young mind must be aware that tomorrow there is a glorious opportunity to improve one of the most shocking records in international football. Not only have England managed to win just one of the last 64 Uefa competitions in any age group, but by adding Fifa tournaments the total is one in 94 since the Under-21s under Dave Sexton became champions of Europe 25 years ago. During the same period, Spain have taken 17 of those trophies.

As time has gone on, the balance between developing young talent and actually winning something again has swung towards desperate desire to see a player with three lions on his shirt holding up a trophy. There are sound reasons to believe it could happen in Malmo, tinged with nagging concerns, all of which were summed up in the astonishing fluctuations of Friday's semi-final.

In 45 minutes, England scored three times without playing well and reduced an expectant Swedish crowd to booing their team off. In the next 45 they fell apart, conceded three goals and should have been beaten in normal time and in the extra half-hour. But for the second time in the tournament, they clung on with 10 men, and come the penalty shoot-out, that graveyard of England teams, planning and practice made perfect. Pearce's insistence on giving his side every advantage through analysis of everything has been one of his most positive achievements; the Swedish coach Jorgen Lennartsson was made to look foolish with his dated notion that penalties were not worth practising.

On the other hand, the English tendency to give the ball away cheaply still drives Pearce to bench-kicking distraction. There has been immaturity and ill-discipline, too, that brings England to the final without three senior players in the goalkeeper Joe Hart and strikers Gabriel Agbonlahor and Fraizer Campbell. Uefa are certain to dismiss yesterday's official appeal against Hart's second booking for gamesmanship.

"There are fantastic lessons for everyone to learn from, especially myself," Pearce said. "Unless we learn those lessons, we are forever going to say what a golden generation we have, or that we've got the players but we're unsuccessful." Coming to a major tournament one striker light may be another lesson; England chose three plus Theo Walcott, then lost Manchester United's Danny Welbeck to injury and replaced him with an extra midfielder. Walcott, who has not played as a striker for two years, must now work on his own in attack tomorrow.

"I have never really worried about the ones who can't play," Pearce said. "Maybe a little bit of Brian Clough rubs off on me there. I think the others who step in will take the opportunity." Those others will be Adam Johnson, playing down the left flank with Milner on the right, and either Peterborough's Joe Lewis or Watford's equally inexperienced Scott Loach in goal.

Germany, oddly, have similar problems, after the Iranian-born Ashkan Dejagah, who is the only forward in either squad to have scored a goal at the tournament, also picked up a suspension during the 1-0 win over Italy in the semi-final. They will have to bring in Sandro Wagner, a lanky striker from MSV Duisburg in the Bundesliga second division.

It must concern their coach Horst Hrubesch to know that his team could only draw 1-1 in a group match against England's reserves when Pearce's decision to give all the understudies like Lewis and Loach a game paid off handsomely. Hrubesch faulted Germany's attitude that day. But significantly, Jack Rodwell's headed equaliser – one of five goals England have scored here following corners – was the only goal they have conceded in four matches.

Text messages of support have arrived from John Terry and David Beckham, two loyalists with as much experience of the pain of international failure as Pearce, who says of what could now be his finest hour: "I saw the reaction after 1990 at Luton airport when 300,000 people turned up for a beaten semi-finalist team. I have seen it for the rugby since which is fantastic. It would be nice to know that these players at a young age knew what it was like to lift a trophy. That for me would be Utopia on Monday evening."

England (probable, 4-1-4-1): Lewis; Cranie, Richards, Onuoha, Gibbs; Muamba; Milner, Cattermole, Noble, Johnson; Walcott.

Germany (probable, 4-4-2): Neuer; Beck, Hoewedes, Boateng, Schmelzer; Castro, Khedira, Aogo, Marin; Wagner, Ozil.

TV: Sky Sports 1, tomorrow, 7.45pm.

Key duels

Theo Walcott v Benedikt Hoewedes

If Walcott believes he will eventually become a central striker, this is an occasion on which to prove he has the ability. Little joy playing down the middle so far, but needs must tomorrow. The tall central defender Hoewedes will provide a good test and needs someone to mark him tightly at set-pieces.

James Milner v Marcel Schmelzer

Not even Milner, who made his Under-21 debut over five years ago, can continue at this level beyond tomorrow's 45th appearance. He will be desperate to go out with a bang and a winner's medal, playing down his favoured right side against the inexperienced Borussia Dortmund full-back Schmelzer.

Kieran Gibbs v Gonzalo Castro

Apart from a difficult spell during Sweden's comeback on Friday, when he needed more support from Milner, the 19-year-old Gibbs has been outstanding at left-back. He needs to continue that level of performance against Castro, an attacking full-back with Leverkusen who has been used in midfield here.

Micah Richards v Mesut Ozil

The Manchester City pair of Richards and Nedum Onuoha found Sweden's strikers a handful and will hope for a quieter evening tomorrow. But they must beware the tall centre-forward Sandro Wagner and his smaller, trickier sidekick, Ozil, who will drop off him.

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'