England take on France this evening and start as underdogs. Yet amongst the moaning about tactics and personnel by the media, there is a feeling that a bright future is taking shape...
A ball is yet to be kicked at UEFA Euro 2012, yet already England appear, from the outside, to be imploding – as predictable as it is disappointing. Roy Hodgson’s squad damaged by injury and controversy – the whole set-up a target for criticism and even anger.
On the face of it, all depressingly familiar ahead of a major tournament, but something feels very different – for the first time in a generation this is an England with a chance to be build a proper team, rather than a collection of individuals who preach togetherness but show little sign of it on the pitch – the dismantling of England’s ‘Golden Generation’ is well underway, as much through circumstance as design.
Even after the debacle that was England’s 2010 World Cup campaign, few would have predicted that just 9 members of that squad would also feature at Euro 2012 – change is in the air and there’s a clear nod to youth and fresh ideas.
Of the 23 representing England in Poland and Ukraine, 9 players are 23 years old or under, in a squad with an average of under 26 – compare that to two years ago when Aaron Lennon and Joe Hart were the only players under the age of 24 in Fabio Capello’s selection.
Names like Gerrard, Cole and Terry may still remain, but they represent the last echoes of a time when England’s international side promised so much but continually delivered so little, stifled by an invisible but credible ‘fear-factor’.
As a collective group, this current squad may have far fewer medals and caps than those that went to South Africa, but crucially they won’t suffer from the huge weight of expectation, that for over a decade has pressed hard on the shoulders of almost all who have pulled on an England shirt, helping to stifle undoubted talent.
Players scared to make a mistake, players who excel at club level playing within themselves at international level – expected to make a serious challenge for every major tournament, despite a record that shows just two semi-final appearances since 1966.
This current squad may have far fewer medals and caps than those that went to South Africa, but crucially they won’t suffer from the huge weight of expectation
Precisely that sort of unrealistic expectation / borderline delusion, saw phone-ins and newspaper columns carry strong criticism of England’s Under 21s last summer when they were eliminated from the European Championship during the group stage.
I agree that the manner of their exit, conceding two late goals, should have sparked debate about the seeming mental fragility of English players at major tournaments, but lets get some perspective here.
England were one of only three nations competing in Denmark last summer who also competed in Sweden in 2009, the other two nations were Belarus (semi-finalists ’11) and Spain (winners ’11). Italy, France, Germany, Russia and Portugal were among the major nations who didn’t qualify. It must also be remembered that England reached the Final in 2009, eventually losing to a German side that included the likes of Ozil, Khedira and Neuer.
Whether England are producing talent that can make the step up to senior level as well as those three players have done remains to be seen, but at the time of writing, the current U21 squad is five-points clear at the top of their qualification group for next summer’s tournament.
I think there is further cause for optimism when you look at some of the names who could make a real impression with England at the 2014 World Cup.
Off the top of my head…Joe Hart, Jack Butland, Kyle Walker, Kieran Gibbs, Martin Kelly, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Jack Rodwell, Tom Cleverley, Jack Wilshere, Josh McEachran, Theo Walcott, Adam Johnson, Jordan Henderson, Wayne Rooney, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll.
I’m not for a moment predicting a new ‘golden-generation’ though – and besides, I don’t believe such a tag would be endorsed or pandered to by Roy Hodgson, who may well turn out to be the perfect antidote to the ego driven individualism and celebrity culture that’s got England nowhere in the past.
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