The Last Word: How Capello put pride back into Lions

Meaningless friendlies reached a nadir with Sven's substitutions but dream team of Italian and Pearce ensure the future's bright
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If there was one thing that Wednesday's game in Berlin emphasised, it was that there is no such thing as a meaningless friendly. Not, as some have asserted, because England's opponents were such old adversaries as Germany, but because there is no football match from which any half-decent coach cannot learn something; and even those unfortunates publicly outed last week as members of the British National Party would have to admit that "half-decent" underestimates the proud Italian in charge of the English team.

The nadir of international friendlies is widely considered to have come at Upton Park in February 2003, when Sven Goran Eriksson, deferring to leading Premier League managers, made 11 half-time substitutions with England trailing 2-0 to Australia, who went on to win 3-1. As a result, Fifa eventually limited the number of changes during a game to six, which a more devious manager than the guileless Swede might have claimed was his prime motivation all along.

Yet was that evening in east London meaningless? Far from it. It told Eriksson and anyone else paying sufficient attention that James Beattie, Francis Jeffers and Paul Konchesky were unlikely to become international footballers, whereas three of the players introduced for a debut in the second half were Wayne Rooney, Jermaine Jenas and Paul Robinson. All three were retained in the next squad and are still there almost six years later, with 108 caps between them.

Much of the criticism surrounding that game stemmed, in fact, from classic British insularity about the nature of the opposition, who were regarded as fair game for a Test match but hardly for our national sport; it was as if Australia were expected to turn out in baggy green caps and lose by double figures. At the next World Cup, they qualified for the second round ahead of Croatia and were prevented only by a ridiculous penalty decision from reaching the quarter-finals, the stage at which England duly perished.

So let us delete "meaningless" from the vocabulary of international football, together with "pointless", the word chosen by Aston Villa's manager, Martin O'Neill, the day before four of his players were chosen to represent their country. (A better definition of "pointless" might be the Football Association employing a whole troupe of coaches and support staff at vast expense for a team who don't play a game between qualifying fixtures last month and the start of April next year, as most Premier League managers would prefer).

Arsène Wenger, whose club genuinely suffered from the England game, was fair-minded enough to confess that Theo Walcott could just as easily have dislocated his shoulder at London Colney as in the Olympic Stadium; judging by accounts of Arsenal training sessions, from Martin Keown's day to Kolo Touré's, the chances would have been higher in Hertfordshire.

One man's injury, at any level of football, is another's opportunity, and Shaun Wright-Phillips took his, confirming that he could be relied upon if required when World Cup matches resume next spring – which is an integral function of friendly games.

The same went for several others, from defenders Glen Johnson and Matthew Upson (a player rejected by Arsenal in favour of Pascal Cygan) through Michael Carrick in midfield to a rejuvenated Stewart Downing and, of course, Gabriel Agbonlahor. Everyone at Villa, O'Neill included, must have felt a sense of pride at the contribution to the national team of one of their own academy products, as well as another in Craig Gardner (like Agbonlahor, a Brummie) scoring the previous night when Stuart Pearce's Under-21 side went one better than their seniors by completing the calendar year unbeaten.

Had James Milner been involved in Berlin after being rested by the Under-21s, the Villa contingent would have been even higher. Having made more appearances at that level (an astonishing 40) than any English player, Milner may yet miss the senior boat, but the progression between the two teams is smoother than at any time in memory, unquestionably helped by the fact that in Fabio Capello's assistant Pearce there is an invaluable bridge between the two.

As Pearce said after his younger team's comfortable victory over the Czech Republic on Tuesday: "If Michael Mancienne can step into the seniors, there's a message out there for everyone." On the same night, incidentally, England's Under-19s beat Germany with a team including two of Wenger's Arsenal youngsters, plus Everton's Jack Rodwell, Manchester United's Danny Welbeck – scorer of a stunning goal against Stoke on his Premier League debut last week – and Chelsea's Michael Woods.

Leaving aside the inflation of great expectations, which can surely be eschewed by such long experience of being let down, the one worrying element in all this is Sir Trevor Brooking's clear frustration in his role as the FA's director of football development, which led to last week's embarrassing spat with the Football League chair-man, Lord Mawhinney. Brooking's most specific complaint is that insufficient attention and too little money are being devoted to the youngest age groups, from five to 16, essentially because of resistance by the professional leagues.

That message for the long term should not be obscured by another week of encouraging results. But in the meantime, do not tell a Brooking or a Pearce that international friendlies are without meaning. They played in a few, after all.

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