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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Nov 14, 2006

Young, gifted and English

England's failure to reach the top echelons of modern international football is directly linked to the lack of technical players coming through the ranks, according to Sir Trevor Brooking, these days the Football Association's Director of Football Development.

It is a diagnosis that the former England captain, whose mission whilst at the FA is to improve the skill levels among young English players, reiterated ahead of Wednesday's international friendly between England and Holland at the Ajax Arena.

It is a match in which England manager Steve McClaren has to banish the memory of the 2-0 debacle in Zagreb, when Croatia accentuated England's shortcomings, before recommencing his Euro 2008 qualification bid against Israel in March.

But as if to highlight the dearth of flair players available for the national team's latest campaign Brooking suggested that only three young players have the potential to show the level of ability needed to outwit opponents at the top level; Wayne Rooney, Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott.

Rooney's quality is well documented, Lennon's impact as a substitute at the World Cup certainly contributed to the demise of David Beckham's international career and although Walcott is largely untested, and his inclusion debateable, former England manager turned pundit Sven Goran Eriksson recently commented that he took the youngster to the Finals because the remaining strikers were simply not good enough.

Brooking suggests that one reason for the apparent scarcity of talent is that young players are having their individuality coached out of them during an early stage in their development. Competitive matches and a misguided importance placed on the Under 13's winning the tin-pot league are some of the problems, the solution could be to focus on developing the individual rather than the team at this formative stage.

It is a view shared by Southampton's former head of sports science Simon Clifford who once boasted that 'in the future I will own the England team' as it will be comprised of players produced via his grassroots Brazilian Soccer Schools (BSS).

A bold statement, but if 18-year-old Manchester City right-back Micah Richards plays any part in the match in Amsterdam he will become the first senior England player to emerge from Clifford's facsimile of the Brazilian system.

Richards joined the BSS as an 11-year-old after moving to Leeds, where the first school was founded in 1996, from Birmingham and continued to attend the academy following his move to the Citizens in 2005 - the same year he scooped the club's Most Promising Player of the Year Award. The level-headed youngster famously told the Man City reserve team coach he wouldn't be coming back when he was first called up to train with the senior squad, and he never did.

Not only has Richards remained in the first team squad at Eastlands but he has become a regular in the starting eleven and has been tipped for an England cap since the start of the 06/07 season. It remains to be seen if the England Under 21 will make the same of his first opportunity with the senior team.

Given the mass withdrawals from McClaren's squad - eight of his initial 28 man squad have now been declared unavailable - it is highly likely that the athletic defender will get a taste of the action. Gary Neville, England's regular right-back, has yet another muscle strain and Richards could yet start.

It is always difficult to find something of interest in these international friendlies, the focus was on Lennon, who has only been available to McClaren for the first match of his tenure and was widely tipped for a starring role on Wednesday, but the Tottenham winger has fallen foul of a knee injury and now the limelight may fall on his fellow U21 graduate.

Richards could become the much-needed understudy to Neville and has certainly impressed club boss and former England fullback Stuart Pearce with a series of indefatigable displays of athleticism and power in the Blues rearguard since making his debut against Arsenal in 2005. The youngster has become a fearsome defender but many who have coached him suggest he will end up as a central midfielder where he can display his full array of skills and ability with the ball at his feet, although Richards himself prefers to play as a striker.

Whether the versatile technician can become the fourth youngster to force his way alongside Brooking's aforementioned trio remains to be seen. His impact for England in Amsterdam depends on McClaren's conviction to learn something from the match against a highly technical Dutch side or to simply go through the motions. Most benefit would be derived from starting Richards at right-back, ahead of the tried and tested Carragher, rather than introducing him in a second-half inevitably punctuated by stoppages and substitutions.

Likewise, McClaren must decide whether to give Everton striker Andy Johnson a start or stick with a strikeforce that has failed to score in the past two internationals. The speedy 26-year-old may be suffering a slight goal-drought after his explosive start to the Premiership season, but it is important to ascertain whether he has the ability to pin back defenders to allow Rooney to operate in the space behind - something both Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch have failed to do.

The addition of those two players, and the return of Joe Cole on the left flank, to the usual suspects would give some kind of meaning and focus to a match that otherwise could become yet another tedious friendly. The fans would surely applaud McClaren's decision to do so but given the poor 0-0 draw at home to Macedonia and the 2-0 defeat in Croatia in the last two matches this game has become a test of the former Middlesbrough boss's credentials as an international manager.

Whilst defeat would not affect his position as coach it would certainly make for an uncomfortable few months before England's next friendly against Spain in February and the resumption of qualifying in March....but at least he would have the genuine excuse of experimentation. Isn't that what friendlies are for?

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.