James Lawton: Wilshere shrugs off weight of attention to give glimpse of a bright new England
Thursday 10 February 2011
This may not have been the second coming of Fabio Capello but he was certainly no longer a dead football man walking out into the Copenhagen night. Nor were any of his derided, underachieving England squad.
There was a glint of hope for the future, the possibility of a new England seeded by an injection of youth.
Arsenal's Jack Wilshere was a centrepiece of the project and he didn't disappoint under the weight of attention. He was a creative force even in a role that carried heavy defensive responsibilities.
Wilshere, match-winner Ashley Young and James Milner were comfortable on the night – and they looked as if they could carry that into the future.
This was uplifting in a match which, we were told, was to be put on like a cheap crumpled old shirt and then tossed away before some more important occasion like a scuffling engagement in the dead zone of the Premier League.
Rage over the betrayal of the league's big promise when it was formed in the most shamelessly, money-grabbing fashion nearly two decades ago, has inevitably dulled over the years but there are still times when it spurts back into life.
Last night was such a time as Capello sought to make something out of the ashes of the World Cup and the recent undressing at Wembley by a new young France.
You remember the promise? It first came in a glossy brochure posted from the FA's old headquarters in Lancaster Gate. It said the top division would soon enough be trimmed down to 18 clubs. This would benefit the national team; it would give the manager more time to work with a generation – perhaps a golden one – of young and fresher English players.
There was no mention that because of the huge new cash flow the top clubs would be able to buy up ready made first-teamers from every corner of Europe and that before long the native talent pool in the new league would be around 33 per cent. That, we should remember, is not a percentage of viable candidates for the England team but the body count; not the finesse count, or the technically adept count, or the natural visionary count. No, not any of that, just a body count.
In these circumstances it is a small miracle that Capello, in the last phase of a job that has surely brought him more angst and frustration than any other in a brilliant coaching career, could still have, if only for 45 minutes last night, the first stint at the international polishing of a diamond young player like Wilshere. Capello withdrew Wilshere at half-time in what was no doubt a gesture towards the Arsenal 19-year-old's upcoming challenges, not least next week's ordeal of fire against Barcelona. It was necessary to see it as a judicious guarding of an asset rather than any lack of faith in a player of sure-fire and deep potential.
Wilshere's difficult role in front of England's back four was not made any easier by the waspish talent of another teenager, Ajax's Christian Eriksen, but Capello's pre-match comparisons with young players of his acquaintance like Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini were never in danger of a breath of ridicule.
As expected, Wilshere most of the time looked as if he had pulled up a chair and made himself at home. His movement forward, the crisp assurance of his passing and the willingness of all his team-mates to entrust him with the ball, were steady points of encouragement on a night that could easily have been made embarrassing by Denmark.
The Danes played with enough verve and menace to remind us that they won a major title – the European Championship of 1992 – 26 years more recently than their opponents – and ransacked Sven Goran Eriksson's team 4-1 five years ago.
There were other sources of English light. Milner reminded us of the force and the competitive sharpness which made him seem like a potential cornerstone of the team before the World Cup meltdown and Glen Johnson, after some familiarly shaky moments in defence, grew much stronger going forward and brilliantly assisted Young's admirable goal.
That confirmed the strength of England's response to Denmark's powerful opening onslaught crowned with a fine headed goal by Daniel Agger from a cross by the quick and poised Eriksen. Theo Walcott had presented Darren Bent with the equaliser and when Gareth Barry and Scott Parker came on there was a much stronger sense that, if Capello's resources are thin by the standards of most of the front-rank football nations, they were maybe not quite as threadbare as had been feared.
This was a night deemed irrelevant by the ruling culture of English football. It was, however, rather more warming than that. Indeed, it had enough to make you hope that news of the death of the England team may just have been a little premature.
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