Back to the Future – England’s horizon looks uncertain after poor U21 showing

Picture the scene:

England’s U21 squad return to a major airport after their dismal performance in Israel, accruing no points, scoring one goal, and conceding five. Let’s assume Heathrow for the purposes of fluency.


England Under 21's in action at Carrow Road, Norwich. Photo: Angmering (via Wikimedia)

There is no awaiting crowd, nothing more than a few interested onlookers. Maybe a few blokes ask for autographs, but it’s reluctantly, “Sorry Wilfried, could I trouble you for a signature?” Nobody approaches Jordan Henderson.

This is of course hypothetical, but it is also where England’s stars would perhaps realise that the money and the potential only go so far. No return party. Not so much as a Toblerone from the duty free.

I write this in the aftermath of Spain’s crushing 4-2 victory over Italy in the U21 European Championship final. Spain’s senior squad went two goals better in the senior final last year, beating Italy 4-0. Spain’s youth have time to learn though.

The future’s bright for the Spanish. In fact it’s searing into most of our proverbial retinas. The outlook is bleak in contrast for England.

Many expected more. More from the big names in the squad such as William Zaha, Jordan Henderson, Jonjo Shelvey, Conor Wickham, Tom Ince… But perhaps this is where we are deluding ourselves.

I considered creating some original points on England’s failure, but the reasons may be little more than this: perhaps we are performing at our top level.

Let’s face some pretty unrelenting facts. The last final England appeared in was almost 50 years ago. Of course, we won it, but we’ve seen no more than a solitary world cup semi final since, and one more in Euro ’96. Poland put up two 3rd place finishes in world cups since our finest hour, so why should we expect any more?

Many blame the Premier League, and it’s possible that with an increasing amount of foreign influence, both on the pitch and off it, English players aren’t being given the chances they once were.

It’s certainly a suggestion that has merit, but then Mr Pellegrini could hardly be blamed if he decided to buy Isco for £22 million, when players like Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing went for only marginally less, and a certain Andrew Carroll almost doubles that figure. “I’ll take the technically proficient Spanish maestro please Mr Scudamore.”

It’s like when Freddos went up to 20p. None of us were having that, were we?

The suits have pointed to the £100 million investment in St George’s Park as a step forward, but I don’t feel any better as a player. They’re investing money at the wrong end, where 10,000 clubs could have had £10,000 worth of investment instead; it boggles the mind.

Finally though, our football culture is wrong. To demand results at U11 level is to effectively hand the captain’s armband to the giant kid. Unless you’re a technical genius like Messi was aged 7, the technical players won’t get a chance to shine, while Johnny Bruiser, the six foot, nine year old striker scores 40 a season.

You’ve only got to look at Spain’s football to understand the difference, because I find myself inadvertently smiling when I watch the quick football of the diminutive Iniesta, Fabregas, Xavi and co. It’s joyful, and England’s isn’t.

Perhaps we need to feed some of that fun back into our youth systems. Remove competitive fixtures until U11 level and teach keepy up drills, close ball control and one touch football. I know we all celebrated when Roy’s tactical masterstroke of Andy Carroll up front against Sweden worked, but were we really happy?

Football is fun. You only have to look to the beaches of your host nation for 2014 to realise that. So until our teams are encouraged to play with a smile on their faces and flair in their step, we might have to realise that we’ve got little more than the ‘plucky outsider’ tag to go on, and what’s left of a vintage world cup victory that is fading in the memory quicker than ever.

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