From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.35 :: NO.11 :: Mar. 15, 2012

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FOOTBALL / KICKING AROUND

Can teams win with kids?

The greatest surprise of all in Stuart Pearce's squad for the friendly against the Netherlands was the presence of the Sunderland striker, Fraizer Campbell, who has only just returned to the team after long months out with injury, writes Brian Glanville.

AP

For all his promise and recent lively form, it seemed inexplicably rash to pitch Fraizer Campbell untried into international football.

Two conflicting statements from across the years. From Alan Hansen the former elegant Liverpool and Scotland centre-back on television: “You win nothing with kids”. From Matt Busby, illustrious manager of Manchester United, after a high scoring game at Chelsea in 1952: “If you don't put them in, you can't know what you've got”.

Both statements came to mind when Stuart Pearce nicknamed “Psycho” in his rumbustious playing days, announced his England squad to play Holland in a friendly at Wembley, having been put in temporary charge of the international team after the departure of Fabio Capello. Pearce, who for sometime with varying success, has been in charge of the England Under-21 group has told us that he would be delighted to manage England again at the coming European Championship finals, were he asked to.

Meanwhile the squad he named for the Dutch game was a major surprise, containing as it did so many players of little or no international experience. Pearce's somewhat idiosyncratic explanation for this was that he could thus see how they stood up to pressures of “a match of this magnitude”.

But why with a large hiatus in prospect before England go to the European finals, conduct such an experiment at all when it is surely essential, not least after the departure of Capello, to give the full potential team every chance to prepare itself.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all in Pearce's squad was the presence of the Sunderland striker, Fraizer Campbell, who has only just returned to the team after long months out with injury. Pearce praised him, and I for one have admired his abilities for several seasons, not least when he had a fine game at Wembley itself when on loan for Hull City, in a promotion play off. He was then actually on the books of Manchester United but they decided not to keep him.

For all his promise and recent lively form, it seemed inexplicably rash to pitch him untried into international football. Manchester United themselves provided several young and internationally inexperienced players for the England squad; in the surprising absence of Rio Ferdinand, the most experienced United international of all. Chris Smalling has had a few defensive games for England and can operate either at right-back or centre-back, but is hardly, yet, a commanding figure. Jones can operate at full or centre-back and has been tried with varying success in midfield, but at this level has still fully to establish himself in the more advanced role. Tom Cleverley has had a good if sporadic season in central midfield and should indeed have a bright international future, but was this the time to call up so many promising rather than established Manchester United youngsters?

Matt Busby, of course, was never afraid to put them in his top team; so much so that those sides gained the nickname of The Busby Babes. In the early 1950s, there were the two wing halves of the first ever England Under-23 team, Jeff Whitefoot and notably, the hugely powerful and commanding left-half Duncan Edwards, already a major start at age 17, destined alas to die after the appalling Munich air crash of February, 1958. Not long afterwards came the teenaged Bobby Charlton, precocious to a degree with a fulminating shot in either foot. And then, perhaps the most refulgently-gifted of all, however ultimately doomed, George Best, he, too, a major star, in attack, at the age of 17. But the team of which so many perished or were irreversibly injured in Munich benefited from the cool authority and captaincy of Roger Byrne playing at left-back and, alas, another casualty in Munich.

One of the finest Danish players of the post World War II years was tall John Hansen, of the elegant left-foot and the prolific head. I came to know of him well when he was playing in Italy for Juventus with fellow Danes Carl Praest and Karl Aage Hansen. He once remarked to me that when immediately after the 1948 Olympic tournament in London the three of them had turned professional and thus ruled themselves out of the strictly amateur national side, the young players who took their place were all at sea without wiser older heads to guide them.

Go back as far as 1939 and there you find the so-called Buckley Babes, the Wolves team managed by Major Frank Buckley, overflowing with youth, allegedly pepped up with monkey gland tablets. When it came to the 1939 Cup Final against Portsmouth they were red hot favourites. But the players knew they could be on a good thing when the ritual autograph book was handed in to their dressing room and the signatures of the young Wolves were practically illegible, a sure sign of nerves. So Portsmouth, calm and collected, went out and duly beat them 4-1, Moral perhaps; you win nothing with kids alone. However energetic and promising, they need older heads to guide and encourage them.



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