COMMENT By Greg Lea Follow on Twitter
It was a poorly timed header. With the scores level after 85 minutes of England’s decisive World Cup 2014 group game with Uruguay, Steven Gerrard rose with Edinson Cavani and unwittingly flicked the ball back over his own defenders. Luis Suarez, Gerrard’s then Liverpool team-mate, was ready to pounce, making no mistake in firing past Joe Hart to give his country a 2-1 lead that would prove unassailable.
The South Americans lived to fight another day as England bowed out of football’s showpiece event before the knock-out stages. The last remaining member of the ‘Golden Generation’ had, albeit unfortunately, played a decisive role in yet another premature exit from an international tournament.
Nine months on and there is a very fresh feel to the latest Three Lions squad. Gerrard joined Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole in announcing his retirement from international football last year. John Terry and Rio Ferdinand had already stepped down in 2012 and 2013, while Michael Owen and David Beckham – fellow core members of the England team expected to achieve continental and global success in the 2000s – had been discarded prior to the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
The side that takes on Lithuania at Wembley on Friday night and Italy in Turin on Tuesday could conceivably feature no-one over the age of 30, with the likes of Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson (24) and Raheem Sterling (20), Tottenham’s Harry Kane (21) and Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne (23) all likely to start in at least one of the two games.
There has been much debate over Premier League clubs’ failings in European competition in recent weeks, yet the division clearly still contains some top-class players and there are not many in better form than the homegrown quartet above.
The average age of the 25 players called-up by Roy Hodgson is just 25.7, with third-choice goalkeeper Rob Green the oldest man selected at 35. Even Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge and Theo Walcott, who are all relatively experienced with 84 caps between them, are still only 24, 25 and 26 respectively.
This is evidently a new-look England side, free, for now, from the burdensome pressure that frequently hounded those led by Sven-Göran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello.
Whether the current crop are good enough to better the quarter-final appearances achieved by the ‘Golden Generation’ in 2002, 2004 and 2006 remains to be seen, but there are certainly high hopes that the youngsters at the centre of Hodgson’s plans can make England a tournament contender once more.
With members of the PFA set to cast their votes for Player and Young Player of the Year in the coming weeks, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Kane could scoop the most unlikely of doubles.
The man who could not even make the Spurs bench at times early on in the season has been a sensation, scoring 19 Premier League goals and notching 10 more in other competitions. Kane has demonstrated his predatory instincts on a consistent basis, as well as showing that he is more than just a static number nine by running the channels and getting involved in the build-up play for Mauricio Pochettino’s high-tempo Tottenham side.
Sterling, too, has come on leaps and bounds this term. The maturity and poise he has shown belie his tender years, with the 20-year-old excelling as a winger, wing-back, No.10 and centre-forward at various points this campaign.
His club colleague Henderson has also impressed with his drive and energy in the centre of the park, while Clyne has excelled both defensively and offensively on the right side of Southampton’s back four in typically understated fashion.
Those four may be the standout youngsters based on 2014-15 performances, but there are also other English players of promise still in their formative years.
Ross Barkley, 21, has endured a frustrating few months at Everton but clearly has great natural ability; Phil Jones (23) and Chris Smalling (25), meanwhile, do not yet look fully convincing but may benefit from a sustained run of games together at centre-back at Manchester United.
Danny Rose, 24, has improved substantially this term and, although Kyle Walker is still suspect defensively, he offers a real threat charging forward from right-back, which could really be exploited in a weak Euro 2016 qualifying group.
Even the selection of the likes of Fabian Delph and Ryan Mason shows Hodgson’s willingness to look to the future, even if that includes choosing players who may not have the requisite quality for international football in the long-term.
Notwithstanding such welcome foresightedness, nobody in England should be getting carried away. There have been plenty of heralded youngsters tipped to be mainstays in the national setup for a decade or more who have since faded into relative obscurity.
Moreover, in Beckham, Owen, Lampard, Cole, Gerrard, Terry and Ferdinand the ‘Golden Generation’ contained its own collection of stellar names, but the perpetual problem for that group was moulding individual talents into some sort of coherent collective structure.
Should Hodgson be able to combine the current potential with a suitable overriding strategy, England have a real chance of making progress over the next few years. The previously customary complaint that there is a dearth of young English talent has gone unaired this season.
That, more than anything, hints at a positive future for the national side.