Shhh! Don't call the England Under-21 side the golden generation
Under-21s will go to Euros with great shot of glory but it could be Pearce's last stand
Friday 22 March 2013
The last time Stuart Pearce's England Under-21 side conceded a goal, Fabio Capello's senior team had just beaten world champions Spain at Wembley and Raheem Sterling was still nine months away from his first-team debut at Liverpool.
Yet despite guiding his team to eight successive victories since losing 2-1 to Belgium in November 2011, Pearce goes into this summer's Under-21 European Championship in Israel knowing it is time to deliver after more than six years in the job. Last month, the Football Association told the man who won 78 caps for his country at left-back that discussions over renewing his contract, which expires after the tournament, will have to wait.
Previously a member of Capello's coaching team and having taken charge for the 3-2 friendly loss to the Netherlands in the wake of the Italian's departure in February last year, Pearce certainly has a point to prove after not being retained by new manager Roy Hodgson. His indifferent spell in charge at Manchester City ended in the sack when they finished just four points clear of the relegation zone in 2007.
By that time, Pearce was already in situ with the Under-21s and preparing for his first attempt to win a competition that has so far eluded England's most important junior side. That ended in a heartbreaking, if familiar, semi-final exit on penalties to the Dutch hosts, followed by a 4-0 thrashing in the final against a Mesut Ozil-inspired Germany two years later and 2011's group stage exit.
This time, however, he should feel confident that things will be different. The blossoming of emerging talents such as Liverpool winger Sterling and Manchester United's new £15m signing Wilfried Zaha, who combined to devastating effect to destroy Romania 3-0 at Wycombe's Adams Park on Thursday night, has provided England with an array of attacking options to back up their defensive solidity. Suddenly an inaugural victory in a competition that has provided the springboard for so many international players is more than a possibility.
And even in the likely absence of established senior squad members Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck, Pearce and Hodgson are clearly both aware how significant events in Israel this June could be for England's long-term future.
"I will pick the best possible available players to take a tournament on to give the players more experience at international level. Roy has made it clear he wants to send a really strong squad to the Under-21s," Pearce said.
"My stance has been the same for the last six years, that every time you go to a major tournament you should go with your best possible available players at that age group. I'm always of the opinion – when I look at Spain, France, Germany, how they've won things at the younger age groups before they've stepped up and conquered the world and Europe – we have to do the same. We have to make sure that is delivered upon."
Petr Cech, Ozil and Juan Mata are among the stellar names to have been awarded the player-of-the-tournament prize in previous European Under-21 contests and Germany's side which thrashed England 4-1 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa contained four of the team which had dismantled Pearce's side in the final 12 months earlier.
The draw this time has seen England avoid holders Spain and traditional big guns the Netherlands, although Norway, five-time winners Italy, and the hosts will provide different challenges. Key to their chances will be Pearce's ability to mould together experienced Under- 21 performers like Liverpool's Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey with several of the players who helped win the Under-17 European Championship in 2010 – the first time since 1993 England have won a major age-group title at any level.
Goalkeeper Jack Butland, midfield enforcer Nathan Chalobah and versatile defender Andre Wisdom all started against Romania this week, while Josh McEachran and Connor Wickham should play some part against Austria in their final warm-up on Monday evening at Brighton and Hove Albion's Amex Stadium. Add currently injured Thomas Ince, Zaha and a rejuvenated Sterling to the mix and there is hope that this could be England's best crop of young players for a generation – even if it's probably wise not to allocate any "golden" tags at this stage.
However, in adding Everton captain Phil Neville to the coaching staff that will travel to Israel, Pearce acknowledged he may have already laid the foundations for his successor.
"The FA have their eyes on him and want to push him on and we want to encourage that," he admitted. "We should help the ex-players such as the [Jamie] Carraghers who want to be managers. From Phil's point of view he still has the contacts from the playing side, he wants to be a coach and not just say he's a footballer and wants to be handed it."
After his experience last time, whether Pearce fancies another crack at management in the Premier League remains to be seen. But victory in Israel this summer wouldn't be a bad addition to his CV.
Timeline: Pearce’s under -21 journey
Appointed in February 2007, initially in conjunction with his role as Manchester City manager.
Sacked by City in May after they finished 14th, just four points clear of relegation.
Reaches semi-finals of first Euros in June 2007, losing 13-12 to hosts the Netherlands on penalties. Appointed full-time by FA in July.
Combines Under-21 post with role as a senior coach under Fabio Capello from January 2008 onwards.
Beaten finalists in 2009 Euros, losing 4-0 to Germany featuring Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil in Sweden.
Eliminated in group stages of 2011 Euros in Denmark after Czech Republic score twice in dying minutes of final group game.
Takes charge of England's senior side in February 2012 after resignation of Capello for 3-2 friendly defeat to the Netherlands but not retained by new manager Hodgson.
Seals qualification for this year's finals in October after beating Serbia 2-0 on aggregate.
Kids are all right: Euro under-21 details
European Under-21 Championship [Israel, 5-18 June]
* Group A
Israel, England, Norway, Italy
* Group B
Spain, Netherlands, Russia, Germany
5 June: Italy (Tel Aviv)
8 June: Norway (Petah Tikva)
11 June: Israel (Jerusalem)
* Previous winners
* European U-17 2010 final: England 2 Spain 1
Conor Coady (capt)
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