Eastick's England show true grit in the face of adversity
Struggling with heat and heights and yet to score but Under-20s have fought to reach World Cup last 16
Tuesday 09 August 2011
Context is everything.
There has been mockery from certain quarters abut England's progression to face Nigeria in the last 16 of the Under-20 World Cup as one of the four best third-placed teams, but circumstances make it a notable achievement. Conditions could hardly have been more alien – the altitude of Medellin, the humidity of Cartagena – and the timing could hardly have been worse; given where the tournament falls in the English calendar, most of the squad had barely begun pre-season when they went to Denver for pre-tournament training.
And then there were the players made unavailable by their clubs: 36 of them. That's not to say this England side is a fourth XI, but it does mean that it is a weakened selection, and that the coach, Brian Eastick, had to begin team-building afresh less than a fortnight before the tournament began.
As he said, England were never going to be "scintillating" and their three successive 0-0 draws (the second, against Argentina, voted the best game of the tournament so far by Colombian TV viewers; the third, against Mexico, voted the worst) are testament to his organisational skills and the spirit and bloodymindedness of his side. Just because English football has in the past prioritised those virtues to the detriment of imagination and flair does not make them inappropriate here.
Although he accepts that international youth football needs rationalising, so that Europe, which favours Under-19 and Under-21 tournaments, meshes with the rest of the world's preference for Under-20s, Eastick's frustration is clear. "It's my personal opinion that the Football Association should have mandatory releases for competitive games," he said. "The clubs have got to trust us to be sensible with our selections. It would be very foolish of me even to consider selecting Jack Wilshere. I wouldn't even consider Phil Jones for a tournament like this. I probably wouldn't even consider Jack Rodwell.
"I would probably consider Nathan Delfouneso because he went to the [European] Under-21 tournament in Denmark and didn't kick a ball. I would suggest it's highly unlikely Nathan will be in the Aston Villa first team at the start of the season.
"For him it would strengthen this squad and it would be an unbelievable experience for him to play against Argentina in front of 40,000-plus in South America, at altitude, in the heat and everything else that goes around that. Some of those players may have to go to Brazil – if we qualify – and face very, very similar circumstances. Josh McEachran is a very good player and would benefit unbelievably from being here. I'd be very surprised if he's in the starting XI for Chelsea's first game of the season."
Eastick's philosophy is all about breadth of experience. He hopes the new Elite Performance Plan, which should allow players at club academies greater time with the country's best coaches, will end the habit of turning out "half-players" with a limited skill-set. "When you get to a stage when a player is going with their first team," Eastick said, "however that coach asks the player to play, he should be able to say, 'not a problem. If you want to play me in a three at the back, yeah, I've done that. You want me to play there, that's not a problem. I've had all that education.'"
Coming to Colombia, he believes, is part of that process, and not just for the players. Stuart Pearce, for instance, is acting as his assistant to gain South American experience in case he's involved in England's coaching set-up in Brazil in 2014. His task now is to extend that experience a further four days to a quarter-final against either France or Ecuador.
Luck of the draw
England in the group stage:
29 July, England 0-0 North Korea
1 August, Argentina 0-0 England
4 August, Mexico 0-0 England
But goals and wins are not always necessary for progress:
*In the Copa America this year, Paraguay reached the final without winning a game in normal time. They drew with Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela in the group stage before beating Brazil and Venezuela on penalties.
*Atletico Madrid won just one game in normal time on their way to the 2010 Europa League, winning three ties on away goals before the final.
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