As you go from club to club and national team to national team the world over, you tend to see various different approaches when it comes to a reasonably hot topic in English football at the moment, youth integration (or promotion).
The view from England at the moment seems to be that consistent youth integration is something to be applauded and revered. Not least because since the Premier League has become so littered with foreign stars, people appreciate it when the clubs try and produce their own home-grown, and (usually) English stars, instead of buying the best from abroad. But also given the underperformance of the national team in recent years and its’ inability to produce world class players on mass, and for the fans there’s nothing quite like watching a player from the youth academy rise through the ranks to first team stardom.
Leading up to the World Cup this year, there was a lot of public yearning for England to take a large number of their promising youth players. Whether it was because many of England’s latest wave of young talent were so impressive for their clubs during the 2013/14 season, or due to the fact that most of England’s star players of the past decade were getting on a bit, the fact was that public consensus seemed to be that many if not all of these promising ‘young lions’ should go to the World Cup.
Following poor showings at the last three major tournaments, Euro 2012, South Africa 2010 and Germany 2006, faith in England’s old guard from the so called ‘golden generation’ had all but run out. Only Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard remained from the team who were knocked out in the quarter-finals on penalties by Portugal in 2006 and it had only been in the last couple of years that the likes of Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Frank Lampard had begun to fade out of the picture. The prospect of having a fresh set of young and hungry players was always going to appeal to English fans, who despite mass and constant support of the national team must have become somewhat disillusioned with the idea of national glory with the Three Lions having failed to reach the semi-final of any tournament since 1996.
Because of the shortcomings of the ‘golden generation’, it would only seem natural for everybody to call for change. But change simply for the sake of changing is a dangerous notion. It should only happen if it’s the right thing to do.
Ever since the disappointment of the 2010 World Cup, many England fans have called for much of the ‘golden generation’ to be dropped. And after so many years of poor displays who can blame them? But unless the replacements are deemed capable of either filling the boots of their predecessors or at least offering something completely different and new, is it absolutely necessary? After all, while many of the ‘golden generation’ have failed to replicate their club form for the national side, they remain some of the greatest players England has ever produced. Despite the under-achieving, to drop players of such quality you must be sure that you’re doing so for the right reasons.
Of course, with all but one of that ‘golden generation’ now well into their thirties, moving on from them becomes a far more viable option. Despite this though, England’s defence has come under much scrutiny over the past 12 months or so. The timing of which coincided with the exit and partial exit of both John Terry and Ashley Cole respectively from the international frame.
Terry and Cole have never been particular popular figures outside of Chelsea and given Terry’s numerous scandals and Cole’s understudy Leighton Baines showing such fine form for Everton, it was only a matter of time before England started to call for both players to be dropped, or in John Terry’s case, forcibly removed. However since the retirement of Terry and the regular dropping of Cole, England’s defence has looked anything but secure.
After a fantastic domestic season with Chelsea, John Terry found himself subject to calls for him to be convinced out of retirement, but in the end the FA and Roy Hodgson decided not to, and looking at the performances of England’s defence over the last few months, there’s no doubt that in footballing terms, they made the wrong decision. And despite a season full of sporadic appearances, many felt it was the wrong decision to leave Cole at home too, particularly after two sub-par performances against Italy and Uruguay from the largely inexperienced Leighton Baines.
England had arguably left their two best defenders at home, and while Terry’s absence may well be justified, Cole’s wasn’t. All the pressure to give the youngsters a go built up and Hodgson decided to opt for 18 year old Luke Shaw, with just 2 caps to his name and just one full season in top flight football instead of Cole. Many applauded the decision, after all, Shaw had been so impressive for Southampton during the season, earning himself a place in the PFA Team of the Year and of course Ashley Cole had found himself playing second fiddle to Cesar Azpilicueta at left back for Chelsea.
But taking Shaw to the World Cup instead of Cole was an example of integrating youth players purely for the sake of integrating youth players and not because it was the right thing to do. Was Shaw going to offer anything that both Baines and Cole couldn’t? Taking such a young and inexperienced player (especially a defender) as backup was a monumental risk without much opportunity to make any real gain. There was no plan to involve Shaw, so when you have someone of Cole’s proven ability and invaluable experience as an option to be backup, why would you not take it? If Hodgson felt that Shaw could have an impact on the first team, then taking him would make sense, but taking him as a backup over someone like Cole is a prime example of youth integration simply for the sake of it.
Having Cole to fall back on rather than Shaw makes much more sense particularly when you consider that Baines had little top International experience, and had the potential to find himself out of his depth against the best at the World Cup, and when push came to shove, Baines did not produce the goods. Cole is one of the few members of the ‘golden generation’ who has managed to replicate his club form for England and still is a top full back despite his age. For the first time, doubts began to surface about Leighton Baines’ quality after so many years of England fans urging him to be played instead of Cole. But England were stuck. If they felt that Baines’ inexperience was a problem, their back-up option was no better.
Shaw will have plenty of opportunity to shine for England, there’s no need to rush him into the side, especially at the expense of someone like Ashley Cole, who proved towards the end of the season that he’s still capable of producing quality performances.
The message for England is: Be careful what you wish for. The golden generation have disappointed us all, but when replacing them we need to think extremely carefully about it. England have wanted Terry and Cole out of the team in favour of younger blood for some time, but as a consequence, we now have an extremely suspect back four.
England fans love a scapegoat and Rooney and Gerrard seem to be the latest ones. Neither player has been particularly scintillating for the national side but fans must be careful before they start demanding that the likes of Rooney and Gerrard are dropped. Rooney came into mass criticism throughout the tournament, yet despite being played out of position for half of his playing time, was involved in both of our goals in the tournament, setting up one and scoring the other. Similarly Gerrard has come into a lot of stick after underperforming and accidentally teeing up Luis Suárez for Uruguay’s winner, but the England captain remains by far and away England’s best passer of the ball, and the only man in the squad capable of operating in that deep-lying playmaker role.
Just like with Cole and Terry, England will regret chasing Rooney and Gerrard out of the side prematurely. England’s dependence on the last of the golden generation is certainly on the wane, but knowing when and how to integrate the next generation of players is vital.
The Three Lions have a good looking set of promising young stars and the nation got to see plenty of what the next generation has to offer. But a rushed and/or forced transition from one generation to another is never healthy, for a club or a country and hopefully Hodgson has realised that. He arguably made the mistake of not taking advantage of the last few world class years of John Terry and Ashley Cole’s careers but after going public on his desire to keep Gerrard in the international frame and his persistence on playing Wayne Rooney, it seems Hodgson recognises their importance and won’t be rushing any more of England’s best players needlessly out of the side.