This week sees another international date in world football for FIFA World Cup Qualifiers and a few other meaningless friendlies. In particular, England face European minnows San Marino at Wembley on Friday, and then have a difficult away match in Poland next Tuesday. One of the topics of conversation this past weekend has been complaints from some English-born players at a couple of the Premier League’s smaller clubs that they have given up hope of ever getting a call up to the England senior squad. They feel they are being ignored and their treatment is unfair. I can’t say I disagree with their thoughts. I think England need to replace their current Under21 format with an England ‘A’ squad in order to radically improve the full Senior squad in the long term.
Over the years, club teams have had a pretty well defined structure of development within their squad set up to bring players through from their youth teams all the way up to the senior squad. We usually find that the youth teams are graded by age, for example starting with U12 and moving through the levels up to maybe an U18,U21 level, culminating in the two senior levels which are the Reserve and Senior squads. At this level, age distinctions are abandoned and players are chosen based on sheer ability. However, if we examine the set-ups of many full international squads, there is a similar approach to the youth levels, but strikingly, there is no Reserve squad format, and typically, players migrate directly from the U21 level, right up to the 23-man senior squad.
The comments made last week in England came from Norwich City striker Grant Holt , who has had a pretty good run of form over the last 12 months. He is a striker, and has been prolific, but unfortunately, he is 31 years old so, despite England’s dearth at that position, the likelihood of him ever getting a chance to play for the full England team, is pretty small. Similarly, striker Rickie Lambert of Southampton, who has scored 82 goals in 139 games, we would also think would have warranted a call up to the National squad, again has been ignored. There have been many players who have been ignored by a succession of England managers over the years. One player of note who got lucky was Scott Parker. He was a regular member of the U21 squad but over the next eight seasons, only made three full international appearances. It is only now that his value has been realized, unfortunately in the twilight of his career. What is becoming apparent, is that there is a group of older players that are performing at a high level for their clubs, but are falling into an “age trap” where they are too old to be in the U21 squad, and are too risky because of age to be given a shot in the Senior squad.
What is unique about English football currently is that there are feelings at the top level of the game, with manager Roy Hodgson for instance, that English born players are being allowed fewer opportunities to start for their club sides because of the level of overseas quality players in the English Premier League. For instance, if you look at the England side that recently was held by Ukraine to a 1-1 draw in a World Cup qualifier, you’ll see five players on that team who are not consistent starters for their club side. That is alarming when you think that the England coaching staff have a dwindling number of match fit players to choose from, and that our teams have to compete against the very best in the world under circumstances where expectations are extremely high. Additionally, there is also a group of young players coming through the U21 ranks who do start for their clubs, who need to be moved on faster to elevate their abilities at the international level.
Let’s look at the England U21 squad and see how successful it has been in producing senior players over the years. I randomly chose the England U21 squad that competed in the 2002 European U21 Championships. I was shocked to see that only five players from that squad of 22 players became regular full internationals. They were Paul Robinson, Gareth Barry, Scott Parker, Jermaine Defoe and Peter Crouch. There are a further eight players who played, at most, only a handful of matches for the senior side and then fizzled out. There are also nine players in that squad, who to my knowledge, never pulled on a full England shirt, so how good is the U21 structure in producing top quality international players? Here is another thought too. The last three managers of that team, Howard Wilkinson, David Platt, and current manager Stuart Pearce, are not exactly the most successful people we’ve ever seen in any club’s hot seat. Stuart Pearce has recently said that he doesn’t want the job of England manager, so this structure is not exactly a training ground for future England managers either.
If English football is to ensure that they have the best possible players available at all times, there needs to be a change made at the international level. It would involve the scrapping of the U21 format (which I’m sure Michel Platini would have a heart attack over) to incorporate a Reserve team (call it England ‘A’ if you like) which would be void of age restrictions and would involve a squad of players just below international level and also U21 players who are on the fringe of the full England side. The squad would be of maybe 18-22 players and would be managed by a club manager who is young, English, and who looks to have a possible future at the international level. Managers such as Nigel Adkins, Ian Holloway or Stuart Grayson for instance, would be honored to take that job. The team would assemble with the full England side at St George’s Park and train with the full side. Matches would be played and arranged with other Home countries who wanted to follow suit and also create a Reserve team set-up, or European countries who’s full side had a bye date, or maybe an African team that was looking for matches in England for it’s senior squad. In all, if this team could play 6-10 matches per season, the England coaching staff would get a full assessment and feedback of EVERY player available to them. It would also help with playing time issues for players not starting for their club sides. England coaches would now be able to assess the worthiness of players currently performing well for their clubs to see if they warrant inclusion in the full squad. It would also motivate all English players who would now feel they have a chance at a full England cap through the new system.
Obviously this idea involves a radical separation from the normal structure of football and I don’t believe for one moment that the English FA has the balls to put together something of this nature. It would involve additional expense but I think some of the cost could be covered by the English Premier League. The clubs would benefit because it would allow their fringe players to get valuable competitive playing time on international breaks. If English football is to move forward positively and continue to improve with all of the challenges ahead, then we have to start thinking outside of the box.
This is a great place to start.