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.
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.Reuse content