Boys to men: the difficult adolescence

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With England's under-21s sealing their place at next summer's European Championships in Denmark with a play-off win over Romania, editor Gary Parkinson assesses the difficulties of under age football for both coaches and players alike...

So it's decided: England will be at the European Championships finals, and France won't. Neither will the much-lauded Germans, nor Holland, nor Italy, nor Portugal. Yes, Stuart Pearce has again led the Under-21s to the Euros, and England are the only country to have qualified for the last three Euro tournaments.

Underage football will always be a kid brother to the full set-up, and graduates leave gaping holes. Take the 2009 champions, Germany: understandably struggling to replace Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Jerome Boateng, they finished third in their group.

So for all last summer's talk of a production line, Germany won't be represented in Denmark next June. Indeed, only three of the eight nations who reached Euro 2009 are back for more two years later: England will be rejoined by Spain, as you might expect, and Belarus, as you probably wouldn't. 

If that seems a freak turnover, perhaps partially explained by defeats for Italy and Holland in the play-offs, think again. The 2009 tournament also only welcomed back three participants from the previous party - Serbia, Italy and England. And after painful defeats in the 2007 semi-final and 2009 final, Pearce will be looking to continue the improvement.

Psycho reflects as England's lion cubs are beaten in 2009

Such progress is all the more remarkable given the biannual turnover of players due to the age restriction and, more rarely, elevation to the full squad. After losing the 2007 semi-final to hosts Holland on a heartbreaking 13-12 penalty shoot-out, Pearce had to replace Scott Carson, Leighton Baines, Anton Ferdinand, Nigel Reo-Coker and Peter Whittingham, all of whom were in double figures for caps.

And so, in 2009, into the breach stepped Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Mark Noble, Adam Johnson, James Milner, Fraizer Campbell and Theo Walcott. And after a suspension-hit side lost the final to a rampant Germany, all the aforementioned players bar Walcott and Richards became ineligible, replaced by Michael Mancienne, Jack Rodwell, Lee Cattermole and Danny Welbeck.

So what does all this mean? Isn't there alleged to be a yawning chasm where youth development should be, a shameful system embarrassed by comparison to our sophisticated continental cousins? Aren't all the above-named Premier League regulars?

Well, most are, but not for clubs in regular European competition. Even if they came through the brightest academies, few of them have made their mark at the overpopulated top-six clubs, floating instead into regular performance at a lower club.

Take 2007 veteran Gary Cahill: kept out of the Aston Villa team by Martin Laursen and Olaf Mellberg, and figuring he needed first-team football to continue his development, he chose Bolton over Birmingham and has fought his way to Capello's attention via a less fashionable club.

It's a path being followed by players like Fraizer Campbell; thrice loaned out by Manchester United, he has switched to Sunderland, where he plays alongside U21 alumni Kieran Richardson, Darren Bent and Nedum Onuoha. Like Cahill, all four have struggled to find regular football at clubs competing in Europe and targeted more regular football at a club further down the pecking order.

In truth Campbell has hardly set Wearside alight, but would he have done any better biding his time on the bench, like Chelsea's Daniel Sturridge? Put it another way: will playing for Liverpool reserves really help Jonjo Shelvey more than playing first-team football for Charlton, or for that matter a QPR or a Fulham?

Cahill took the scenic route to the senior national team

Republic of Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni's opinions on the matter are perfectly clear. "The answer is he must play," he said of Manchester United's 22-year-old Darron Gibson.

"When he stays only on the bench, he doesn't improve. It's very important to play. But if you stay and play only a few times, you stay with this shirt but it's different. I have not said to Gibson: 'Go or don't go.' I say if Gibson was at another club and played 90 minutes, 90 minutes, 90 minutes, he would grow more."

Not that the player agrees. "To what club, other than Manchester United, could I go to improve my game?" asked Gibson. "To be honest, if he's trying to say that I should move somewhere like Stoke City and change my game to winning tackles and not winning games then he's having a laugh."

At the heart of the problem is continuing player development. Many teenage players make a splash - remember Danny Cadamarteri? - but the difficulty lies in maintaining momentum after the first flush of fame, especially when the excitement dips before expectation. For every player who rises to the very top, another bobs about or sinks; England U21's joint record goalscorers are Alan Shearer and Francis Jeffers.

The early twenties are a problematic time for footballers. Too old for U21 football but frequently seen as too inexperienced for regular exposure in a top-six squad, they can drift into underachievement and disappointment rather than continuing on to gain full international honours: only 12 of the Euro 2002 finals squad got senior caps.

Take Carlton Cole. Claudio Ranieri's "little lion" was seemingly blessed with a perfect combination of pace, power, height and awareness. But he couldn't displace Adrian Mutu, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Mikael Forssell and was forced to follow a peripatetic path, with unsuccessful loans to Wolves, Charlton and Villa before partial rehabilitation at West Ham.

Chelsea were throwing their money around at that point, and Cole himself benefited with a six-year contract signed as Roman Abramovich took over in summer 2003. But it can be argued that  Cole is an archetype for promising young players who, in the boom of the last decade, have been financial beneficiaries but developmental victims.

Fraizer Campbell: a wasted year at White Hart Lane?

To protect clubs' investment, some might be signed to long contracts – which risks complacency and stagnation, not to mention arrogance: it seems these are more often than not the players who stand on nightclub tables flashing their wedge.

Others are thrown to a lower club in favour of an older player, often imported. Fraizer Campbell's third and final loan from Old Trafford was as a makeweight for Dimitar Berbatov. Starting a season-long loan the week before he turned 21, Campbell started just one league game for Spurs and was shifted on to Sunderland the following summer, shortly after United signed Michael Owen.

It's not all bad news. The best players will continue to improve, if arguably more through application than ability. As three-time Commonwealth champions Matthew Syed points out in the current issue of FourFourTwo, it's not enough to rely on talent: you simply have to practice, to keep striving to improve.

And there are several ways to the same place. Adam Johnson jumped straight from Middlesbrough to Manchester City and is now gaining invaluable experience in Europe and with England. In both teams he plays alongside James Milner, who took a more circuitous route.

A former prodigy who became the Premier League's youngest goalscorer at 16, Milner drifted a little during four years on Newcastle's books and only really kicked on when Martin O'Neill converted him into a central midfielder for Aston Villa. Displaying commendable willingness, Milner improved his game and is now an England regular.

Perhaps one day he'll be joined in Fabio Capello's set-up by Michael Mancienne. Born on 8 January 1988, Mancienne is just seven days younger than the cut-off point for next summer's Euros and is one of the most capped U21 internationals in history.

He is back at Wolves on his fifth loan from Chelsea, to whom he is contracted until 2013, but he faces a major choice after next summer's Euros: whether to push for a start there or seek more regular football elsewhere. Either way, he must continue to improve, for everyone's sake: England certainly need as many intelligent, adaptable defensive players as they can get…