PETER TAYLOR wants a few adjustments made to his programme notes for the Under-21 game against the Czech Republic on Tuesday. He has a problem with the possessive pronoun. "I might say 'my' players, but they're not really," he says. "They're Under-21 players. It looks better." So Under-21 players they are, in print anyway, the product of Team England, not Peter Taylor.
Yet the elevation of three of "his" players into the senior squad last week - Lee Hendrie, Emile Heskey and Richard Wright - confirmed the favourable impression already created by the first full-time coach of the England Under-21 squad.
Whether any will play at Wembley on Wednesday night is another matter, but the confidence Glenn Hoddle has shown in the ability of the players to bridge the gap is a vindication of his own insistence on a central role for the Under-21 squad as well as Taylor's commitment to what he terms the "ideal job". You can see what he means. All the fun of searching out and working with the brightest young talent in the game and none of the grey hairs worrying about defeat.
"Don't get me wrong," Taylor explains. "When the players go on to the field, it's important that they want to win badly, but it's not important for me to pick a team just to get a result because that's not going to be good for the development of players trying to get into Glenn's squad. We would say to them, 'yes, play it out from the back and if it goes wrong, don't worry about it'." The important thing, he adds, is to encourage them to do it right now, so it becomes second nature.
Just as he created a corporate image for his clubs at Swindon and Chelsea, Hoddle wants the Under-21 side to mirror his full squad, in terms of tactics and understanding. Like the first team, the Under-21s play with three at the back while attacking, graduating, in theory, to four when the opposition have the ball. The principles remain the same: the tempo is slower, the calculations different.
"All of a sudden, you try the harder pass, you lose the ball and you're defending for five minutes. The role of an Under-21 side is to provide players with as much experience of international football as possible," says Taylor. "They'll find different types of player, different systems. Foreign players make more of certain situations and get more free-kicks. They have to learn how to handle that." Taylor picks his words carefully. "Because he was so good, Michael Owen missed out on a lot of Under-21 matches, but if he'd have had half a dozen perhaps it would have helped him in the long run."
Those who brave the journey to Ipswich on Tuesday should be rewarded with a sneak preview of England in the new Millennium. Players like Wes Brown of Manchester United and Gareth Barry of Aston Villa, who have already broken through into the Premiership, are on the fast track to full recognition.
But the influx of foreign players has forced Taylor to widen his search for potential internationals. Five of the squad - Kieron Dyer, Hayden Mullins, Darren Williams, Matt Jansen and Seth Johnson - come from the Nationwide First Division, one - Nick Weaver - from the Second. Others, Brown, John Curtis and Jody Morris, for example, will have to wait their turn for regular first-team football, a source of some frustration to Taylor.
"I've got no doubt that foreign players are tremendous for the game. I've heard our lads from Sheffield Wednesday talking about the skills Carbone teaches them on the training ground and Jody admires Zola enormously. But it has to be the best, the absolute cream, or our young England players won't be given the chance. We want our players to develop and they can only really do that by playing regular first-team football." Taylor favours further restrictions or, at least, a ruling on a quota of Under-21 players on the bench and a system allowing longer loans. Banning transfers during the season would be a more drastic but equally logical solution.
"We can be interested in a player not in the first teams if we think he will fit into what we're trying to do. I might see a full-back who could make a great wing-back and so we'll give him a chance sooner rather than later. Because we have only four or five days at a time working with the players, they have to be quick learners. I haven't got 52 weeks to drum something into them."
The Taylor-Hoddle connection stems back to their days at Tottenham, Hoddle the provider, Taylor the receiver. The two shared football talk and kept in touch, but it still took a quantum leap for the new England coach to transform the manager of Dover Athletic and head of the centre of excellence at Southend into a critical member of his international team. Recent criticism has not stopped at Hoddle's door. "All of a sudden I keep reading that we're a second-rate backroom staff. It hurts, I'd be a liar if I said it didn't. But I don't think the Under-21s worry if I come from Dover, Dunkirk or flippin' anywhere. They can see what I'm trying to do and how I'm trying to benefit them."
The investment is already beginning to pay dividends. A full England Under-21 team would include Phil Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Owen, all England internationals. Perhaps Hendrie as well after Wednesday. That would be a side worth owning.
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