Poor Pearce. He has become a regular Aunt Sally over the dismal failure of the Under-21 England team he managed in Israel. Yet memories are short. It was said that under his aegis the British team put up a dully display in last year’s Olympic tournament. How wrong and how unfair.
That British team, cobbled together at short notice by Pearce, in fact may be said to have surpassed itself, leading its qualifying group, with a 1-0 win against a Uruguay team including two of the world’s most famous forwards in Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez, unbeaten save for the loss 5-4 on penalties against South Korea, only a missed left spot kick in the shoot out by Daniel Sturridge, largely a success, sealing their fate.
As for the demise in Israel, Pearce surely had a valid point when he protested that seventeen potential players were unavailable to him, either through injury or through being pre empted, like Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, by Roy Hodgson’s senior team. It’s been written that taking such players to a mere friendly game was a transgression of priorities. What balder-dash! The friendly in Rio was of great potential significance and if England gained that lucky draw, it had so much to do with the arrival of Oxlade Chamberlain as a lively, confident substitute, scoring a memorable goal. Surely too an invaluable experience for him.
After a Norwegian team which flew in several full internationals from Norway had played a World Cup qualifier, to beat England with style and ease, did not count for something that a stronger England Under-21 team had beaten them twice in the qualifying group?
There was even the resurrection of the full international in Oslo in September 1981 when an effervescent Norwegian team beat Ron Greenwood’s England far more comprehensively than the 2-1 score suggested, with the dazzling attackers Hallvar Thoresen and Tom Lund irresistible. Resurrected too has been the triumphant burbling of an excited Norwegian radio commentator who declaimed, “Mrs Thatcher, your boys took a hell of a beating!” So they had, but it was nothing compared with the debacle under a confused Graham Taylor which came in June 1993 in Oslo in another World Cup qualifier. Taylor’s tactics were a muddle headed disaster and England’s 2-0 defeat a messy humiliation.
As for the Under-21 tournament itself, it has never endeared itself to me. Originally of course it was a tournament for Under-23 teams. Subsequently, a couple of years were lopped off the age, though there was the clumsy compromise of allowing a duo of over aged players to appear in each team. My chief objection to such tournaments was that it would, especially on games abroad, put harsh pressure on inexperienced players.
Now, the ferocious pressures of international football make Under-21 tournaments increasingly a sideshow, though now and then you will get a fine young German team as the exception which proves the rule and provides almost instant reinforcement for the full national side.
Pearce is not perhaps an ideal international manager, as witnessed by the fact that he has never been seriously considered for the top job. His outburst after the defeat by a much superior Italian side – but for goodness’ sake, the margin was only 1-0 – was ill judged. But all in all, there has surely been far too much wailing and gnashing of teeth over what happened in Israel. Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain would have made such a difference.
And now, controversy runs riot. David Bernstein, the soon to retire FA Chairman, has been assailed; though the suggestion that the 2-2 draw in Rio was “meaningless” is surely absurd. Ranged against him, the supporters of Pearce are numerous and noisy. Comparisons are drawn not only with the Norwegian team but with the formidable Dutch who were able to include a platoon of young full internationals. Holland, let it be pointed out, being a country not wealthy enough at club level to swamp its club sides with foreign talent at the expense of native-born players. Bernstein surely had a valid point when he opined, “It (the Rio game) was a very important dry run for the World Cup.”
There has been emphasis on the fact that the Israeli tournament was as a genuine contest irreplaceably significant by comparison with other Under-21 fixtures, presumably including the group games. Yet such qualifiers, when played away from home rather than on a tournament’s neutral ground, are surely demanding.
That young talent is dismally scarce among English footballers is beyond dispute, but that is surely another, worrying matter. And there is little point in trying to improve the coaching system if the Premiership clubs continue to buy up talent from abroad, thereby barring the way to English youngsters.
In an ideal football world, the insane choice of Qatar for the 2022 World Cup finals could lead to the salutary break up of corrupt and putrescent FIFA. It is reported that both Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, that huge disappointment, would be quite happy to see the tournament take place in the European winter. Thereby, to the reported horror of the Premiership’s leading, Richard Scudamore, appalled that such a move would not only subvert his own competition for a year but could have effects for three.
Surely the major European countries will now band together to avoid such chaos and ideally to have the World Cup taken away from a tiny country which should never – so suspiciously – have been awarded it in the first place.