And so, once again, just when the Premier League threatens to break out into any sort of rhythm, the international break will return with as much anticipation as Lindsay Lohan’s West End stage debut.
Not even the most pessimistic England supporter would predict Roy Hodgson’s side to fluff their lines against European minnows San Marino and Estonia next week, but the sense of apathy towards the senior squad set to be reflected by another low attendance at Wembley for the first of those fixtures should not extend to the mood surrounding the younger age group.
The Under-21s face a crucial two-legged qualifying play-off against Croatia for a place in next year’s UEFA European Championships in the Czech Republic, and head coach Gareth Southgate has been allowed to call-up Manchester United left back Luke Shaw, alongside his former teammate Calum Chambers, as part of an experienced 23-man squad.
Yet being ‘called-up’ has been viewed in some quarters this week as an oxymoron. Shaw has only recently featured for his club this season under Louis van Gaal, due to a persistent hamstring injury, while Chambers has excelled at Arsenal, only to be eclipsed in the past month by the performances of Nathaniel Clyne, whom replaced him at Southampton.
Having already featured for the senior team has led some to believe the two promising defenders are now facing a test of their resolve in being relegated to the Under-21s, but debating any such fall from grace would be gravely premature. Such was the sense of excitement sparked by Hodgson’s decision to include Shaw in his World Cup squad, and then exacerbated by his £30 million move to United, a measured outlook has once again been lost on one of the country’s brightest talents.
Shaw was the youngest player to feature out in Brazil, and while Molineux will feel a million miles away from Belo Horizonte next Friday, the meteoric rise of the 19-year-old once snubbed as a boy by Chelsea should not be forgotten. From a physical as well as mental perspective, representing the Under-21s is the right call for a player who only accumulated three caps at that level before his first senior appearance.
While Kieran Gibbs has shown greater consistency and maturity in his game for Arsenal this campaign, it is the lack of minutes that has resulted in Shaw’s exclusion from adding to his three full caps. Being the baby of the group has followed him throughout his short career, but no other player named to face Croatia has been to a World Cup. After a frustrating start to the season, Shaw now faces a test of mental strength at international level that wouldn’t have been asked by San Marinoan semi-professionals.
Hodgson admitted on revealing his squad yesterday that should there be any defensive withdrawals over the coming weekend of Premier League fixtures, Chambers would move up to the senior squad. But the form of Clyne simply couldn’t be ignored any longer. Even when both he and Chambers vied for the same place at Southampton last season, the ex-Crystal Palace defender caught the eye of Hodgson. The versatility of Chambers and John Stones, who continues to impress in a distinctly average Everton defence this season, is a sign of the growing competition on the right side of England’s backline. Kyle Walker and Glen Johnson have a tough battle on their hands to wrestle a squad number let alone a starting berth when they return from their respective injuries.
Both Southgate and Hodgson acknowledge the importance of England qualifying for next year’s Under-21 European Championships. Having players who buy into the belief that success with the junior squad, as achieved by Germany in the 2009 tournament, can transcend to senior level is a key component to FA chairman Greg Dyke’s strategy for success.
Hodgson admitted that Jonjo Shelvey, whose performances for Swansea this term has earned him a senior recall, had been ‘reticent’ to representing his country at under-21 level. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers wanted to keep the midfielder, but Shelvey wouldn’t wait for his chance. The 22-year-old has excelled in South Wales, but the former Charlton Athletic trainee would be the first to identify the void being created by Steven Gerrard’s receding influence at Anfield.
Shelvey may well fulfill his clear potential, but being fast-tracked to the top has often been England’s undoing at major tournaments in the past, where players have believed their own hype stirred by performances against opponents who wouldn’t grace the Championship. Hodgson cannot be accused of shortsightedness. Placing an emphasis on creating a winning mentality within the next generation, as intended by the inclusion Shaw and Chambers against the Croats, should not be viewed as a demotion in the pecking order, but rather as a clear sign of forward planning that should be promoted and embraced.