With England currently flush with youth team trophies I’m writing a series of articles on successful England youth teams of the past and how far they went at senior level, starting with the most recent- Stuart Pearce’s Under 21s who made the European Championship final in 2009.
England arrived in Sweden that summer with reasonable hopes of success with Pearce’s experienced squad. The long-standing narrative of this side was they made it to the final only to be overwhelmed by Germany who included 6 future World Cup winners Neuer, Ozil, Boateng, Khedira, Howedes & Hummels whilst England fielded Scott Loach and Martin Cranie. The truth was a slightly different story and the careers of that England squad are extraordinarily varied.
England drew a tough group- Spain, Germany & Finland. They started with a 2-1 win over outsiders Finland thanks to a goal from Manchester City’s Micah Richards. Next up were tournament favourites Spain and remarkably England emerged with an excellent 2-0 victory thanks to goals from James Milner & Frazier Campbell. They then held Germany (who they would later meet in the final) to a 1-1 draw thanks to a Jack Rodwell strike.
The Semi Final pitted England against hosts Sweden. England took a 3-0 lead into half time but a red card for strike Campbell prompted a Swedish fightback and amazingly Sweden scored 3 goals in 13 calamitous minutes to send the game into extra time. Sweden were on the front foot but England held firm and forced penalties where Kieran Gibbs struck the killer blow in sudden death and sent England to the final.
Crucially England had not only lost Campbell to suspension but also key men Joe Hart & Gabriel Agbonlahor leaving the side short of both their strikers and missing their star goalkeeper. Watford’s Scott Loach came in for Hart and winger Theo Walcott filled in up front. Midfielder Gonzalo Castro gave Germany a first half lead before Ozil struck the crucial second just after half time. With Pearce short of options England pushed forward and were caught by 2 late counter attacks to give the Germans a 4-0 win and the trophy.
Pearce took an experienced side to Sweden who’ve had amazingly varied here’s a summary of the highs and lows of their careers
Joe Hart- 75 Caps*
Hart was one of World football’s most promising keepers of the time and 14 months later he was England number 1. Hart has never quite made it to the level of Neuer mainly due to his inability to cut out the mistakes and his limited distribution skills. Still 2 league titles, 1 FA Cup and 75 caps are a decent return for any player. Hart’s career high came in 2011-12 when he was one of Roberto Mancini’s key quartet in City’s first Premier League title win.
Hart performed well at Euro 2012 and had an uneventful World Cup in 2014 but suffered a nightmare Euro 2016 and his career hit the skids on returning to England and finding himself unwanted to by new City boss Pep Guardiola. He’ll be part of England’s squad in 2018 but is no longer guaranteed the number 1 jersey
James Milner- 61 Caps, 1 goal
Milner still holds the England caps record for the Under 21’s. He made his senior debut later that year and was voted PFA Young Player of the Year for 2009-10
He was a late bolter into the 2010 World Cup squad where he was one of the few players to return home with his reputation enhanced. Milner moved to Manchester City in the summer of 2010 where he won 2 league titles and FA Cup and League Cup although he was largely a squad player for City.
He started every game of England’s Euro 2012 campaign and was selected in 2014 & 2016 but played only a minor role. To many Milner’s 61 caps (only 1 less than Chris Waddle) are symptomatic of England’s limited resources between 2006 and 2016. But he has been a largely underrated workhorse of a player who’d have made most squads (bar Spain) in World Football. He retired from internationals in 2016 and there have been few calls for him to return.
Danny Rose- 14 Caps*
Rose was the baby of Pearce’s squad at 18 and he only played a minor part in 2009. Rose didn’t make he senior debut until 2016 by which time he was a key player for Pochettino’s Spurs. Rose has since gone from strength to strength with Spurs and established himself as England’s first choice left back. England’s switch to 3-4-3 fits perfectly with his overlapping style and he will be a key man in Russia.
Theo Walcott- 47 Caps 8, goals
Walcott had already made a huge impact at senior level before he went to the Euros of 2009. He was a shock inclusion in Sven Goran-Erikkson’s 2006 World Cup squad but was an unused sub. In September 2008 he scored a stunning hat trick as England trounced Croatia 4-1 in World Cup qualifying. Walcott’s seering pace made him a hit at international level but his lack of tricks on the ball and poor decision making quickly became an issue and a poor run of form saw him excluded from Fabio Capello’s 2010 World Cup squad.
He did make the Euro 2012 squad and enjoyed a fruitful tournament, scoring England’s equalizer in a 3-2 win over Sweden. But injury kept him out of the 2014 World Cup and poor run of form saw him excluded from Euro 2016. He won a brief reprieve under Gareth Southgate in October 2016 but a frustrating performance saw him dropped. At club level he’s amassed 392 appearances and 108 goals for Arsenal where he’s currently in his 13th season.
The Not Bad
Mark Noble- 0 caps
Noble was England’s tournament skipper and has since become club captain at West Ham. But Noble’s never won a senior call up- his passing range has always made him a good Premier League player but he’s rarely looked an international, all that being said he does take a fine penalty- something England could always use.
Gabriel Agbonlahor- 3 caps
Gaby was a key man in Pearce’s side with his pace and poachers instinct a good fit for international level. He scored 11 Premier League goals in 2008-9 for the second season in a row and bagged 13 in 2009-10 earning himself a senior call. He won 3 caps in the run up to the 2010 World Cup but didn’t nail a place in Capello’s plans. Since then his career trajectory has followed his club- sadly his club is Aston Villa. Now 31 he’s still plying his trade at Villa Park.
Gibbs emerged from Arsenal’s academy in 2007 and was immediately billed as Ashley Cole’s heir apparent. Gibbs was a regular for Pearce in qualifying and another key player in the finals. His career has long been dogged by injury but he made his England debut on 2010 and went on 2 win 10 caps over 5 years- again injury hampered his chances of nailing the first choice left back spot for club and country.
He won 2 FA Cups with Arsenal- making a crucial clearance in the 2014 Cup Final win over Hull. He transferred to West Brom last summer after 9 first team seasons at the Emirates.
Micah Richards- 13 Caps,1 goals
It’s not that Richards has had a bad career it just should have been so much better. Emerging from the pre megabucks Manchester City academy in 2005 he got his first team break from none other than Stuart Pearce. In November 2006 aged only 18 he made his senior England debut and was quickly hailed a future England Captain with his rare combination of power, pace and excellent crossing.
However he was part of the makeshift England defence that crashed at Wembley to Croatia and missed out on Euro 2008. Richards was quickly discarded by new England boss Fabio Capello who felt he didn’t track back enough and Richards wound up back with Pearce and the Under 21s for 2009.
His England career may have stalled but his City career peaked in 2012 as a regular for Robert Mancini’s title winning Citeh side. But only weeks after picking up his Premier League medal Richards blew his international career- he refused to go on the stand by list for new England manager Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2012 squad. England suffered a pre tournament injury crisis and Richards’ replacement on stand-by Martin Kelly got in the squad. Hodgson never turned to Richards again but the defender did get a call up to play for Team GB in the London Olympics by- you guessed it Stuart Pearce!
Richards’ career faded after 2012 with a series of injuries and increased competition at the Etihad eventually sending him to Aston Villa where he formed the worst Premier League centre back pairing in living memory alongside Joleon Lescott. He’s still with Villa where presumably the treatment room is comfortable.
Jack Rodwell- 3 Caps
One of the great tales of unfulfilled potential Rodwell made his Everton debut in 2008 aged just 16- setting a new Toffees record. His box to box power, excellent tackling and eye for goal drew got excited journalists (most notably Henry Winter) predicting he was Steven Gerrard’s heir apparent.
Injury restricted his progress over 5 years at Goodison but Rodwell’s advocates put that down to growing pains and he made his senior England debut in November 2011. Winter and co were now wetting themselves having come up with England’s answer- a midfield of Rodwell- Wilshere- Cleverley!
The following summer Rodwell got his big move to champions Manchester City for Â£12million. Rodwell made a promising start but the injury problems returned and he missed most of his debut season, worse still by the time he was fit Roberto Mancini had been sacked and new boss Manuel Pellegrini wasn’t a fan.
After 2 fruitless seasons in Manchester Rodwell was in need of a career reboot so naturally he moved to Sunderland- where football careers go to die. 4 seasons in and Rodwell is still in need of a career revival and with Sunderland at the foot of the Championship be might be doing it in League One where presumably Henry Winter will still be arguing for an England recall.
One Life affirming story- Fabric Muamba
Muamba emerged from Bolton Wanderers as a defensive midfielder with a Patrick Viera style physique and he was a key player for Perace’s side. However the game he will always be remembered for was his last- an FA Cup quarter final at White Hart Lane. Midway through the game Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed. The shock incident had many fearing they were witnessing a man die on a football pitch- medics attended him and he was accompanied to hospital by manager Owen Coyle. It was later revealed Muamba’s heart stopped working for 78 minutes but miraculously he survived. He returned to White Hart Lane the following year to a tearful ovation and although he never played again he is now forging a career in sports journalism.
And one despairing tale- Adam Johnson
Johnson showed immense promise as a tricky winger at Middlesborough and was Roberto Mancini’s first signing at Manchester City. He made a good start in Manchester and almost went to the 2010 World Cup with England. He also showed initial promise with England in the following campaign but quickly fell down the City pecking order and eventually moved to Sunderland, where England careers go to die.
But his unfulfilled promise on the pitch is nothing compared to Johnson’s shame off it- in March 2015 he was arrested on suspicion of having sex with a minor. the following year he pleaded guilty to one count of sex with an under aged girl and one of grooming. He remains in prison.
This team provided us with a very mixed bag of stories and careers and although none went on to be superstars it did provide 4 credible England careers and a handful of good Premier League careers. Ultimately this group was of a similar level to this seasons Euro Under 21 squad who made the semi finals of Euro 2017.
Rodwell’s career illustrates the dangers of making the big move too young whilst Richards’ refusal to go a stand by list justify why The FA have been so keen to promote a ‘Club England’ mentality.
The ceiling on England’s recent Under 17,19 & 20 squads remain higher simply because those recent squads appear to have more technically proficient players, if England’s Under 21s from this summer provide as many caps as the class of 2009 Gareth Southgate has had a result.