In the aftermath of another turgid England display against Montenegro midweek, I read a tweet that brought a brief flicker of happiness to my face. The England Under 21 team's success in qualifying for next year's European Championship finals in Denmark means that we are the only one of the "big" European nations to qualify for each of the last 3 European U21 Championships. At a time when Germany are being held up as a prime example of an exciting youthful international side and everyone from Fabio Capello to Harry Redknapp, Dave Whelan to Sam Allardyce feel the need to bemoan the lack of good English talent coming through, it led me to look into the facts a little further.
England's relative success in the last 2 championships (Losing semi-finalists to the eventual winners the Netherlands in 2007 and Runners Up to Germany in 2009) followed two successive failures to reach the finals. This shows that, England are no different from the other larger nations who have all suffered spells where the quality and competitiveness of their young footballers is lacking.
Either side of their success in 2009, Germany failed to qualify in 2007 and have just missed out on 2011. The Netherlands failed to qualify in 2009 after winning the trophy in 2007. France has failed to qualify for the last three finals tournaments and have only made one of the last five. Italy, semi-finalists in 2009, lost their qualifying play-off to Belarus this week. Whilst Spain have failed to qualify for the finals next year and, despite their current senior success, have never reached the semi finals in any of the last 4 tournaments.
Some might suggest that victories in the last 2 tournaments might point towards the success of the Netherlands and Germany in recent major tournaments, but what did become of the players involved in those matches from both sides?
Back in 2007, the fourteen players involved in England's epic 13-12 penalty defeat to the Netherlands in Herenveen included five players who went on to gain full international recognition, with a combined total of over thirty caps to date. Of those David Nugent remains a one cap (one goal) wonder, Baines has played twice and Scott Carson three times. Only Ashley Young and James Milner have made any significant impact at international level.
A look at the Dutch line-up paints a very similar picture. Four players have made the next step, but only two have gone on to ten or more caps, Babel and Maduro. They also, like England have players whose careers have not maintained their early heights. Three of the England team are currently playing Championship football; Lita, Hoyte and Nugent. A fourth, Liam Rosenior is currently without a club.
In the Dutch side, Daniel de Ridder looked an exciting wing prospect only to see his career falter at Birmingham and Wigan. Maceo Rigters joined Blackburn, but after only two appearances commenced unsuccessful loan spells with Norwich and Barnsley and started this season on loan at Willem II back in his homeland.
Even the player of the tournament, Royston Drenthe, subject to a subsequent 14m move to Real Madrid, finds himself viewed as a "problem" player, sent on loan to newly promoted La Liga club Hercules and still without a full cap.
Playing for the Under 21's was a never a guarantee of future success. In each two year spell you see a turnover of players which usually sees half remain for the next tournament, whilst the remainder move on and hopefully move up. Looking at the German team that contested the 2009 final, it shows that it is possible to move up. Nine of the fourteen German players have now gained full caps and a tenth, Seb Boenisch has been capped by Poland after switching allegiance. Five players are in double figures, in terms of senior appearances (Neuer, Ozil, Khedira, Boateng and Schmelzer) although, as is often the case, several players had gained full caps prior to the U21 finals.
What happened to the England team from the final is slightly different. Five players (Richards, Gibbs, Johnson, Walcott and Milner) have made at least one senior appearance. Of these; only Richards, Walcott and Milner are in double figures in terms of appearances, however it is hard to believe that Johnson will not be there soon. Gibbs is clearly the long term replacement for Ashley Cole and it's likely that Jack Rodwell (a used sub in the final) would have had an opportunity by now, had it not been for injury.
It is clear that with an ageing squad, Joachim Low was able to blood many of his young players in a relatively short spell of time. Post South Africa, several pundits and media voices called for a similar overhaul of the England team. Blood the young talent and, accept that Euro 2012 may not be a successful tournament, look to the future. Yet the response seems to be that many of the England team are not ready for the scrap heap just yet and the lack of big club/European experience goes against the young upstarts in terms of getting an opportunity.
Germany's situation was helped by the Bundesliga being a relatively open and competitive league. Five different winners in the last ten seasons and numerous clubs gaining Champions League experience gives young players at a wider range of clubs exposure to big competition at an earlier stage of their career.
Although it is good to see Capello being more willing to give players from outside the top 6 their chance (Cahill and Davies of Bolton as examples), they are not guaranteed to be the mainstays. Phil Jagielka performed well in his two games, but we can be pretty sure that he would have been dropped if both Ferdinand and Terry had been fit to face Montenegro. Yet, if England were looking forward, beyond the next tournament, there is a clear argument for not playing Ferdinand and giving his long term replacement time to bed in.
I don't think that at the moment we are worse off than any other major country in developing young talent and successful teams. It's what happens in the formative years, post youth football, where it seems to go wrong. A lack of club opportunities as much as a lack of international ones. There may not be a never-ending supply of talented players that the coaches would wish to pick from, but if the best young players we have are not blossoming what chance have the late bloomers got.
With the Under 17 European Championship title under our belt and a strong squad available for Denmark 2011, things do look rosy. The kids are alright (in fact they are pretty good); they just need the chance to develop and the chance to show it.