Kids to kick-start the next generation

FOOTBALL: With the senior game beset by problems at home, Glenn Moore gets away from it all in Athens with the England Under-16 team. There he finds a talented and committed group who promise much for the future
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The Independent Online
Algebra, and the industrial revolution in Nuneaton, are not usually part of an international footballer's preparation for a big match. But, in Greece yesterday, the defensive heart of England's Under-16 team were revising those subjects as part of the build-up to today's crucial European Championship qualifier against Romania in Athens.

Much has changed in football's treatment of its young players over the last few decades, not least an awareness that not everybody is going to make it and those who don't are in danger of being on the scrapheap at 16.

Thus the emphasis, even at the highest level, on ensuring players are equipped for a life outside the game, and the note, in the Football Association's instructions to its Under-16 squad, reminding players that "study periods will be set aside each day'' for schoolwork.

So Matthew Wicks, son of the former England B defender Steve, was brushing up on his algebra, while his defensive partner, John Curtis, Old Trafford starlet and the youth team's captain, was analysing his home town's industrial origins. Both look set for careers as professional footballers, but there is still a long way to go.

England's trip to Greece, where they are attempting to qualify for April's European Under-16 Championships, is all about the future. Winning is the aim, but, in the long-term scheme of things, it is a bonus.

In the past, too many English schoolboy sides, from the local comprehensive to the national team, have been built on the principle that a big kid is better than a small one. England have an enviable record at schools level but that is partly because, when the teams run out, only one look as if they have been eating three Shredded Wheat every day since birth.

So it was again on Sunday, when England played their first game, except that this time it was their Greek opponents who seemed to look down from Olympian heights. Two of England's central midfielders, Jody Morris of Chelsea, and Blackburn's Luke Staton, both light, slight and short, looked like being blown away with the first tackle.

Staton was, but he got up, got on with it and proved an influential player. Morris, from inner-city London, looked happy to take on any Greek giant who dared tangle with him, a pocket Paul Ince in the making - but already with better self-control. Earlier this season, when England were battered, kicked and spat upon in a match in Turkey, Morris had stood out, having quietly let the Turks know he was not going to be walked over.

That fixture had been requested by England after Manchester United's first trip to Galatasaray. Keith Blunt, the team's head coach, thought it would be good experience. It was. So, too, was this trip. The hotel was noisy and the training facilities were poor - a good introduction to the challenges senior sides often face.

The Under-16 team are effectively the FA National School at play - or, to be more accurate, at work. Of the 16 players in Greece, 11 are from the Lilleshall-based school, including Morris, Staton, Wicks and Curtis. It is a record of which even Australia's much-vaunted cricket academy would be proud, and suggests that, as far as the school is concerned, the FA has got it right.

Of course, some will note that the team selectors, Blunt and John Peacock, are the same men who pick the students and run the school, and argue that they are bound to choose their own players. Blunt, a coach with youth experience from Tottenham to Sweden, accepts that criticism is inevitable but says he believes they have picked the best players. The school's outstanding record against domestic clubs, which includes putting double figures past Blackburn's useful school-of-excellence side, suggests they are a formidable unit.

More important, however, in the new scheme of things, is how the team play. While everyone in Greece - and the party includes more than a dozen parents and siblings paying their own way - wants to win, the long-term priority is centered on performance rather than results. Three years ago the England Under-18 side were heavily criticised for the "direct'' tactics they used in reaching the semi-finals of the Little World Cup in Australia. The emphasis has changed to playing a passing game that will equip players for future international competition as well as the present.

The new attitude can be seen most clearly in the reluctance to copy the way the majority of Premiership teams have adapted to the pass-back rule. Only once, in the 80-minute game against Greece, did Paul Heritage, the goalkeeper, have to punt a back-pass upfield. The rest of the time one defender simply laid the ball off to a supporting defender who played it upfield. This is what the pass-back rule was supposed to encourage and is the way Italian teams, for instance, play it.

As comfortable as any of the defenders on the ball was the left-back, Jason Crowe, of Arsenal, but not of the National School. He never even had a trial, which shows that some players can slip through, and his parents admitted that, knowing what they do now, they would have liked him to have gone.

One of the reasons is the sheer number of matches he plays. The National Schoolboys play most, but not all Sundays, and rarely during the week. They train every day, usually after attending a nearby Shropshire comprehensive for normal schooling. They do not play for that school, however.

Crowe plays for his school, his district, his county, Arsenal and other representative sides. He wants to play for these teams but it clearly does his development no good at all playing ordinary school games. Another player admitted when he goes to the club he is affiliated with the other players there are astonished how few matches he plays.

Not every parent was convinced of the wisdom of putting their son in a hothouse football environment. Not at first. Curtis's parents spent three hours quizzing the school staff and were particularly concerned about whether their son's education would suffer. They are now convinced it was the right decision. John will be moving on to Old Trafford, but only on condition United allow him to sit an A level at a local college.

The school seems to be most beneficial, educationally, for players of limited ability or inclination. The school's rural location - "no graffiti'' said one parent - helps, as do the compulsory study periods - "since everyone else is working he might as well do so, too," said another. The School emphasises to the kids that failure to behave, and to work, in real school, will see them penalised at football school.

The team in Greece have been working towards this tournament for more than a year - all the National School pupils are in their second year. They have been joined, for this tournament, by Richard O'Connor, a YTS trainee with Wimbledon; Darryl Sopp, a YTS trainee with Orient, and three players at regular schools.

One of the outsiders admitted that, at first, it is difficult to break into a group in which so many players are already friends. The National School boys are clearly very close, they think nothing of resting an arm, or a head, on another's shoulders. But, helped by careful allocation of shared rooms, the outsiders are brought into the group. Similarly, with the parents, who all socialise together - partly because, even on tour, they still see little of their children.

On Sunday, after a meeting at which the team were announced and positions at set plays decided upon, the team went by bus to the nearby Panionios ground, a First Division stadium in Greece but unlikely to get a safety certificate in England.

After a warm-up outside, all was quiet in a dressing-room smaller than that at most Sunday parks pitches. Then, as the minutes ticked down and Blunt gave his final instructions, the mood built and Wicks and Curtis, the two leaders, went round shaking everybody's hands with quiet determination.

All the English team sang the national anthem with enthusiasm despite disappointment at the paltry crowd. Wicks noted that they played a friendly in front of 6,000 in Portugal earlier his season, yet this competitive match had attracted barely 250.

Both teams were still nervous at the start and the first half was scrappy. England made the better chances, the Greek goalkeeper saving well from Mark Gower and Michael Branch, but nearly conceding a far-post header from a corner.

Branch, from Everton, was playing a lone attacking role in a 4-5-1 formation. It is a demanding role for any player but for a 16-year-old it would seem to be asking too much. Yet he took a great deal of punishment with the fortitude of a Mark Hughes.

His tenacity and strength in the channels was compared by Steve Wicks to Alan Shearer but his mobility on the flanks was more like Chris Sutton. High praise, but his was an outstanding performance.

At half-time Blunt berated his central-midfield three for not supporting him and for not protecting the defence. Peacock told them to take responsibility and shoot. Three minutes later Morris, pushing forward, did so, the goalkeeper inexplicably missed it, and England were one up.

If that was fortunate the next three goals were all well worked. Just after the hour Morris won the ball in defence and fed O'Conner. He found the selfless Branch whose low cross was met by Andy Wright with a first- time low drive from the edge of the box. Anthony Ormerod, who had hit the bar from point-blank range soon after coming on as substitute, then volleyed a marvellous goal from another Branch cross.

Three-nil and the game won, yet Blunt kept urging his team on and, in injury time, they gained a fourth. Branch, now dead on his feet, somehow won another corner, from it Stuart Brightwell forced the goalkeeper to parry and Wicks bundled Curtis out of the way to head in the rebound. "I jumped so high I thought I was going to land in Turkey," his father said. "That's another record gone," he added to Matthew. "Your father never scored for England.''

Don Howe, attending in his capacity as the FA's new technical coordinator, looked just as pleased with what he had seen although he admitted he had not been impressed by the Greeks.

The parents were allowed on to the bus back to join the celebrations, while Craig Simmons, the physio, handed out cheese sandwiches and fruit. "It is important to keep them fed," he said. "We've been lucky in that they have liked everything that has been served to us.''

Then the parents were left behind again as the team went out together. It was not quite over for, at this time of year, Greece is in the thrall of a festival which involves bopping people - strangers - on the head with plastic clubs. The interpreter warned the team about this strange custom in case any misunderstandings occurred.

He need not have worried. After receiving a lot of bops the team armed themselves and replied in kind. At several corners groups of Greek youths clearly take advantage of this custom to indulge in some mayhem and the 16 tracksuited youngsters were an obvious target. Again Morris and Branch revealed their competitive qualities, though Blunt ensured no one became carried away - or off.

The evening - it was followed by Greek dancing - ensured the day not only set them up for today's match, but will also be one to remember. Those who go on to senior squads will face a different environment, a senior side, penned in by media and supporters, will rarely leave the hotel except to train and play. But if any of these players come back to Athens for a senior international they will know what to expect. If England do come here in six years time it will be a surprise if none of these players is with them.

ENGLAND UNDER-16 SQUAD: Heritage (Sheffield United and FA National School); Dickman, Curtis, Brightwell (all Manchester United and FANS), Wicks (Arsenal and FANS), Crowe (Arsenal); O'Connor (Wimbledon), Gower (Tottenham and FANS), Morris, Clement (both Chelsea and FANS), Stanton (Blackburn and FANS), Wright (Leeds and FANS), Branch (Everton and FANS), Ormerod (Middlesbrough), Sopp (Leyton Orient), Smith (Crewe and FANS).