Jim White

Capello helps the aged

Jim White

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Patrick Barclay, the doyen of football writers, caused a bit of stir this week by picking an England team which he believed could win the World Cup in the summer of 2010.

It was not so much the inclusion of the perennially crocked Owen Hargreaves at right back that raised a few eyebrows among his many readers at the Times. Nor was it the fact that, on the right side of midfield, he ignored the claims of Theo Walcott and instead selected David Beckham. Walcott, who has been England's most potent weapon of late, was left on the imaginary bench.

No, what stirred hackles was the age of his team. Beckham, who will be 35 by the time the finals kick off next June, would not have felt out of place among a side stuffed with elder statesmen. He was by no means the only one in Barclay's line up who will have faced up to the magnitude of turning 30 long before the competition begins.

David James, Emile Heskey, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will all be up there closing in on the veterans' section, while John Terry, Ashley Cole, Gareth Barry and Hargreaves will all be 28 or 29. Only Wayne Rooney would fly the flag for youth in Barclay's scheme of things. And at 25 he would hardly count as a stripling. People wanted to know: where was the youth? Who was actually going to run with the ball? But then in international sporting competition youth is not always the thing.

Last weekend, Ireland's rugby team completed their nation's first Grand Slam since 1948. For a nation with but 100 professional rugby players it was some achievement. Yet there were many who had been predicting its arrival for years. The reason was a particularly fecund crop of players, known as the Irish Golden Generation. For years, however, they had under-achieved, largely because of untimely injury to several of their number.

Many had said this year was their last chance, now that they were collectively approaching their mid-30s. Maybe it was that incentive that concentrated their minds. Maybe it was the knowledge of their own sporting mortality that propelled them to victory. But probably it was down to collective experience. The knowledge - hewn through years of practice - to know precisely what to do in the heat of things.

These are qualities that would appeal to England's manager Fabio Capello. As is evidenced by the seniority of some of Italy's premier coaches, in that sporting nation age is regarded as a virtue not an encumbrance. It means that the chances are, over the next 16 months, there will be very little experiment by the England boss.

Sure, tomorrow's friendly against Slovakia may see a sprinkling of fresh faces. But when the business end of the competition takes hold, experience will come to the fore. While many a coach might have ditched the English version of the Golden Generation for their serial under-achievement in competitions past, what Capello will be doing is working to develop the collective realisation that this really is their last chance. And that - like the Irish - it is one they had better seize.

What appears now to be certain, however, is that one erstwhile member of that select group has now, finally and conclusively, been ostracised. It appears impossible that Michael Owen, playing in a wholly compromised club, his fitness suspect, his morale shot, will be given his chance for redemption. He will be obliged to watch from the sidelines as those he once led are given their opportunity.

Indeed, with the exception of his strange omission of Walcott (the man after all who can provide the youthful legs for the ageing brains around him) it is hard to argue with Barclay's vision. Next June - should England qualify - the likelihood is it will be the same old same olds. Their fans will be hoping that, finally, this time they play like the Irish.

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