Young Lions: A Bright White Future?

The Young Lions overcome the curse of the penalty shootout in Sweden.

The Young Lions overcome the curse of the penalty shootout in Sweden.

With England’s Under 21s set to face off against Germany in the European Under-21 Championship Final, English fans could be forgiven for hoping that the future is bright for the national side. After the heartbreak of missing out on Euro 2008, England have bounced back, inspired by Fabio Capello and Stuart Pearce and are in the middle of a far more successful 2009. The question is though, regardless of the result in the final, can England’s talented crop of youngsters fulfill their potential and give England success at senior level?

Their success in this tournament is no one-off either, after they lost at the semi-final stage on penalties to eventual winners and hosts the Netherlands two years ago, and indeed that is their only defeat in seventeen matches since Pearce has been in charge. However, even with such potential evident in England’s younger players, we must acknowledge that success in the youth grades is no guarantee that the senior side will follow suit in the near future, after all the ‘golden generation’ failed to deliver entirely on the big stage.

However, while I want to avoid going overboard in my appraisal of the relative success of this young side, it’s important to not write them off entirely. While it is true that many players who star at youth level never make an impact later in their careers, many do go on to establish themselves in the senior side. A perfect example of this are the joint top scorers at U21 age level for England: Alan Shearer and Francis Jeffers, who both notched 13 times in their U21 careers.

Obviously Shearer was one of, if not the, greatest centre forward of his generation and led the line for England for many years at the top level, as well as establishing himself as a legendary goalscorer in the Premier League. Franny Jeffers on the other hand, burst onto the scene in a blaze of glory with Everton before chasing the cash to become Wenger’s ‘fox in the box’ becoming one of Wenger’s rare failures and has faded pretty much to obscurity after earning a solitary full cap, against Australia (though he did bag a goal).

It’s clear then that some players who make the grade at U21 level will never fulfill our expectations of them, and so the good form being shown by the current U21 crop is certainly no guarantee that the future for England is bright. However, a lot of the players in Pearce’s side are already quite experienced at Premier League level and even have some senior caps under their belt, and that can only be a promising sign.

The likes of Mark Noble, James Milner, Theo Walcott, Gabby Agbonlahor and Micah Richards have been playing Premier League football for a few seasons, while others such as Joe Hart, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Rodwell have also shown that they can step up to that level. This suggests then that a reasonable amount of the current crop of youngsters are more likely to turn out like Shearer than Jeffers, or at least, look set to have long careers in the top flight.

It is not just the players that seem to have a lot of promise either, as though it seems a popular pass-time to lament the failures of English managers at present, Stuart Pearce is quietly going about his job and is clearly doing very well. He has taken risks in this tournament, leaving Walcott, arguably his star man, on the bench a couple of times but such moves have payed off, and he’s got players playing really well as a team.

And while his time in charge of Manchester City wasn’t exactly successful, I always thought that Pearce showed a lot of potential as a manager during his time there, and while he probably wasn’t ready for such busy day to day management at the top level, I think he has the necessary discipline and tactical prowess to go on and have a long and successful managerial career.

What’s more, he’s established a close working relationship with Fabio Capello who is of course one of the most highly thought of managers in world football and is busy doing a really good job with the full England side. Working with Capello will give Pearce an excellent learning opportunity and establish him as a serious contender to follow on from the Italian when he decides that his time in England comes to an end, and that could see him graduate to the senior side along with a number of the players who he is currently in charge of, giving him a chance to retain a close relationship with his players.

What’s more, the youngsters in the U21 squad look to have overcome England’s oldest adversity: the penalty shootout. After giving up a 3-0 lead to be taken to penalties by Sweden in the semi-final, England were almost perfect in their spot-kicks, with only James Milner missing, but that was the first penalty and he was completely undone by a slippery pitch, á la Beckham and JT. Given that since 1996 England has been eliminated on penalties in four of the six major tournaments they’ve qualified for, a mastery of the shootout is indeed a good sign.

So whatever happens when the Young Lions line up against England’s other oldest enemy Germany in the Euro U21 Championship Final in Sweden today, I think we can be forgiven for being slightly optimistic about England’s future. The current crop of U21 players certainly have a lot of potential and already a lot of experience between them, so the raw materials certainly seem to be available for England to look forward to a brighter future than we’ve had in recent years.

Of course, the development of those young players relies very strongly on the opportunities they are afforded at club level, and so in many ways the future of England’s national team lies in the hands of the (mostly foreign) managers in the Premier League. If they are willing to give youth a chance and let youngsters develop and learn their trade at the top level, then England’s current youngsters could actually fulfill their potential and deliver the success we expected of the golden generation. Thus, England being England, we can take absolutely nothing for granted, but it sure would be nice if the Young Lions can get one over on Germany today and bring home some long awaited international silverware.

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