Yes, it’s only the Under-21s but given our shocking record in international youth football (not to mention the heartache dealt out by the senior side on a regular basis every couple of years), this is something to celebrate in itself.
It wouldn’t be wise to tell Stuart Pearce. The man who took England to the semi-finals of the last competition before losing an epic penalty shoot-out has already watched his side slay those demons in this week’s epic semi-final against Sweden. Of course, it’s quite right to suggest that England should never have allowed the host nation back in the contest after scoring three first-half goals without reply.
Still, they showed plenty of character to come through extra time having had a man sent off and Joe Hart did the business both with a good save and, incredibly, converting the second penalty. Those of us who have seen Hart warm up during the tournament would not have been surprised with the manner of his excellent penalty as he appeared to have been practising them in the build-up to the previous games. It is such a shame that a promising goalkeeper should miss out on the showpiece final – having been awarded a nonsense yellow card – but Pearce has the right idea.
The former lion-hearted left back says he doesn’t worry too much about those he’ll be without. Pearce’s choice will between Watford’s Scott Loach or Peterborough’s Joe Lewis to replace Hart, who will be seeing a lot more Premier League football himself with Birmingham City after his loan move was confirmed during the tournament. I like the look of Lewis – he’s been a very good goalkeeper in the lower leagues, is learning all the time and if the only argument agfainst his inclusion is that he hasn’t got the big match experience, then he has to get it sometime.
England will also have to do without Frazier Campbell and Gabby Agbonlahor. While these are setbacks, they are far from devastating blows. We’ve yet to see the best of Theo Walcott, which is somewhat predictable after Arsene Wenger’s protestations over his player’s involvement in the tournament. Plenty of people think that Walcott’s best position will eventually be as a central striker rather than the wide role he seems to inhabit at the moment for Arsenal and England – and in Pearce’s fluid 4-5-1 system, Walcott will get a chance to shine. He’s certainly got the pace to get in behind the German defence.
I’ll finish with a few words about Stuart Pearce. He looked rather out of his depth by the end of his spell at Manchester City, which had begun so promisingly. He has obviously learned an awful lot from being a key member of Fabio Capello’s backroom staff and considers himself ‘inept’ when placed next to the senior manager. That’s not as harsh an assessment as it sounds. Half the Premier League managers (or maybe more) would fail a side-by-side comparison.
Pearce has been talked up as a future contender for the job once Capello’s reign comes to an end. I think it’s a little early for that. Yes, he’s become a lot more assertive as a coach (he has made some vital substitutions in this tournament), but he would probably benefit from a wider range of experience – with a few more years of club management, perhaps at European level or even on the continent – if he wants to be a serious candidate for the job. I wouldn’t be against employing another foreigner as Capello’s successor but it would be a damning indictment of the English game if they wasn’t a native coach waiting in the wings.
All of that is a little bit of a digression from what I wanted to highlight, which is how well England’s youngsters have done. They were certainly drawn in the tougher of the two groups, with Spain and Germany both potentially formidable opponents. England brushed the well-fancied Spanish aside without too much of a problem and have played some sparkling football during the comp[etition. Several players – like Kieran Gibbs, Martin Crainie and Hart – have really shone on the international stage. Let’s hope the team can take the final step against the Germans tonight.