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Age of ascent

Theo Walcott has made a unique backward step – making his England Under-21 debut after playing for the senior side. But, asks Csaba Abrahall, what’s the point of the junior team?

Thirty years ago this month, an England team featuring Ray Wilkins, Glenn Hoddle and, um, Steve Sims took on Wales at Molineux in their country’s first Under-21 international. A European Under-23 tournament had taken place in various formats since 1967, but UEFA felt the gap between Under-18 and Under-23 football was too large and opted to fill it by lowering the age limit leading up to the 1978 European Championship.

UEFA’s ambitions for Under-21 football, a largely European phenomenon, are quite clear. Their website speaks of an “elite finishing school” providing a “stepping stone from youth football up to the full international stage”, but its success in achieving that aim is debatable.

Of 566 players with England Under-21 caps, 158 have gone on to represent the senior side (and a couple more have earned full international recognition with other countries, notably Scotland’s Nigel Quashie). For every Under-21 team England have put out, therefore, on average only three of the players have progressed to the seniors, leaving hundreds who have not made the step up and in many cases were never likely to.

Some showed genuine early promise that was never fulfilled – Chris Vinnicombe’s performances at Exeter earned him a move to Rangers and 12 Under-21 caps before he found himself back at St James Park via Burnley and Wycombe. But most fail simply because they were making up the numbers and weren’t that good in the first place. Mich D’Avray may have stood in adequately for Paul Mariner at Ipswich on occasions, but his obvious limitations made his section for England Under-21s somewhat baffling, particularly as he is South African.

A decent player who does not progress as hoped can become an Under-21s fixture, consistently good enough to do a job at that level but destined never to earn a senior call-up. Gary Owen’s 22 Under-21 caps were spread over a remarkable seven seasons (when a number of over-age players were permitted), but though he was regularly at the heart of the England midfield on my Subbuteo table, he never was in real life.

David Prutton is the surprising holder of the record for most appearances without earning a full cap, with 25, but James Milner is closing fast. He has 21 caps so far and will still be eligible for the 2009 European Championship, giving him a good chance of overhauling the overall Under-21 ­appearance‑record holders, Gareth Barry and Jamie Carragher, who have 27 each.

It’s virtually impossible to make a case for an average player having made the transformation into a successful full international thanks to experience gained with the Under-21s. Frank Lampard was capped 19 times at that level, but his development was surely more to do with his move to Chelsea than his Under-21 experience.

Even if a player is an unqualified success at Under-21 level, it is no guarantee of progression to the senior team. Darren Bent’s outstanding record – nine goals in 14 appearances, most of which were from the bench – has failed to earn him an opportunity in a competitive full international.

Still, the majority of full internationals have seen service with the Under-21s. Of England’s 50 most-capped senior internationals of the last 30 years, all but seven have followed that route. Of the 2006 World Cup squad, only three had not played for the Under-21s and one of those, Theo Walcott, has done so since (his regression from the England ­seniors to the Under‑21s is a unique feat).

So the Under-21s do produce senior internationals, but to an extent that is inevitable. With an increasing number of fixtures and multiple substitutions, there are a lot of Under-21 caps to give away to a restricted pool of players. It often seems that anyone at an established club who is young enough and English enough will get their chance. Consequently, it’s very difficult to become a senior international without first gaining some Under-21 experience.

Those that have done so are exclusively either those who came to prominence only once they were too old for Under-21 duty – such as Ian Wright and Gary Lineker – or those whose early development saw them fast-tracked into the senior side. Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney never had to trouble themselves with a Tuesday night encounter with Finland at Barnsley.

The effectiveness or otherwise of Under-21 football at producing full internationals is difficult to prove but, increasingly, that seems unimportant as both UEFA and the public demonstrate growing commitment towards it. Since 1994, the European Championship has featured a finals tournament in a host country. Now moved to odd-numbered summers to alternate with the seniors’ European Championship and the World Cup, its standing can only improve.

England’s matches are played in front of sizeable crowds – 34,494 saw France at Tottenham in 2005 – and a live TV audience. In contrast to the senior side, the big-club dominance of which can alienate many, the Under-21 team is accessible and inclusive. Venues used range from Brisbane Road to Highbury; players used have represented clubs from Grimsby to Bayern Munich. England Under-21 sides featured black players long before the senior side did (Laurie Cunningham was the Under-21s’ first goalscorer) and Michael Chopra’s cap means there has already been British Asian representation. England have even had some success. European champions in 1982 and 1984, they are among the favourites for the 2007 tournament, having recently seen off Germany and beaten the hosts and holders, Holland. History shows that most will not progress to full international level, but England’s representatives will be the focus of much attention next summer.

It may not be UEFA’s stated intention, and it might surprise those who saw that initial 0-0 draw between England and Wales in December 1976, but increasingly it is clear that what Under-21 football offers is not necessarily a “stepping stone” to international stardom but entertaining and relevant competition in its own right.

From WSC 239 January 2007. What was happening this month

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