Given the fact that our mighty Fulham are going to go into hibernation for around a month or so ahead of the start of the pre-season, I’ve been wondering what this site should concentrate on for the summer. There isn’t a major international tournament taking place this year, but there are enough things of interest. You can expect Clint Dempsey to represent the United States in the seemingly pointless Confederations Cup as well as the upcoming World Cup qualifiers and thereby seriously undermine his pre-season preparations, but for me the most interesting spectacle will be the European U21 Championships.
There seems to be a pretty take it-or-leave-it attitude to youth football in this country. Other nations place particular emphasis on their youngers sides as it gives talented players their first opportunity to test themselves against the top players in the world. It might be because the brightest English stars have come through their clubs and subsequently burst on the international scene – see Beckham, Owen and Rooney as recent examples – whereas the likes of Lionel Messi got their first international exposure in the international youth tournaments.
Stuart Pearce, who having been something of a disappointment at Manchester City is making a decent fist of bringing on the Under-21s, named his squad for the championships (to be played in Sweden, incidentally) yesterday. On paper, it looks particularly strong. There are full internationals in the shape of Joe Hart, Micah Richards, James Milner and Theo Walcott as well as a few burgeoning stars.
I’ll be interested to see how the likes of Mancienne, Onouha and Tomkins cope with some of the most explosive young talent in the game. There’s genuine creativity in the midfield with the likes of Milner, Adam Johnson, Mark Noble and I’ll be intrigued to see if the young Hearts winger Andrew Driver gets a game. He’s been very impressive on the previous ocassions I’ve watched him. Perhaps the most eye-catching omission is that of Fabian Delph.
The inclusion of Walcott has predictably generated the most headlines given Arsene Wenger’s opposition to his young starlet turning out for the full side and the U21 team during Arsenal’s close season. Sir Alex Ferguson has already championed the case of his promising forward, Danny Welbeck, to Fabio Capello and, although Frazier Campbell’s progression seems to have stunted a little bit Tottenham, the Manchester United boss rates him highly too. Can Gabby Agbonlahor can recapture the form that made him such a threat in the early weeks of the season and looked likely to power Villa to fourth place?
Despite reaching the semi-finals of the last tournament and losing an epic penalty shoot-out to the Dutch, Pearce’s side will have their work cut out if they are to achieve as much this time around. It’s arguable as to which of the two four-team groups are tougher. England will be confident of beating Finland in the competition’s opening game, but tougher tests are ahead in the shape of Spain and Germany. Only the top two sides will reach the semi-finals.
ENGLAND UNDER 21 SQUAD
GOALKEEPERS: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Joe Lewis (Peterborough United), Scott Loach (Watford).
DEFENDERS: Martin Cranie (Portsmouth), Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal), Michael Mancienne (Chelsea), Nedum Onuoha (Manchester City), Micah Richards (Manchester City), Andrew Taylor (Middlesbrough), Steven Taylor (Newcastle), James Tomkins (West Ham).
MIDFIELDERS: Lee Cattermole (Wigan), Andrew Driver (Hearts), Craig Gardner (Aston Villa), Adam Johnson (Middlesbrough), James Milner (Aston Villa), Fabrice Muamba (Bolton), Mark Noble (West Ham), Jack Rodwell (Everton).
FORWARDS: Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Gabriel Agbonlahor (Aston Villa), Frazier Campbell (Manchester United), Danny Welbeck (Manchester United).
Mon 15 June: England v Finland (Halmstad, 5.15pm)
Thu 18 June: Spain v England (Gothenburg, 7.45pm)
Mon 22 June: Germany v England (Halmstad, 7.45pm)
Fri 26 June: Helsingborg, 7.45pm
Fri 26 June: Gothenburg, 5pm
Mon 29 June: Malmo, 7.45pm