After an embarrassing 3-1 reverse against Italy on Wednesday night, England U21s crashed out of the European Championships, finishing bottom of Group B. It is the third time in as many tournaments that the Young Lions have failed to make it past the group stages and raises the question as to whether it is right to leave the established Premier League stars back in Blighty.
The likes of Raheem Sterling, Jack Wilshere, Phil Jones, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Luke Shaw, despite having represented their country at senior level, were all eligible for the tournament. Their omission from the final 23-man squad by manager Gareth Southgate has been slammed by many high profile pundits, including Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker. The former Golden Boot winner commented on the decision as ‘a wasted opportunity for players to gather invaluable international experience’ and described the approach of the FA as ‘exasperatingly amateurish.’
Don’t pull any punches, Gary.
The Football Association’s director of elite development, Dan Ashworth, defended the decision to leave out the higher profile Premier League players, saying that ‘youth teams are there to help develop players and give them experience to get into the seniors.’ According to the former West Bromwich Albion technical director, it would ‘not be the right thing to do’ to bring the established senior players into the squad for the U21 tournaments, believing it stands the team in better stead to stick with the players that contributed in qualifying rounds. We see your point, Dan, but results don’t lie, and the dismal displays from the U21s at major tournaments over the last six years does not sit well with the footballing faithful.
That said, I urge you not to stick the knife into Southgate and Ashworth just yet. Without the big-boys, there is a distinct lack of quality in the U21 setup, with the majority of the starting XI against Italy plying their trade in the Championship last season. Yes, the buck stops with the gaffer, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to achieve success at youth level with so much money being pumped into the Premier League, resulting in high profile players turning their back on their country. The likes of Raheem Sterling have no right to demand a six-figure weekly salary; he’s yet to do anything of note in his career. The sad truth is that as soon as these teenagers show any innate ability they are inundated with offers and the pound signs start flashing. Even if Sterling had been summoned to the Czech Republic, would he have answered the call?
Of course, you get the likes of Harry Kane who, after a fantastic breakthrough season at Spurs, still wanted to represent the U21s this summer. Regrettably, the stand-in Spurs skipper is in a minority. Is it naïve to expect other top players to have this desire? Probably. When the youngsters get their first major contract, they think they’ve made it in the big time. By all accounts, they’re the first off the training pitch and first on the plane to Tenerife. Should Jack Grealish choose to represent England over the Republic of Ireland, he’d fit right in.
There are too many prima donnas in the modern game. They think that because they’ve represented England at full international level they are too good for the U21s, preferring to rest and prepare for the domestic season ahead. They are losing their hunger. The Premier League appears to have more clout than the FA, with managers of the top clubs having a word in the ear of their superstars advising them not to compete at youth level. It’s a poisonous culture for English football. It has to change.
The question is how do you change it? As per usual, Joey Barton thinks he has the answer. ‘The FA should say to the players that if you don’t make yourself eligible for the under-21s, then you won’t be considered for the national team for a certain number of years.’ Perhaps a tad overzealous, Joey, but the sentiment is there. Until the Premier League falls back into line, and the superstars therein rediscover their pride and passion to pull on that England shirt, at whatever level, we have a bleak future ahead of us.
There is much soul searching needed in the English game.