17 November ~ Presumably intending to make a point about a vision of the future, Fabio Capello picked a young squad for England's friendly match against France tonight. No fewer than eight of the 23 players named are aged 23 or under and only three, Rio Ferdinand, Robert Green and Steven Gerrard, are 30 years old or over. It’s the "new fabric of England", as Umbro – so predictably after a failed World Cup campaign – would have us believe.
While the inclusion of young players such as Jordan Henderson, Chris Smalling, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere may excite some people, to many others (like me) it represents a depressing reminder of the misplaced obsession the nation has with youth, not to mention a snub to a number of more deserving candidates and a suggestion that Capello is perhaps just as easily swayed by media opinion as those who preceded him. West Ham's Scott Parker is one player who should consider himself very unlucky not to have been called up, as may the likes of Kevin Davies, Lee Cattermole, Stewart Downing, Kevin Nolan, Phil Neville and Leighton Baines, all of whom have certainly had a bigger impact this season than many of the other names in the squad.
The sad truth of the matter – even though it would be considered bad form to say so, so no one ever does – is that these players are all largely considered too old. At the age of 30, Parker, once the bright, young hope of England’s central midfield and heir to the throne of Frank Lampard, now forms the centre-piece of a forgotten generation. What is most sad to see is the lack of foresight in judging the value of a player who is a bit older. Indeed, what all of those listed above have lost in the fashion of youth, they have gained and grown with experience to ultimately be better players.
Much depends on preference. Where some believe in using friendlies to experiment with youth, there is much to be said for simply choosing the best and most deserving players, not least in terms of the positive statement it presents. When Lampard retires, he should be replaced by the next in line, which will most realistically and fairly be in the form of a player in his late 20s or even his 30s (such as, say, Parker), and not by a teenager. Unless, of course, there are exceptional circumstances whereby the teenager in question really is better than the other options available.
The idea that if a player is not good enough as a teenager he will never be good enough is damaging and fundamentally leads to the disregarding of entire generations. A wider point here is that, whilst Wilshere may have the potential to be good, he is not better – in terms of overall effectiveness as a player – than Parker is now. Then there is the argument that a player like Wilshere can only fulfil his potential if he gets the opportunity to play at the highest level from a very early age. Or, in other words, if someone like Capello makes a move to invest in his potential.
This is a role that should be taken up by clubs and the international Under-21 system that is already in place. Indeed, after five years in the first team at Manchester City and with an impressive number of Under-21 caps to his name, Micah Richards is without question a better player now than he was when he first broke into the England team in 2006.
In Spain, players are typically eased into the first-team set-up through extended time spent in the Under-21s. Barcelona’s midfield duo of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta are among the highest capped Spanish Under-21 players of all time, and Valencia’s Juan Mata was last month put back into the Under-21s despite spending the summer in South Africa. Even top scorer David Villa did not make his full debut until he was 23 and was not a key player until significantly later.
Clearly lacking the patience to allow a player to grow, English football has now put itself in an absurd position whereby players who are no longer teenagers are effectively disregarded, and the teenagers leftover are consequentially subjected to an impossibly high level of hype and pressure, very often before they have even had a chance to make an impact at their club. Isidore Lewis