Young men under no illusions about future

England's Under-21 side go into their key game against France tonight with everything to play for in the short and long term. Glenn Moore reports
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The Independent Online

Peter Taylor, the Under-21s coach, hopes Eriksson's presence will lift his team. With the national team manager still deliberating over the final few names in his World Cup 23 there is the opportunity to shine. Furthermore he brings with him the lustre of the Geneva match.

The juniors will need to show the character the seniors did. Having been held to a 1-1 draw in the first leg at White Hart Lane on Friday England need to score, for away goals count double. With Darren Bent and Carlton Cole leading the line Taylor is confident that they will and is thus planning a more cautious approach. This will be aided by the return, to midfield, of the captain Gary O'Neil, who has recovered from a calf injury. In addition the French have injuries, notably Arsenal's Gaël Clichy.

It is not just the players who have much to gain from a good performance and result. With Eriksson still expected to step down after the summer (though his presence here suggests he might not) the succession is a live question. While Taylor's only Premiership managerial experience, with Leicester City, ended badly he steered Gillingham, Brighton and Hull City to promotion. More pertinently he has, in two spells, been an impressive Under-21 coach.

While no England manager has progressed through the international ranks such a rise is common overseas. The current French coach, Raymond Domenech, previously managed at junior level, as did Jose Pekerman, Eriksson's opponent in Geneva. The experience of regularly throwing together a team in just a few days, and dealing with very different challenges each match, is in many ways more relevant to international management than week-in, week-out, success in a league. Taylor, who combines his work with managing Hull, is thus as much a contender as Steve McClaren, Sam Allardyce and Alan Curbishley. To judge from his response when the subject was raised after training yesterday he would relish the chance.

"I keep saying that the players are gaining more knowledge every time they play and I am the same," he said. "Every time we play a different style of team, with different strengths, I learn more as a manager. I don't look much further than that but I have no doubt I should be finding more out about international football."

Which is as it should be, for the Under-21s are, primarily, an educational tool. While the very best young players, like Wayne Rooney, go straight into the senior team most benefit from a spell in the youth branch. With some, such as Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard, it is quickly clear that they are capable of making the step up, while others have an extended run.

Frank Lampard played 19 times for the Under-21s and Jamie Carragher 23. Even then neither went immediately into the senior squad and it is only in the last two seasons that Lampard, now 26, has established himself in the team and Carragher, 27, in the squad.

"This is great experience," said Taylor. "Even if you don't get into the senior team immediately it will help you when you do - look at Frank. Playing different teams helps their education. They learn if you lose the ball you don't get it back for ages. There is a lot more possession than they are used to in the domestic game."

"It is a learning curve," said O'Neil. "All the teams have different ways of playing whereas in the English league you know what to expect.

"You learn about referees as well, I'd never been suspended before I played at this level."

Of course some players never make the step up. Gary Owen, the former Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion midfielder, won 22 caps at the lower level but none for the first team. David Prutton, 25 Under-21 caps, Jermaine Pennant, 24, and Shola Ameobi, 20, must wonder if they will suffer the same fate. Francis Jeffers did win full recognition but his international career has hardly gone the way that he must have anticipated when he equalled Alan Shearer's Under-21 goalscoring record of 13, and then scored on his full debut.

"The nature of Under-21 football is that players will fall by the wayside," said Taylor. "They cannot all automatically move straight up."

Players do develop at different rates but, said Taylor, an increasing amount have come through the system. "They've been with the Football Association for a few years which is nice to see. They build up friendships. People like James Milner have played at most levels.

"I think the raw material is better than in my first spell [1996-1999]," he added. "The academies are working. People say I don't get on with Howard Wilkinson [the FA's former technical director, who removed Taylor in 1999]. I do, and the things he set up are now paying off. I have no doubt the coaches are more qualified. In the academies the kids are being taught better. There is a supply of players. We lost Wayne Routledge and Stewart Downing at the start of the season but I could call in Aaron Lennon and Jerome Thomas. Then we lost them but I had Milner and Kieran Richardson."

In the 10-game qualifying campaign, Taylor used 35 players with only the goalkeeper Scott Carson ever-present. "I used to be smashing my head against the wall thinking 'another change'," said Taylor. "I learned off Dave Sexton: 'Never pick your team until everyone has reported'. I now regard the turnover as part of the job."

It is a learning game, on the pitch and on the bench, and tonight England hope to book extra lessons at summer camp.

England Under-21 (probable) (4-4-2): Carson (Liverpool); Taylor (Wigan), Ferdinand (West Ham), Dawson (Tottenham), Whittingham (Derby); Ambrose (Charlton), Huddlestone (Wolves), O'Neil (Portsmouth), Richardson (Manchester United); Cole (Chelsea), Bent (Charlton).

France Under-21 (probable) (4-1-3-2): Gavanon (Clermont); Sagna (Auxerre), Zubar (Caen), Faty (Rennes), Berthod (Lyon); Mavuba (Bordeaux); Faubert (Bordeaux), Debuchy (Lille), Didot (Rennes); Le Tallec (Sunderland), Briand (Rennes).

Referee: M Trefeloni (Italy).

Star pupils Three with the potential to graduate with honours

* DARREN BENT, Charlton

Age 21; 13 caps, 8 goals

Already in senior squad after a dramatic impact in his first Premiership season with Charlton.

Peter Taylor: "In training, whatever you do, he always scores. It's not always pretty but he's the type that's always in the right place. He's a lovely boy and a hard-working professional. He's very, very quick, very willing and a good finisher."

* GARY O'NEIL, Portsmouth

Age 22; 8 caps

Not the obvious choice and it is unlikely to happen overnight but the Under-21 captain has enough all-round ability and the right attitude to develop in a manner reminiscent of one of his illustrious predecessors, Chelsea's Frank Lampard.

Peter Taylor: "A very clever midfield player who can play in different positions. He can score and do a bit defensively, too. He's a good professional and an intelligent footballer."

* TOM HUDDLESTONE, Tottenham, on loan to Wolves

Age 18; 6 caps

Doubts over his pace and weight, but raw talent persuaded Spurs to pay Derby £2.5m for a 17-year-old.

Peter Taylor: "Spurs have a very good player. He's a quiet boy but he says enough and he is a great talent. He can play in centre midfield, or in defence. I think he is going to be very good in both and great in one."

Players are eligible for the current Under-21 team if they were born before 1 January 1983.

* THE GRADUATES

Under-21 caps won by England's senior team who beat Argentina

Paul Robinson 11

Luke Young 12

Wayne Bridge 8

John Terry 9

Rio Ferdinand 5

Ledley King 12

David Beckham 9

Frank Lampard 19

Steven Gerrard 4

Wayne Rooney 0

Michael Owen 1

SUBSTITUTES

Joe Cole 4

Peter Crouch 5

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