James Lawton: Stuart Pearce's mollycoddled England Under-21s were brushed aside by better educated men
Guardiola, Mourinho or Pellegrini could not have made a winning team of players as detached from reality as those the England coach had at his disposal
We can pursue the old bones of Stuart "Psycho" Pearce as voraciously as a pack of wolves if we like, just as long as we don't kid ourselves we are beginning to address properly England's embarrassing ejection from the European Under-21 Championship finals in Israel.
Would Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho or Manuel Pellegrini have been parachuted into Tel Aviv by the Football Association to any markedly better effect? No, they wouldn't, because the defeats by Italy and Norway had little to do with underperforming individuals and ramshackle tactics and inferior leadership. The defeats, in their different ways, could hardly have been more profound. They were the victories of better educated, better developed and infinitely more mature performers.
Norway, population less than five million, produced a team that was not brimming with silky skill. What it had, though, was an understanding of the task in hand and their particular strengths. They enforced them with chilling effect, cashing in on their opportunities like men brushing aside boys.
Hugely coddled boys, we have to say. Boys, this is, who keep reading and hearing that they are about to inherit the football world and who if they should be in doubt about this need only look at their payslips for confirmation. In the wake of Italy's opening piece of dismemberment, Jordan Henderson, who cost Liverpool something not far short of £20m, claimed that England still had a serious chance of being crowned champions of Europe. It was a chilling utterance in all it said about English international football's progressive detachment from any working reality.
Italy hadn't merely beaten England, they had played a game with which their opponents rarely appeared to be even vaguely familiar.
Someone pointed out that Marco Verratti, who replaced David Beckham with such huge and immediate effect in the Paris Saint-Germain team, completed 120 passes, or 76 more than any England player. This grim statistic was placed, fortuitously, in the lap of TV analyst Glenn Hoddle, who just happens to be one of few English players of his and most other post-66 generations with a skill level and intuition which might have made him feel at home in somewhere like Milan – or Amsterdam at that time Dutch football was completing a sensational emergence from near-amateur status to a front-rank football nation.
Hoddle, who lost the England coaching job for voicing eccentric life philosophy and not any shortfall on the refinements of the game he had graced so strikingly as a player, pointed out that you could make 200 passes in a game without one of them being worth a damn. Verratti's passes, Hoddle said, had been informed by a superior awareness of space and time and maximum exploitation of the imaginative running of his team-mates.
Some have mentioned Hoddle as a possible successor to the embattled Pearce, which makes a considerable degree of sense if the FA, having noted the consistent intelligence of his game analysis and an implicit understanding of what is most important in the game, can draw a veil over the old furore that provoked his dismissal as England boss.
The newly retired Phil Neville, a professional of splendid application and the beneficiary of the demanding regimes of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes, has also been mentioned as a runner. However, either candidate if successful would surely be advised to stock up on sticking plaster.
The wounds sustained by English football in Israel are beyond the healing powers of any one messiah, assuming anyone in the professional game of marketable credentials would be prepared to sacrifice the big bucks for the epic challenge of reshaping the culture and the thinking of the young English footballer.
Pearce certainly found it hard to keep the weariness out of his voice after the Norwegians had picked apart his team, which was supposedly hugely strengthened by the arrival of such marquee names as Wilfried Zaha and Tom Ince. You might not have noticed as Norway absorbed the bluster, and no doubt the speed with which their opponents reacted to malign fate, real or imagined, and then produced everything required of a seriously prepared winning team.
Pearce, who in all the circumstances can hardly be optimistic about his fate, said: "I've been working in football 25 years and humiliation is not a word I would use. Big disappointment, that's for sure. But I'm very proud to do the job and proud to represent my country, as my players are, so they will be hurting. It's football."
More specifically, and tragically at a time when the FA is celebrating its 150th anniversary, it is English football. It is football suffering, in its most vital area, stupendous neglect. It's a game gorged on cash and starved of anything like the vision which is enshrined in places like Spain, world and European champions, and Germany, the perennial challengers on the international stage who still managed to produce a majority of home-grown players in the recent Champions League final triumph at Wembley, Italy, marching again, and always high in the rankings and in the production of standout players, the Netherlands.
In such places the idea of top-notch academies, teaching the most profound football values, is not an aspiration – as it is in England, which finally got round to producing its own centre nearly 20 years after the French, World Cup and European winners in 1998 and 2000 – but a workaday basis for the highest competitive standards.
Before, or as well as, rushing to replace Pearce, the FA might well consider launching an emergency mission of investigation. It could be aimed at a legendary place known in most corners of enlightened football as Varkenoord, the Dutch academy sponsored by the clubs Feyenoord and Excelsior. This place produced Robin van Persie and in 2010, 2011 and 2012 won the Rinus Michels award for excellence.
It first entered the consciousness of football back at that time when the Dutch game was simply exploding with marvellous young talent, most dramatically represented by Johan Cruyff – and when the great Bill Shankly growled that his Liverpool had been beaten by the most defensive team they had ever met, which was Ajax when Cruyff was still a kid. They put five goals past Liverpool on a foggy night in Amsterdam.
At around that time the Feyenoord academy was advancing a quite revolutionary idea. It was to have eight-year-olds playing for their sheer love of the game, doing it not to win a meaningless game and enrich the reputation of their coaches, but deepen their own understanding of the ball and all its possibilities.
Forty-six years on, English football has never been in greater need of giving it a serious try.
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