This has been a bittersweet weekend for international football in England. Yesterday saw a below-par qualifying draw against Scotland, and hope was restored just 24 hours later as the under 20 side won their World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Venezuela.
How to improve our fortunes at international level has been something long discussed around the tables at the FA. Many are pointing to the work being put in at St Georges Park as a reason for our success yesterday. As many observers do, speculation has already begun as to whether this new generation might bring us a full World Cup win. Premature, but I suppose that’s the English press for you.
It has been the goal of the FA to improve our younger players, and the poorly received EFL Trophy is an example of that. The thinking behind under 23 teams entering is that good young players will get regular football, but it’s a fallacy. Few of the under 20 side had featured in the tournament, and few of the sides that featured in the tournament even retained the players they fielded, Joe Ward being a prime example. Some of the big sides didn’t even enter a side, and under 20 players such as Fikayo Tomori had to join Brighton to get regular football.
If the FA truly want to help develop footballers in this country, then I firmly believe we should see a return of the England B team. I’ll come to why in a minute but first, look at the England C team. Having witnessed first hand the players representing our country, there is clearly benefit in having an international stage at all levels. The players who featured for England C were the cream of the young non-league scene, and I firmly believe being involved helps them develop as players. If you look at England C players of the past, a large number have gone on to play in the Football League. Our best young players have all featured or been picked for England C at some point, Habergham, Woodyard, Whitehouse, Wood, even Paul Farman.
So, how could an England B side help aid our national development? I think in the past it has been utilised as a warm-up for players on the edge of the squad, or players not quite up to England standard. Tony Dorigo, Gary Mabbutt and Pallister all have caps for the B side. It was used as punishment for the sublime Matt Le Tissier, and Chris Sutton famously retired from international football because he was picked. The B team should not be a stigma for top flight players, it should be an honour and a privilege. However, I feel its real value would be if it were purely consisted of Football League players under the age of 25.
It may seem an odd criteria, but much of the work being put in at St Georges Park is based around a ‘one DNA’ strategy, players at all levels are encouraged to play the game in the same way. By introducing a B side made up as I’ve described, we would be embracing a whole new group of players and bringing them into the international scene. In five years time, what are the odds many of our under 17, 18 and 19 internationals will be playing at Football League level? Also, how many young players currently in the Football League are slow starters? How much talent bypasses St Georges Park and the England coaching, and therefore falls short of international standard?
Take Sean Raggett as an example. If (or when) he moves on, the likelihood is he will end up in the Championship, and from our experiences he has the ability to play at a much higher level with the right development plan. If there was an international scene he could be considered for that would only aid his development. We’ve seen how the England C benefits players in the fifth tier and beyond, the same benefits could be passed on to younger players outside the top flight.
I think our international team will continue to suffer no matter what work is done at Burton. The big Premier League teams simply won’t give those young players the game time they need to develop into full internationals, not unless something significant changes. The price of failure is too high, and teams are more likely to spend money to survive than place their faith in youth. Take Everton, if they find themselves sin the bottom six in December, can you see them playing Jonjoe Kenny and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, or throwing £20m at a couple of players from the Dutch top flight?
The England B side last turned out in May 2007, winning 3-1 against Albania. Future England players such as Aaron Lennon and Phil Jagielka both played, proving that there is a genuine call for the team in terms of player development. However, Michael Owen and Phil Neville both got a run out as well, fringe players who had already been in the England squad. Where in the development of players was the benefit of that?
The B team was originally set-up as a way of introducing players into the full national team, courtesy of Walter Winterbottom in 1947. Back then there was no under 21 side, so he wanted to bridge that gap between young players and the full England team. By the mid fifties it wasn’t an age related set up anymore, Fulham legend Bedford Jezzard scored six in three games at the age of 27 to earn himself two England caps. He remains the teams leading scorer.
As football in this country has evolved I believe the need for the B team is as pressing as ever, certainly since the inception of the Premier League. I find it staggering that there hasn’t been a B international since 2007, especially when you consider our tournament record since then. Surely the need to include as many players as possible has never been more pressing?
We should be celebrating the achievements of our youth, but football is not as linear as we’d like. There may be talented players out there that do not benefit from St Georges Park education at eleven years old, they may be late developers who do not manage to feature in the under 21’s. They may even come up from the National League, and unless you’re Jamie Vardy I imagine you’d find it very hard to crack through the international scene. If, after the under 21’s, there had been a stage for Jack Hobbs to perform on other than the Championship, could it have helped him as a player?
The big question is, what harm could it do? What harm would there be in arranging six internationals a year, coincided with usual international breaks where the cream of the Football League get to don the three lions and take on smaller international sides in friendly competition? The home friendlies could be staged at Football League grounds around the country, the players benefit from a visit to St Georges and clubs have the fillip of one of their players representing their country.
Maybe there could be a caveat whereby at least two League Two and two League One players travel too? Maybe the manager could pick a maximum of two from each team? I’m not paid to thrash these things out, but surely the more players returning to their clubs with experience of St Georges park and the international set up, the better? I think for too long the future of our international success has been based around the top flight and the privileged few, but if we are to move forward as a nation and experience success like yesterday on a regular basis, then I truly feel there is a call to have an inclusive England B side offering the international experience to as many players as possible.