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Tuesday, November 20, 2007
ESPNsoccernet: November 21, 4:23 PM UK
Youngsters show McClaren how to do it

As England's senior team have struggled with qualification for the Euro 2008 championships this summer, the English Under-21 side have quietly gone about their business.

A 1-1 draw against Portugal on Tuesday all-but confirmed their place in Sweden for 2009 with two games remaining spare and ensured that they remain unbeaten after six qualifying games with five wins and just one draw.

In contrast to Steve McClaren's men Stuart Pearce's young charges have been in impressive form of late; with the goal against Portugal the first the U21s have conceded since August 21, which itself was an own goal in the friendly with Romania.

In fact, so good have Pearce's side been, that McClaren has sought to bring a few of them into his own squad in order to inject some youthful enthusiasm into the team.

Indeed, while the senior side were dropping points in Russia, the U21s were busy destroying the Republic of Ireland 3-0; helping them to maintain their 100% record in their qualifying campaign without even a blemish in the 'Goals Against' column.

As the seniors were forced to watch their fate unfold, somewhat fortuitously, with an Israeli win over Russia; Pearce has no such problems and can afford to sit back after claiming the necessary points in a tough away tie against Rui Cacador's Portugal.

Now with only the home games against the Republic of Ireland and the Portuguese again to contend with, Pearce can afford to experiment and bring through some of the players who have not had a chance to shine. The very definition of qualifying with ease.

It has been a comprehensive campaign so far for the U21s, who lost to Holland in the semi-finals of the Euro 2007 tournament after an epic penalty shoot-out, and Pearce is certainly fortunate that many of his youngsters are getting a taste of regular football with their clubs in the Premier League.

The likes of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Joe Hart and James Milner have established themselves as mainstays for both club and country, with the 34-cap Milner having already broken the record for the number of U21 appearances, and this has helped their international development.

Goalkeeper Hart has surprised many by jumping to the top of the Manchester City pecking order, ahead of established Sweden international Andreas Isaksson and relegating Kasper Schmiechal to another Championship loan move, this time with Cardiff. Pulling off some stunning saves, the giant 20-year-old has been the rock around which the English defence has been built - something that McClaren cannot claim to have given the recent form of Tottenham's error-prone stopper Paul Robinson.

Indeed Hart's predecessor in the U21s, Scott Carson, looks likely to take over from Robinson in the senior side for the foreseeable future, and if he continues to impress in the Premier League, then Hart won't be far behind him.

Arguably though, the jewel in Pearce's crown has been Arsenal youngster Theo Walcott. Producing a Man-of-the-Match display against Bulgaria, Walcott is back to his best form after shoulder surgery in the summer, despite only featuring in 13 games for the Gunners so far this season, and has been a constant thorn in the side of U21 defences.

Boasting incredible pace, the 18-year-old has shown glimpses of the talent that saw former England coach Sven Goran-Eriksson put him on a plane to Germany for the 2006 World Cup, but is yet to prove himself consistently at the highest level.

McClaren has not shown the kind of bravery over selection that the Swede displayed (although Eriksson never actually played Walcott in the competition); and many have suggested that with England's current striking crisis, the Arsenal youngster or Villa's Agbonlahor could warrant a call-up based on their current form.

Not that Jermain Defoe or Darren Bent need worry. While Pearce would happily admit that his side are just a stepping stone to the senior squad, as David Bentley and Ashley Young have shown already, he can hardly claim that McClaren has stolen all of his options.

The likes of Wayne Rooney and Micah Richards may have side-stepped the U21s with relative ease and headed straight into first-team contention, but others have blossomed from playing under Pearce.

Mark Noble, who would struggle to compete with the established midfield partnership of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in McClaren's eyes, has excelled alongside Manchester City's Michael Johnson and brings stability to the central area as well as a potent goalscoring threat.

Johnson, too, has shown himself more than capable of commanding a place in the side with some impressive early season form for Man City. Furthermore, he could probably claim, on current evidence, to be ahead of former City midfielder Joey Barton in the England pecking order. But then Barton has had other things on his mind.

Add into the equation the likes of captain Steven Taylor, plus Tom Huddlestone, Craig Gardner and Matt Derbyshire and you have a number of players who could easily force themselves into contention for the full squad in the future; especially given the mediocre form of Michael Dawson, Stuart Downing and Jermain Defoe, who have all been part of McClaren's previous squads.

While McClaren's men have stumbled en route to Austria and Switzerland, a quick glance over their shoulders will reveal a host of youngsters keen to prove themselves worthy of taking over the mantle. And it won't just be the players who will be wary of their futures.

Manager Stuart Pearce has all the ingredients to suggest that he could become a popular future England manager; he is a breath of fresh air in post-match press conferences and is not the type to pander players egos, take his forthright criticism of David Bentley after the player refused to travel to the Euros in the summer.

While Pearce's Manchester City record is nothing to shout about, internationally he seems to have found his niche - losing only once in his eleven games in charge.

In terms of man management and motivation, few come close to Pearce's unique style. He is a fans' favourite given his England pedigree as a player and he certainly cannot be accused of lacking any passion for his country either. Crucially, too, his results speak for themselves.

Still, management issues aside, with national disbelief over England's well-documented struggles in the Euro 2008 qualifying stages, it comes as a relief that there is one England team who have lived up to expectations, at least for now.

If Pearce's youngsters can continue their progression towards the winning of a major trophy in 2009, then it won't be long before England's senior side has a distinctly youthful look to it.


  • Any comments? Email Jon Carter


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