Under-19s: Battle of Britain adds spice to vital qualifier

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The Independent Online

It is nearly a decade since England and Scotland met at full international level, Don Hutchison's goal being insufficient to overturn England's two-goal advantage from the first leg of what was a Euro 2000 qualifier. With a succession of England managers preferring to meet foreign opposition, and the Football Association disinclined to argue, given the perceived hooliganism risks of reviving the fixture, a repeat may not occur until the pair are drawn to meet in competition.

Which adds extra edge to an already important fixture at Bramall Lane tonight. The two nations' Under-19 teams meet in what has become an eliminator for a place in next month's European U19 Championship finals in Ukraine.

Last week, England and Scotland both defeated Bosnia and Slovakia, the other countries in the elite round qualifying group.

England, thanks to two late goals from Nathan Delfouneso against Slovakia at Bradford on Friday night, hold the edge on the Scots on goal difference – which means a draw will be enough for them to go through.

The night is not just about the result though. Like all development team games, it is about education. "We've played two teams with different approaches to the game," said Brian Eastick, the England Under-19s coach. "They dropped off and tried to hit us on the counter-attack. That's been good experience for the players. [Tonight] I'm expecting a more British game. The learning factor here will be in handling the occasion."

Aston Villa's Delfouneso is one of several players in the squad with wider name recognition. Victor Moses is a regular at Crystal Palace. Gavin Hoyte, younger brother of Middlesbrough's Justin, played for Watford on loan from Arsenal last season.

However, several core players are absent. Danny Welbeck and Ben Amos were in Rome with Manchester United, Arsenal's Henri Lansbury headed a clutch of players involved in the FA Youth Cup final, and Everton's Jack Rodwell and Ben Gosling were on the bench at Wembley on Saturday.

England have a terrible record at age-group level. Over the last two decades there have been more than 50 Uefa tournaments. England have won once, the 1993 Under-18 finals. The most successful countries are Spain and Italy. The current European and world champions are, respectively, Spain and Italy. Coincidence?

"Every recent England manager will tell you our players lack tournament experience," Eastick said. "These players have now been away 10 days, there's a bit of fatigue creeping in. But that is what tournament football is about. World Cups are held in the summer. Players need to learn how to cope with international duty after a long season.

A key reason England infrequently qualify for such tournaments is that youth coaches have been unable to play their best team because of club commitments. With Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, championing the issue, matters have improved and qualification tonight would complete a trio of summer tournaments for young England sides. A fortnight today, the Under-21s play the first match at the European Championships finals in Sweden, against Finland. Then comes the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt in September.

*Captain Steven Taylor and Danny Welbeck have pulled out of the England squad for the European Under-21 Championship because of injury. Newcastle defender Taylor has an Achilles problem, while a knee injury sidelines Manchester United forward Welbeck.

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