“We made one policy decision and that was if we asked senior players to play against Ireland and Brazil they would not play in one of the development tournaments,” said FA chairman David Bernstein in the wake of the humiliation suffered by England U21′s team in Israel on Saturday.
“Development tournament”. Bernstein’s definition of one of UEFA’s most prestigious event for national sides, goes a long way in explaining England systematic failure. According to the FA chairman’s logic, the U21 European Championships aren’t a competition ought to be taken with utmost seriousness, rather another opportunity to develop players.
Strictly speaking, Bernstein might be right, for players involved in the Euro U21 undoubtedly benefit from facing the best Europe has to offer, while the tournament format ensures that virtually every game is a must win game, with the group stage leading straight into the semifinals.
Holland, Spain, Germany and Russia have long grasped the concept. Kevin Strootman, Holland’s captain at this summer’s tournament, has already won 18 full caps for his country yet he was available for selection ahead of the tournament, much like his team-mate Luuk de Jong, who has featured seven times for the senior side.
Isco and Thiago Alcantara have both featured for Spain at senior level, while Alan Dzagoev joined Russia U21 in Israel days after appearing for in a World Cup qualifier.
England had arrived into the tournament on the back of an impressive qualifying run that had seen them winning the group by five points, losing only one game in the process – to Belgium – before comfortably dispatching Serbia in the playoff.
So where were Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones, Kyle Walker and Jack Rodwell, some of the pillars Pearce’s team was built on during the qualifying stage?
On duty with the senior England side, that’s where, to snatch an all-important draw in a friendly in Brazil, as Bernstein duly explained.
“If we hadn’t had the players playing in Brazil, like Oxlade-Chamberlain, then we may not have drawn that match. We wouldn’t have asked those players to travel, play in a hot climate and then play here [in Israel].”
The FA chairman added: “I think we do need to re-look at the strategic approach to all these tournaments. Whether that would lead to a different view – after all, Oxlade-Chamberlain played half an hour of one match, he got the flavour of Brazil, which was important, and did remarkably well.”
Undoubtedly Oxlade-Chamberlain will cherish memories of scoring in the Maracana for a long time, but wouldn’t have he relished the opportunity of winning a trophy even more?
The FA’s stubborn approach would have been understandable in years gone by, when the European Championship U21 were scheduled in the same years of major competitions such as the European Championship or the World Cup, but now Bernstein’s decision simply smack of small mindedness.
Stuart Pearce isn’t exempt from criticism either, for his mono-dimensional approach ensured England not only lacked a plan B, they also did not seem to have a very clear plan A and it’s hard to fathom which credentials got Pearce the job in the first place.
The former England left-back, though, got one thing right as he claimed that the team arriving without its best players ”will go home early”. The FA’s decision to summon players that would have been eligible to play for the U21 on duty with the national side, made the whole qualifying process completely farcical. To compete for 18 months to reach the final stage of a tournament, only to then voluntarily leave out the best players, can only be described as utterly pointless.
Clubs’ voices have grown louder and louder as has their disdain at seeing their players called up for the national side, be it at senior or U21 level, and their lobbying on the FA has found fertile ground.
Bernstein and his cronies have duly buckled under pressure, choosing to preserve the FA political relationship with the clubs, rather than look after English football, whose decline has reached a new low.
Undoubtedly, in twelve months time, they’ll all marvel at the Germans’ mental strength or at some Dutch youngster’s composure on the biggest stage of them all and wonder why England players’ skills aren’t as honed or why they don’t look at ease in a major tournament.
They already know the answers to those questions and should be held accountable for their mistake.
Who do you think should be held accountable for the U21 failure? Does the way the FA run the England teams need to be addressed? We want your views so have your say below or get involved on our Facebook page or Twitter feed.