What is the world coming to? Not only was Stuart Pearce positively defiant in the face of England’s humiliating exit at the European Under-21 Championships, but he confidently assured the waiting press that he expects to remain in charge of the country’s primary development team. It is a “long-term plan,” said the former Manchester City manager. “I’ve been very impressed with him, absolutely,” said FA chairman David Bernstein. Neither, it seems, has a sense of irony.
Indeed, Pearce’s continuance as Under-21’s manager might be laughable but for the FA’s propensity to thoroughly, and repeatedly, botch youth development over the past 30 years. After all, Howard Wilkinson’s ‘Charter for Quality’, published in 1997, followed the FA’s ‘Blueprint for the Future of Football’ in 1991. If Pearce’s England Under-21 side is any evidence, neither did much for the technical or tactical nous of the country’s young stars.
The latest course of action – dubbed the Elite Player Performance Plan – will allow academies to increase coaching hours, while the artificially restricted geographical remit is now loosened. Controversially, EPPP will also lead to many youth development programmes closing at smaller clubs.
Comprehensive defeat on Saturday against Norway followed England’s loss to Italy in the opening round of games, leaving the Young Lions out of the U21 tournament before the group stage concluded and yet another inquiry into quite how badly youth development has stalled in the country in the offing.
Worse still, not only did 51-year-old Pearce’s team lose twice in Israel over the past week, but his side’s direct approach was eerily reminiscent of Charles Hughes’ destructive long-ball folly, to a nation’s eternal embarrassment.
Meanwhile, Pearce blamed anybody else but himself for the failure: his players for their performances and the FA for allowing Jack Rodwell, Kyle Walker, Phil Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck to travel with the full team for a friendly against Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
“If you don’t bring your best then you have to take your chance,” said the England Under-21 coach ahead of Norway’s 3-1 victory on Saturday. “To be successful at senior level you have to qualify with the best team, you have to take your best team to the tournament and you have to give young players as much tournament experience as possible.”
The challenge of development isn’t England’s alone – Manchester United, so famed for bringing young players through to the first team under Sir Alex Ferguson, boasts just three players – Wes Brown, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck – who have graduated to full England international colours since the early 1990s.
In an increasingly globalised market United’s search for talent has progressed ever farther overseas. Indeed, the Reds’ under 21 and academy sides now boasts a dozen players not qualified to play for England. Last season United triumphed in the Under 21 Premier League but of the nine players used during the 16 game campaign do not qualify for England. Building on the theme, United’s reserve team player of the year was the outstanding young Belgian Adnan Januzaj.
The club isn’t alone in the policy of recruiting from all markets. According to widely report data released by the Swiss-based CIES Football Observatory only 35 England-qualified players younger than 21 made appearances in the Premier League last season, the lowest figure since 2005. There is little reason to believe that the trend will reverse in the coming seasons.
Youth development in England mirrors the Premier League as a whole with 62.3 per cent of players in the division not qualified to play for the English national team. By contrast the Bundesliga, which can boast two Champions League finalists this season, is 22.6 per cent non-German. In Spain 37.3 per cent of players are from overseas; France it is 42.2 per cent and Italy 53.8 per cent. There are, on average, 17 overseas players at each Premier League club.
But in that observation comes a question: what incentive is in place to alter the policy, with millions in television and sponsorship revenue on the line driving the insatiable demand for immediate success? Or, indeed, why should there be. After all, the Premier League product has suffered not for the internationalisation of talent over the past two decades. Nor, one suspects, do club supporters genuinely care where the players representing ‘their’ club hail from.
At United the relative failure to blood English talent since David Beckham, the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes broke into Sir Alex Ferguson’s team is supplemented by young talent from further afield. Jonny Evans, Rafael da Silva, Anderson and David de Gea each debuted as teenagers. Meanwhile, England defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were acquired for a fee totalling around £30 million, and Wilfried Zaha joins for £15 million this summer.
There is hope though for those English fans of the more optimistic bent – a potential Under 21 front six of Welbeck, Zaha, Oxlade-Chamberlain, together with Raheem Sterling, Tom Ince and Jack Wilshere bodes well for future national success. Add Walker, Smalling and Jones into the mix and England might field a talented side come the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Pearce, on this evidence, is unlikely to be anywhere near the top job, with former United trainee Michael Appleton reportedly the favourite to take over at Under 21 level. The 37-year-old worked as assistant manager for Roy Hodgson at West Bromwich Albion.
United, meanwhile, will continue to recruit youth from all markets, including David Moyes’ first signing the Uruguayan right-back Guillermo Varela. The 20-year-old joins from Atlético Peñarol in a deal worth up to £2.4 million and will feature at the Under-20 world championships, which take place in Turkey from 21 June to 13 July this summer.
Time will tell if he is another da Silva or another Bebe. Either way, he won’t be turning out for England.