Under-21s: 'Massive miss' if Pearce's tyros fail to reach finals

The deflection off the Chelsea left-back Ryan Bertrand that allowed Romania an away goal in the first leg of Friday night's European Under-21 Championship play-off at Norwich could have serious consequences for English football. Even though Manchester United's Chris Smalling subsequently scored a late goal for a 2-1 victory, England Under-21s are under pressure going to the back of beyond for Tuesday's return game, which offers a passport to next summer's finals in Denmark.

There was a time when Under-21 football did not seem to be taken particularly seriously in England. Now, belated importance is being attached to all the under-age teams and the development of players through them. The 2007 and 2009 Under-21 tournaments in Holland and Sweden respectively were recognised as having been of immense value all round; not least when Germany's team that beat England 4-1 in the last Under-21 final supplied six players to the squad that inflicted an identical punishment on Fabio Capello's side at the World Cup 12 months later.

As Stuart Pearce, who was in charge of the younger squad at those two tournaments, said in the wake of Friday's game: "The real learning curve for the players is getting to the finals, so it would be a massive miss. There's a real education for players at this tournament. There's not one player came back from either [2007 or 2009], whether they played regularly or didn't, who didn't really enjoy the experience."

The personal disappointment for Pearce this season is that because the senior team's matches are now also played on Fridays and Tuesdays, he is rarely able to take his place on the bench alongside Fabio Capello. That is ameliorated in part by the knowledge that a more regular production line than in the past is delivering players from one level to the next. Of the 23 working with Capello at Watford this weekend, Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, Tom Huddlestone, Ashley Young and Adam Johnson were at one or both of those two summer tournaments; James Milner and Theo Walcott would have been amongthem but for suspension and injury respectively.

Then there is Jack Wilshere, the Arsenal prodigy who played at Norwich, only to be summoned to the senior squad instead of travelling to Romania. It may be a mark of the respect in which the 18-year-old is held, but that looks to be a short-sighted decision given that he is unlikely to play a major role at Wembley. In Botosani – a venue as far away as it is possible to be without belonging to Ukraine or Moldova – he would have been crucial to the Under-21s efforts, given that they need an away goal of their own to maximise the chancesof qualification.

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