Why FA insists Under-21 event is crucial to success for the big boys

Clubs' anger over their youngsters playing in the Euros is misplaced say Pearce et al, it will be beneficial
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The Independent Football

Do not try telling anyone at the Football Association that the season is over. During the next two months, England will be playing at the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups in Mexico and Colombia respectively, plus the Under-21 European Championship here in Denmark, which starts this weekend. The Under-19s would have been involved in their own European competition as well, had they not been squeezed out by Spain on goal difference last Sunday. Oh, and there is also the not so insignificant matter of the Women's World Cup in Germany.

When Hope Powell names her squad for the latter tournament tomorrow she will at least not upset Arsène Wenger and his peers. Her male counterparts at the FA risk doing so every time they call up the country's brightest young players, whom most – though not all – Premier League managers would prefer to be putting their feet up before returning for a full period of pre-season training with their clubs.

The conflicting interests of club and country have intensified in recent years as the fixture burden on both has increased. In addition, Fifa and Uefa have both realised that there is more exposure and money to be had from playing their age-group finals in odd-numbered years, thus avoiding the senior competitions, which can mean a promising young player going for several successive years without a full break.

That was the point Liverpool's manager Kenny Dalglish was making when he criticised the number of these competitions as being "mainly for commercial benefit" and admitted disliking handing players over to "coaches we have no control over".

Dalglish's other point is that once a player becomes a senior international, he should not revert to a development team, which was his argument for Andy Carroll not joining the Under-21s this summer. Wenger made the same case about Jack Wilshere, who has also been persuaded to make himself unavailable, handicapping England's prospects.

Not that it is only England who have been affected: the host country Denmark are bitterly disappointed that their centre-half Simon Kjaer, a full international who appeared at the World Cup last summer, has been refused permission to compete by his German club Wolfsburg. In fact, England have sometimes accepted the Dalglish argument. Wayne Rooney never played for the Under-21s, going straight into the senior side as a 17-year-old and staying there. Theo Walcott is not considered these days for the Under-21s although he is still eligible.

In most cases, however, the FA and its coaches are adamant that playing in these tournaments can only be beneficial. Sir Trevor Brooking, the director of football development, was unusually outspoken on the subject last weekend, calling it "amazing" that some players were reluctant to take part. Yesterday he told The Independent: "The key fact is that a tournament is totally different. It's intense, with three group games in eight days and a lot of pressure on that first game. Then you find out who are good squad members, which ones brood or which are good people to have around the place. If you look at the Spanish senior squad, world and European champions, players like Cesc Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi and Villa have all played 30 or 40 international matches for their development teams and won championships."

Stuart Pearce, who divides his time between the seniors, Under-21s and Under-20s, and has had to deal with controversies in the past over David Bentley and Walcott as well as Wilshere and Carroll, has said: "If I was giving advice to any player, I would say that if you are selected for your national team, play as many matches as you can. I did. I'm not speaking as someone who has picked and chosen my games. It's a great honour to play for your country because when you are 35 or 40 you cannot do it any more. If we can go that extra step and win the competition, that's fantastic but more than anything it's the tournament experience and the intensity and competition that will be important. There is a whole range of knowledge that you can take from tournaments."

There is also the question of England actually winning an occasional competition, their record over the years having been embarrassing for a supposedly major football nation. At one point they had won just one trophy out of 100 Uefa and Fifa tournaments, which was the 1993 Under-18 competition at home. In the same period Spain won 17 titles.

That was followed at last by the Under-17s' European success last year, dethroning Germany. The Germans' progression continued when several of the Under-21 side that defeated England 4-0 in the 2009 final went straight into the World Cup squad that beat Fabio Capello's team by almost the same margin.

Occasionally, as when the World Under-20 finals were held in October and England had almost 30 withdrawals, it is simply impossible to compete. Overall, however, Brooking admits: "At the moment we haven't got anything like the tournament experience of countries like Spain and we need that so that when we get to senior tournaments we are a bit more knowledgeable and prepared. At Under-16 level, it's very much about development, whereas from Under-19 to 21 it's about being competitive. Part of tournament experience is sampling a final or semi-final, or a shoot-out under pressure, and we haven't been there enough to learn from the pluses and minuses."

He also revealed that the FA is keen to amass more of its own data on players' fitness levels to compare with that provided by the clubs.

"When it's put to us [by the clubs], it's become difficult to challenge," he said. "Then if we take a player and he gets injured, we run the risk of falling out with the bigger clubs." Pearce, who knows all about the ups and downs from his own experiences at the 1990 World Cup and then Euro '96, has made the neglected point that coaches learn from them too, and in his four years in charge of the Under-21s he has been through two highly eventful tournaments. Four years ago his team lost an epic penalty shoot-out 13-12 to the hosts, the Netherlands, and in 2009 they won one against another host nation, Sweden, after surrendering a 3-0 lead, then lost the final after three key players were suspended.

As he put it after that defeat: "People often say it's about developing players but for me part of developing players is learning how to win. Everyone will go back to their clubs better players than when they joined us three weeks ago." That, at the very least, will be the hope on returning from Denmark, whether sooner or later this month.

Gibbs ruled out

England will not replace Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs, who dropped out of the Under-21 European Championship squad yesterday with a reoccurrence of his ankle problem. Ryan Bertrand of Chelsea was already pencilled in to start at left-back and Tottenham's Danny Rose can also play there.

Gibbs had a scan on Tuesday and is now wearing a medical boot. He is the second Arsenal player and fourth senior international to become unavailable, after Jack Wilshere, Andy Carroll and Micah Richards, but manager Stuart Pearce said on arrival in Denmark: "We have to deal with setbacks every now and again."

Success breeds success

Previous winners of the European Under-21 Championship have gone on to great things:


The 2006 World Cup winners owed much to Under-21 successes. Italy won the 1992, 1994 and 1996 U21 tournaments, with Fabio Cannavaro, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Nesta and Gianluigi Buffon starring. Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso played in the victorious 2000 side, while Alberto Gilardino and Cristian Zaccardo played for the 2004 winners.


Some of those who reached the 2010 World Cup final played in the victorious 2006 and 2007 U21 sides. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar shone in 2006, Ryan Babel in the following year's tournament. Stijn Schaars and Demy de Zeeuw, squad players in South Africa, were also involved in 2006.


Joachim Löw's young side reached the semi-finals of the South Africa World Cup, surprising many. But they took four players from the team that won the 2009 U21 championship, beating England 4-0 in the final. Manuel Neuer played in 09 and 2010, with Jérôme Boateng in defence. Mesut Ozil, was superb in both tournaments, with midfield support from Sami Khedira, now a Real Madrid team-mate.