Talented Under-21s are built with loans

Henderson and Jones have made big-name moves, but for many being farmed out is the only option
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The Independent Football

Sky Sports executives have been rubbing their hands after the £36million splurge into the transfer market over the past few days that has resulted in old rivals Liverpool and Manchester United finishing level in a one-one draw. Suddenly supporters of the two clubs – neither tribe normally avid followers of England – will be tuning in to tonight's live coverage of what was already a potentially fascinating Under-21 match against Spain.

How will Phil Jones, United's £16m recruit from Blackburn Rovers, show up alongside Chris Smalling in a partnership that Old Trafford could come to know and love? Is Jordan Henderson, already capped once at senior level by England, the real deal and could a future partnership with Steven Gerrard be equally profitable in Liverpool's midfield?

The spotlight might have been shining with equal intensity on others of Stuart Pearce's pups. Connor Wickham, Ipswich's impressively powerful centre-forward, the youngest member of the squad, has long been coveted by Liverpool and also Sunderland, who fear that they are being encouraged into nothing more than an auction they cannot win. Jack Rodwell performed so promisingly at the same tournament two years ago in Sweden that it seemed unlikely he would still be wearing the blue of Everton today.

Pearce, as he made clear at England's training headquarters this week, would like all further speculation stopped forthwith. He was proactive in encouraging Jones and Henderson to have all transfer business done, if not dusted, before they joined up with their international team-mates only a few hours late.

"I just deemed it was right and proper in regard to those two individuals before we met up that they did actually go and resolve those problems," he said. His fingers may have been crossed when he added: "I'm not actually aware at this stage that there is anyone else on the verge of moving clubs."

The similarities between the two transfers were significant: young English players brought through an academy system that has been the subject of some criticism providing a justification of it by earning vast sums for their lower-middle class clubs by moving to two of the biggest in the land.

However Blackburn and Sunderland use the huge fees, nobody can reasonably tell them that scouting and youth development are a waste of time on the grounds that so much cheap foreign labour is available.

The one concern from England's point of view was quickly expressed by Sir Trevor Brooking, whose occasional exasperation with his job as the Football Association's director of football development is leading these days to some increasingly forthright declarations about unwelcome trends.

On Friday he told the BBC that he was concerned about players such as Jones and Henderson missing out on regular football if they joined big clubs too quickly.

Pearce, however, had pointed out earlier that Smalling, for example, was given far more opportunities than expected at Manchester United this season. He could have said the same of Jones, which was just as well, since that pair have been the cornerstone of the U21's defence.

It is significant, nevertheless, that so many of the other squad members have gained their playing time only by going out on loan. Looking at how many have done so from United and Chelsea is instructive, as is the dilemma they inevitably face either sooner or later.

Once they lag behind in the highlycompetitive race for places in those top sides, what then? For Michael Mancienne, 23, and Scott Sinclair, 22, at Chelsea the answer has been a sad parting of the ways; for the 21 year-olds Jack Cork, Ryan Bertrand and Daniel Sturridge a day of decision may not be far off.

At a media briefing on Thursday Bertrand, who has made more than 150 appearances in five loan spells at various clubs from Bournemouth to Oldham, yet appeared only twice for Chelsea, hedged on the matter. He and Sinclair were two of the first signings made by Neil Bath, predecessor at Chelsea of Frank Arnesen as head of the much-vaunted academy, but Sinclair finally made the break last summer after five years and six loans, joining Swansea City and happily now finding himself back in the Premier League.

Had he settled for Stamford Bridge as a bit-part player it is highly unlikelythat he would have remained in such strong contention for a place against Spain this evening.

Similarly the Under-21 captain Mancienne, who has been able to enjoy something like the best of both worlds in that his loan was to a Premier League club in Wolves. Now he has joined Arnesen at Hamburg. Cork, meanwhile, approaches his 22nd birthday this month having been on six loan periods and apparently of a mind to convert the last of them at Burnley into a permanent move.

Sturridge waits to see whether Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Fernando Torres and Salomon Kalou will all be ahead of him in the queue by August.

"Every player has different paths and my path so far has been to go out on loan," said Bertrand, who has long found Ashley Cole barring his path to the first team. "Ashley is one of the best but as long as I am getting my development that is the main thing. For me, being at Chelsea has definitely been a benefit. Whether players come into Chelsea and make it in the first-team, their education has been fantastic."

It is what happens when that education is complete that is the moot point. Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish may be inclined to argue that for the new poster boys Jones and Henderson, it has only just begun.