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Wednesday 22 June 2011

England's U-21 Failure & the Tenure of Stuart Pearce

     The consternation at England’s failure to progress past the group stage of the UEFA U-21 Championship has begun. Questions about the tenure of Stuart Pearce as the manager of the program have arisen. Granted things could always have been done differently as the defensive attitude of holding firm and attacking opportunistically is not necessarily the approach best suited to such a skilled offensive team, but the error lies much deeper than management and tactical plans.

      After progressing through a qualification campaign – only two draws and a single loss – England once again hit a brick wall at the final stage. The trouble began with the Premier League, as do all of England’s woes, when Arsène Wenger and Kenny Dalglish decided that their prized possessions, Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll, would not be spending their summers in Denmark.
     What kind of message does the removal of Carrol and Wilshere send to a team already at risk of mental collapse?
     The exclusion of Andy & Jack sent the message that this tournament was not important enough to give everything, that once one had “made it” there was no need to shine at a junior event. That notion of unworthiness caught on with what should have been potential champion.

     English players, even at the U-21 level, are already wealthy and celebrated. Do they need the pressure and the criticism that international failure brings? The England shirt wears heavy even on experienced professionals. The spectre of inevitable disappointment paralyzes the players, sapping their will to fight, their energy and blurring their goal. 

     Take a look at their competitors, half these kids were never heard of before, half will never be heard from again, but this chance at the world’s stage, to fight for the opportunity to get their head above the parapet was all that they required to step-up, be at their best and shine. That Group A, the less heralded of the two, provided the better display seems counterintuitive, but was markedly apparent.

     That is the beauty of these less-glamourous events, that a smaller nation through strength of will and not population, though play and not politics can rise to the occasion and win. Is that not what the game is about?

     These young players were hoping to earn themselves a move to a bigger club, they were fighting to earn a living out of the game; playing for the pride and to represent their nations and families; the English were merely trying to pass the time as they wait to return to their comfortable positions on the fringes of premier league squads earning astronomical wages, while being promoted as the next big thing without having to prove their worth.

     It would be folly to blame the players though as they are only products of their surroundings. The distraction of the EPL brought forward by the refusal to release those two key players set the mood of the squad and no manager can overcome a flaw such as that.

     Look to Spain, not the much lauded technique, but the attitude. Several players who have cracked the first team, even two World Cup winners, gladly accepted the demotion to represent at the tournament.

     The Spanish seem to have found a joy of playing that has eluded the English game. Perhaps it is just a consequence of natures, but it pervades their game. That penalty kick by Ezequiel Calvente at the 2010 UEFA European Under-19 Football Championship was a sublime piece of ingenuity. The English on the other hand still have that head-down, lunch-pail mentality that discourages a smile, a bit of flair, as unprofessional and superfluous.

     Pearce cannot be judged on a tournament where he has had his hands tied. A manager must be allowed to manage as he sees fit. The impositions put upon him derailed the focus of the squad, which is essential to the workman-like campaign the English endure.

     Though England is a starker place than the sun-baked Spanish landscapes, surely they can find something to smile about. And that is what will change their fortunes, not a new coach.

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