Stuart Pearce hits out at absence of key England players at the European U21 Championships

The Three Lions lost their opening match to Italy

England Under-21's chances of winning international tournaments are being undermined by the absence of key players, says the manager Stuart Pearce. He was speaking after his squad tamely surrendered their nine-match unbeaten record in Wednesday's opening European Championship match with Italy to leave them with an uphill task to make the semi-finals, starting against Norway tomorrow.

Pearce – whose contract is up for renewal next month, when he will have taken charge of his fourth successive Under-21 Championship – sought to defend his record by claiming that 17 players were unavailable to him because of senior team commitments, injuries or an unwillingness to be selected.

"You take 17 players out of the Italian squad and let's see the result," he said. "If you bring your best players, you stand a chance of winning the tournament. If you don't, you take your chance when you get there.

"I have a conversation with the England senior manager about what players he wants. He has first dibs and rightly so. Everyone who is left over is available to the Under-21 squad. You then have to look at certain injuries. Then there are one or two players who do not want to give their summers up to go and represent their country. That's just how it is."

It is almost three years since the FA first considered compulsory call-ups for competitive games at junior level but it has never happened.

Pearce was missing, among others, Jack Rodwell, Kyle Walker, Phil Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck, who were all included in Roy Hodgson's squad for the friendlies against Republic of Ireland and Brazil, while Luke Shaw, Callum McManaman and Raheem Sterling were all unavailable because of injury.

Over the past 10 years, only Spain are ahead of England in qualifying for tournaments from Under-17 to full international level. However Pearce, who admitted last week that he would like to stay on in the position he has held since 2007, believes there is a fundamental difference in approach once they reach the final stages.

"You qualify with your best players. You take your best team to the tournament and you take your best players," he said. "Only Spain surpass us but when you flip it on its head and ask how many of our top 50 players who are in the senior squad now have got tournament experience before they get there, we finish second bottom."

He used the example of Theo Walcott, who as a young starter could by now in theory have been to ten tournaments, but has actually played in five-and-a-half matches. "We have to address that, so our brighter players, like the Oxlade-Chamberlains, can get tournament experience and playing time."

 Norway, meanwhile, whom England must beat tomorrow to have a realistic chance of reaching the semi-final here, have taken four of their Under-21 squad to tonight's World Cup qualifier in Albania but any of the quartet who do not play a full game will be flown straight here.

 Pearce was frank about the paucity of Wednesday's performance, which was all the more unexpected after winning 14 of the 15 previous games: "I am the first one to point out how badly we played. I don't think we can play that badly again. It's Cup-tie football now, we are in the fifth round of the FA Cup and we have got to win on Saturday evening."

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