James Lawton: The miracle, Steven Gerrard, would be if young English players were not just left to rot

These figures speak not of seeping neglect in England but of abandonment

Click to follow
The Independent Football

If you are Steven Gerrard, captain of England, dumped in the middle of Moldova, and required to speak about the prospects of your team in the World Cup in Brazil in two years, what do you do? If you're not keen on being carried away by men in white coats, you do pretty much what Gerrard did on the eve of last night's qualifier.

You um and aah to the effect that notwithstanding a No 2 Fifa world ranking – a fable beyond the power of Aesop, surely – England winning the tournament and becoming the first European team to triumph in South America is probably something of a long shot but that the team have "every chance" of improving under the new manager, Roy Hodgson, and that one reason to keep the faith is that "in football miracles do happen".

Unfortunately, if this one occurs, the fishes and the loaves and the fountain of wine at the Marriage of Cana are likely to take their place as merely superior examples of meeting the challenge of supply and demand.

Yet if Gerrard was simply doing his forlorn duty, this should hardly dissipate the anger of all those still capable of being exercised by one of the most appalling examples of waste and collective ineptitude in the history of our national sport.

You know England's international game is up when even Sir Bobby Charlton, hero of 1966 and a lifelong optimist, agrees that the future has never looked so bleak.

For years Charlton has searched for the kind of glimmer which first appeared when the crusty loner Alf Ramsey took charge of the national team and opened with the arresting declaration, "Gentleman, most certainly we can win the World Cup."

Now, Hodgson knows a similar statement on his lips would be greeted with decades of heaped-up scorn.

Instead, the new manager merely whispers his apprehension, as he did the other day when saying, "There will be quite a number of times I have to select players this year who will not be in their teams. That's a risk but it is the nature of the Premier League."

Indeed, it is the reality of a disconnection between the rulers of England's major league and the FA organisers of the national team which has now reached quite scandalous dimensions.

One mind-bending example was the continued meek willingness to stage a friendly international three days before the start of a new domestic season, bowing to Fifa pressure. The deeper malaise, the reason why Hodgson is required to talk up his near superannuated and chronically ineffective midfield of Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and why the team's chances of seeing new, excellent blood coursing through its veins ran into a brick-wall with the injury to Jack Wilshere, is that the idea of significant young English players emerging in the Premier League is becoming increasingly remote.

Where does Hodgson look? Danny Welbeck has promise, Tom Cleverley might be a real one, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is combative and promising, and if and when Wilshere returns brimming with fitness there might be genuine hopes for a quorum of young players fit for the highest international purpose.

Hodgson can only choke on a series of statistics which explain why England have run so far behind such European rivals as Spain, Italy, Germany and France at the highest level of the international game.

It is not that young talent is dying on the vine. It is that it is simply not making it far enough for the merest hint of ripening in the football sun.

Charlton, whose hopes were raised from time to time during the regimes of Terry Venables and Sven Goran Eriksson and, briefly, in the early days of Fabio Capello, long argued that there was sufficient depth of ability and character in the land which, if properly exploited in a flexible 4-3-3 system with which his old boss was able to beat the world, might just muster another run at the major prizes.

Now, though, it appears a belief which once seemed so inexhaustible has faded to the point of oblivion.

He said this week: "England have not got a lot of top-quality players to choose from so you must feel it is difficult to win things. You can't see it happening in the World Cup in Brazil for instance. Perhaps if the right group of players came together it might happen but I have to say it is way off. Since the influx of so many foreign players there is a definite shortage of talent from which the England manager can select. I feel sorry for whoever is England manager."

Certainly, the growing image of Hodgson, for all the dignified competence he displayed while tackling the near impossible challenge handed to him before the Euros, is not of a man in charge of his destiny but someone required to put out a series of slow-burning fires.

His persistent defence of Wayne Rooney, his insistence that he was "fine" in his delayed and futile involvement in the Euros, that he was fully fit and productive, is adding up to a major escape from reality.

It is, you have to say, the great indictment against English football, this refusal to face the reasons why the nation has been so marginalised in the international game.

The details of decline are stark enough but at various stages of the slide there is surely an overwhelming need to review them once again.

Since England's only taste of international glory, the Germans have won two World Cups and reached three more finals. They have twice won the European title. The Italians have won a European title and two World Cups and reached two more finals. France has won two European titles and one World Cup. Spain has won two European titles and one World Cup on the way to conquering modern football.

There is, of course, no mystery in England's separation from such achievement. It is the price of the most fundamental neglect of young England players, one that this week was underlined by the release of another set of nightmare figures. They tell us that of the 209 players who started in last weekend's action for Premier League clubs – including the 11 of Chelsea in the Uefa Super Cup – only 66, or slightly more than 30 per cent, were available to Hodgson.

In Germany the issue of a proper quota of home-grown players in the domestic league is already causing alarm. However, even though the Bundesliga trails La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1, it is still 19 per cent ahead of the Premier League.

Not surprisingly, the Spanish masters of world football are most fastidious about grooming the best of their young players at the highest possible level. The Spanish percentage is 64.3. Ligue 1 is at 62.7 and Serie A finds room for 52.1 per cent of the compatriots of such as Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.

These figures speak not of seeping neglect in England but something that amounts to an astonishing abandonment. No wonder Charlton, a glory of both the English and the world game, sighs his despair and Gerrard mumbles about miracles. When the Premier League was installed – and so many eyes shone at the prospect of the TV fees – there were vague promises of more than token acknowledgement of the need to cultivate the national team.

The League would ultimately be trimmed to 18 clubs. The quality would be refined. The future brimmed with promise.

It is a story of betrayal that apparently knows no bounds and certainly it didn't find one in Moldova this week when Gerrard, having exhausted other possibilities, found himself summoning a miracle. Let us hope that it is one which involves a few high-powered football men taking a peek in the mirror.