The demographic of English football has changed drastically in recent times. The influence of Johnny Foreigner we know about, but the emergence of Joe Bloggs Jr has also been noticeable.
There have not been so many young players in the English game for a long time, perhaps even since the early 1900s. That development, possibly a consequence of the success of Manchester United’s Class of 92, has spread to the national side. In the last 20 years, 20 English teenagers have made their international debuts; in the two decades before that, just two did so.
There is a far greater awareness of and enthusiasm for the unique qualities of youth, particularly in attacking areas. Yet a residual conservatism and mistrust has not completely disappeared. The latest evidence of that were Roy Hodgson’s well intentioned but clumsy and thoroughly dispiriting comments about Ross Barkley after last week’s friendly against Ecuador. After Barkley’s exhilarating performance, it was akin to telling someone to keep it down during an orgasm.
There is a slight paradox in the prioritisation of youth, because it comes at a time when coaches are more obsessed than ever with the things youth will not give them: discipline and tactical control. Such concerns, though more widespread, are nothing new. Before he was England’s best player at Italia 90, Paul Gascoigne had many public rebukes from Bobby Robson. “We need two balls – one for him and one for the team,” Robson said after a match against Albania. “And at one time I thought he was going to play in the front row of F Stand, because he played all over the pitch except the position I told him to play in. But we do have a precocious talent.”
That last bit was the clincher. Gascoigne became more associated than Robson with any other footballer. At the end of the semi-final against West Germany in 1990, Robson poignantly told a tearful Gascoigne: “Don't worry, you've been one of the best players of the tournament. You've been magnificent. You've got your life ahead of you – this is your first.”
It was also his last. Gascoigne never played at a World Cup again, and serves as a reminder that there are so many variables in football that is is dangerous to make any assumptions about a player’s career. When Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, both 18, played with outrageous, brilliance at France 98 and Euro 2004 respectively, it was widely assumed they would repeat those successes over the following decade. Yet neither had anything like the same impact at major tournaments again, and Rooney is too far past his best to repeat it now.
It is often said that picking young players is an investment in the future, yet the modern history of English football shows that it is not necessarily the case. It’s an investment in the present, because we have no idea what shape a career might take. The received wisdom that players peak in their late 20s has been challenged enormously in the last decade of two. Certainly most of England’s most eye-catching performances at major tournaments since the mid 1990s have come from young players at their first tournament: Rooney and Owen are the obvious examples, but there are plenty of others: Aaron Lennon’s strangely forgotten brilliance in 2006, Steve McManaman at Euro 96, Jamie Redknapp’s game-changing cameo against Scotland at the same tournament.
Young players do things differently, for richer and poorer. Raheem Sterling and Barkley in particular play with a directness and fearlessness which, in the context of the established norms and mores of top-level football, verges on the anarchic. That thrilling disrespect for their elders will not always be there: Ferris Bueller surely got a boring office job when he grew up. There comes a time when all players subconsciously sell out – those playground ambitions fade and they start taking the safer option. Intrepidness gives way to trepidation, the forward pass to the sideways pass. There is no guarantee Sterling and Barkley will still have that playground mentality at the next European Championship, never mind the next World Cup.
There is no suggestion Hodgson should simply throw a load of kids in, because Alan Hansen was essentially right. But there is always room for a wildcard, and if Hodgson does not start one of Sterling and Barkley – and have the other as at the front of the cab rank of substitutes – England will probably submit to the same mundane failure as in 2006 and 2010. At Euro 2012 that approach was fair enough, given the mess Hodgson inherited and the paucity of talent. Here it is not.
There are huge risks with young players, of course; they will make mistakes and they might get into trouble with referees, as David Beckham did in 1998 and Sterling did last week. The failings of older players – caution, fear, battle-scarred weariness – are morally acceptable, whereas those of young players are not. This is a society in which maturity is an almost entirely positive word, and immaturity almost entirely negative - even though, in reality, there is plenty to be said for immaturity and plenty to be said against maturity.
It’s an unavoidable trade-off that is evident in life, never mind football: for every advantage of ageing there is also a disadvantage. Sterling and Barkley should become more rounded players in time, but they will lose that raw, visceral edge. There is a reason why plenty of people regard Mean Streets as Scorsese’s best film: it’s not his most rounded or accomplished work, but it is his most exhilarating.
The balance of a side is important, and not just in the tactical sense. You need a balance of types and of ages. Young players bring something completely different. The risks of including them are surely worth taking. Although Beckham ended France 98 in debit, he never played better for England at a major tournament. And if you take Beckham and Owen as a youthful pair, representative of a different philosophy, it was palpably a triumph. Not least because people remember that England team with considerable affection.
This is important. England are not going to win the World Cup, and it’s surely preferable to try to achieve something memorable than to continue their era of Groundhog Tournament by sleepwalking to another quarter-final defeat on penalties. Up until 2006 England’s exits from major tournaments were generally categorised as heroic or glorious failure, with one skulldugerous or incompetent foreigner singled out for blame, be it a referee or Cristiano Ronaldo. Since then there has been a new mood of acceptance – Frank Lampard’s ghost goal prompted little outrage, because everyone knew England had stunk the tournament out. There were no recriminations at Euro 2012 after a worthy performance from a limited team.
In the last three World Cups England have scored 15 goals in 14 games. There is a burgeoning sense that what matters is not what England do, but how they do it. The success of teams at the World Cup is not ranked simply by how far they get: look at the enduring impact of Denmark 1986 and Romania 1994, for example.
A noble exit from a very tough group playing controlled attacking football, with one or two moments sufficiently memorable that they will pop up on BBC3 list shows in decades to come, would probably be a greater success than another tedious struggle to the quarter-finals. Young players engender an excitement and a goodwill like no others, and they also give experienced defenders the fear. England cannot lose sight of that.
Rob is covering England for us during the World Cup. You can buy his book, 'Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team', which is out now.
- Sports & Recreation
- Paul Gascoigne
- Ross Barkley
- Bobby Robson
- Raheem Sterling
- Roy Hodgson
- Michael Owen