Following the previous week’s debate over how ‘English’ a player needs to be in order to consider themselves eligible for the national squad, the focus in the media has shifted back firmly onto the old familiar question of age.
Andros Townsend exceeded expectations in England’s first ‘must-win’ game against Montenegro and in doing so will, fitness permitting, retain his place for their second ‘must-win’ game, in which they entertain Poland.
Townsend has also earned foreboding comparisons between himself and one-time wonderkid Shaun Wright-Phillips, who also scored on his debut during England’s 3-0 friendly victory over Ukraine in 2004. So, big shoes to fill there then.
Regarded owlishly cautious in his tactics by many - Roy Hodgson went some way to overturning his publicly perceived aversion to boldness and risk by giving Townsend his big international break; nothing doing about his owlishness there.
Noteworthy though, is that Hodgson was ultimately forced into making the decision through the injuries of Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon, so it doesn’t wholly signify a revolutionary change of tact from the England manager. Effectively, this left only really Townsend and James Milner in a two-horse race for the spot on England’s right flank.
Looking back, based on Townsend’s performance Hodgson made the correct decision. England might not have won so assuredly without him and the message sent out, that Hodgson was prepared to give inexperienced players a shot, encouraged many. However, under further scrutiny it‘s a message more problematic than it initially seems.
As a player, Milner parallels the essential characteristics of the England manager: a reliable professional and safe pair of hands. With 46 appearances, though, he also tops the list of most capped players at U-21 level and debuted for the senior team at the age of 23, having since gone on to earn 42 caps of which 25 saw him start in the England line-up.
Simplified – maybe impractically so – the purpose of having an Under 21s team is to offer youngsters playing time at a lower level and based on evaluation of their talent and progress bring them up into the senior side.
However, in view of Milner’s record, Stan Collymore has questioned its importance and tweets: "Think the point is, playing well for U-21’s means little when looking at successful seniors. No Gazza, Owen or Rooney in list."
He has a point, but it actually shows what Collymore is calling for – basically fast tracking youngsters into the senior team for competitive tournaments – has really been the system all along, and one that hasn’t led to much success.
Wayne Rooney, for instance earned no caps for the U-21s team. Likewise, neither did Paul Scholes and Gary Neville during their careers. Meanwhile, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole only ever played four times at that level.
What’s worrying are calls for England to intentionally scupper their chances in the upcoming World Cup by taking this system to its extreme in fielding a first team made up mostly of younger players in the hope they develop experience to be taken on to future international competitions.
This suggestion would be dangerous if its supporters had any kind of influence. It’s paradoxically both cynical and naive because it’s based on two assumptions: that England has no chance making any impact in the 2014 World Cup and that the experience would necessarily benefit these young players.
In fact, the reverse might be true. Last year Alex Ferguson commented: “You can play too much football, particularly young players growing and developing physically. That’s exactly what happened with Michael. He would’ve been a far better player if he’d been allowed to improve technically and develop rather than playing all the time.”
This might not apply to players in their early 20s such as Townsend, although incidentally there are currently doubts concerning his fitness for the match with Poland. However, with teenagers like Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley this is one conceivable issue and a key reason why international mangers must be sensible in how they use players of the like.
Ultimately, this kind of dramatic statement would not answer England’s problems. That might more likely require a closer inspection of the infrastructural link between the U-21s squad and the senior side.
The problem is, also, that when it comes to football we conceive landmark ages that aid in categorising players. If you’re under 23, you’re an ‘exciting prospect’. If you’re over 30, you’re a veteran or, in what’s presently a very popular phrase in the media, described as part of the ‘old guard.’
These labels are unhelpful in the way they influence perceptions inside and outside the professional football environment to an inordinate extent. They’re part of the reasons why Frank Lampard’s contract extension was left so long in doubt last season at Chelsea, and why an off-form Martin Skrtel kept Jamie Carragher out the starting line up at Liverpool last season, one ‘veteran’ who kept nine cleansheets during his sixteen starts.
‘Exciting prospects’ tend to illicit much more excitement and often come to be overrated, which eventually lead to disappointment. Elsewhere, ‘veterans’ generally attract the harshest scrutiny when they hit a run of bad form and even when it’s just a bad patch most consider their careers over.
However, it isn’t even true that the England squad is an assembly of dinosaurs. The average age of the current squad has come down since the Fabio Capello era, in which it stood at around 29, and is now closer to 26. During the Euro 2012 competition, England actually had the third lowest average squad age behind Germany and Poland.
The implicit criticism is, rather, that the current side aren’t good enough and its detractors would sooner twist than stick, hoping the next generation become world beaters. The calls from names like Rio Ferdinand, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Collymore are for a major overhaul or a ’10-year plan.’
However – and this kind of optimism isn’t very popular in discussions over the state of English national football team – our full strength team contains the old familiar names of Rooney, Gerrard and Cole and that still makes a decent side.
Admittedly, should England qualify for the world cup, there are at the moment half a dozen, or maybe more, teams in significantly better shape. But isn’t the beauty of tournament competitions that you field your strongest possible team and on your day, with the right luck, worse teams can come out on top?
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