U-21: Richardson the lion-heart starts leaning to the left

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The Independent Football

The cheers about to greet a win over Germany may have been left hanging in the air when goalkeeper Scott Carson's misplaced clearance gave away an 89th-minute equaliser at Hull City's KC Stadium on Friday evening but Peter Taylor's young England remain on course to qualify for the finals of the European Under-21 Championships.

Jointly top of their group, alongside the Germans, they will defend an unbeaten record at the halfway stage of the qualifying campaign when they take on Azerbaijan at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium on Tuesday evening, at the end of which the busy Taylor, hectically dividing his time between international duties and the masterminding of Hull City's League One promotion drive, will have supervised his fourth competitive game in five days.

So far, so good for Taylor's second spell wearing this England hat. His removal from the Under-21 post in 1999, to be replaced by Howard Wilkinson, remains one of the more bizarre decisions after he had overseen only three defeats in 23 games. Getting results, however, is only one part of the job description.

Though talent abounds at this level, the roll call of Under-21 history is scattered with stars that shone brightly at first only to fizzle out rapidly. Taylor must also identify and promote young players who might make the substantial step-up to full international level.

Having watched Friday's selection overcome a 1-0 deficit with passion and verve, going 2-1 ahead with goals by Darren Bent and Dean Ashton before Carson's misfortune deflated the mood, Taylor enthused that England's second-half performance had been the best since his return last summer.

"On another day we might have scored five goals," he said. "Against Ukraine in an earlier match, we started off very well but did not produce the chances we did this time - and this was against Germany.

"After what happened to Scott at the end it was sad we did not score a third goal but from a coach's viewpoint I could not have been happier with the performance." Taylor said that Carson had apologised immediately after the game for his mistake with a minute left on the clock.

"I am sure this has happened to very, very good players over the years and they have learnt from it," the manager said. "But I thought our wide players were exciting and the front two did ever so well and caused them problems."

Among a number of eye-catching performances, Glen Johnson's quiet, deceptively casual assuredness at right-back will give Sven Goran Eriksson further food for thought ahead of next summer's World Cup in Germany, while Derby's Tottenham-bound Tom Huddlestone, who looked equally comfortable in midfield and defence as he moved from one role to the other, is an 18-year-old of seemingly limitless potential.

The downside for Johnson is that he will miss the Azerbaijan game after the defender received a needless booking. The 20-year-old was given a yellow card for dissent after the visitors had opened the scoring.

Returning to the credit side, perhaps there is another candidate for the left side of midfield, following hard on the heels of Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing, in Kieran Richardson, the 20-year-old Manchester United player currently on loan at West Bromwich Albion.

In only his second appearance, and his first start, Richardson earned praise from Taylor, having carved out several chances for others and himself been denied only by a good save. Afterwards he affirmed his own high ambitions, which start with displacing Ryan Giggs from the line-up at Old Trafford.

"I'm enjoying being at West Brom but I definitely want to go back to Old Trafford and fight for a place," he said. "Sir Alex sent me to West Brom basically to get experience. I've always had pace but you need to play in the Premiership to get used to the tempo and that's what I wasn't getting. Hopefully when I go back the gaffer will see my progress."

Moreover, while he has been playing in central midfield for Bryan Robson's Albion, the left is his preferred option. "In central midfield you get on the ball a lot but on the left wing you can express yourself more and I like running at players," he said. Giggs may have to take heed. "I like that position and at Manchester United maybe it will be the quickest way in," the youngster added.

The 2006 World Cup, perhaps, may come too early, but 12 months from now, a successful 2005-06 season at Old Trafford under Richardson's belt and, perhaps, Eriksson still scratching his head about his biggest problem position, that view might change.