x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Skipping a generation for success

For a supposedly garlanded group of English footballers, the sobriquet "golden generation" hung around their necks like a millstone. Now, it is the youngest who offer some encouragement.

England's Wayne Rooney, left, and Bulgaria's Iliyan Stoyanov battle for the ball.
England's Wayne Rooney, left, and Bulgaria's Iliyan Stoyanov battle for the ball.

The phrase has long since been toxic: the golden generation.

For a supposedly garlanded group of English footballers, it was a millstone that they wore around their necks in the place of elusive medals from major competitions.

Since then, there has been an understandable reluctance, even in a game where hyperbole can take hold, to make similarly bold claims about their successors.

No wonder, too. If the 75-month spell from September 1974, when Sol Campbell was born, to December 1980, when John Terry and Ashley Cole entered this world, was a boom time, the subsequent six years produced one man, Wayne Rooney, who towers over his contemporaries from what constituted a barren period.

Yet in the three ages of English players, the youngest offer some encouragement.

Less able than the seniors, they nonetheless pose a threat to the men in the middle, the ones supposedly at the peak of their careers.

Of those born between 1987 and 1992, the precocious Jack Wilshere is the marquee talent, the man around whom England teams will be constructed, and Joe Hart is guaranteed to guard their goal.

Three more - Phil Jones, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll - have commanded a combined £71 million (Dh420.1m) in the transfer market already this year.

Theirs is a generation that also includes Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, Adam Johnson, Micah Richards, Kyle Walker, Kieran Gibbs, Chris Smalling, Jack Rodwell, Martin Kelly, Marc Albrighton, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge.

The trajectory of emerging players is rarely a smooth upwards curve, as most can testify, but there is evidence of promise. Whether by nature or nurture, the future appears a little brighter.

England failed to qualify for European Under 21 tournaments in 2004 and 2006. In 2009, however, they were runners-up and, while not progressing beyond the group stage this year, they were minutes from another place in the last four.

There were indications, albeit indirect, that English football may skip a generation.

Manchester United's early summer move for Jones, 19, was prompted by competition from their rivals, illustrating that he, and not the 25-year-old Gary Cahill from Bolton Wanderers, was the most coveted English centre-back available in the transfer market. Though injuries have limited him to two international appearances, Carroll seems in front of senior strikers such as Darren Bent, Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe in Fabio Capello's thinking.

Conservative as the Italian can often be, he has also promoted Gibbs and Henderson ahead of more seasoned professionals, if only briefly.

England's first-choice right-back Glen Johnson, meanwhile, was shunted to Liverpool's left flank last season, in part because of the fine form of the precocious Kelly, six years his junior.

And that is a microcosm of a wider battle - the men of 1981-86 are being displaced.

History's verdict may be that they were the lost generation, their entrance to international football delayed by a more gifted, if ultimately underachieving, group and their exit hastened by the next in line.

A comparison between those supposedly at the height of their powers and the men still learning their craft can be divided into six categories: goalkeeper, full-backs, central defenders, midfielders, wingers and strikers.

Thanks to Hart and Wilshere, the juniors already have a lead in two departments.

With the phalanx of young full-backs and the speedsters on the flanks, that hypothetical advantage could soon be doubled.

There is the sense, too, that Jones and Smalling may be the long-term successors to Terry and Rio Ferdinand at the heart of the England defence.

Even in attack, the probable partnership is Rooney and Carroll. Their potential is, thankfully, not accompanied by the expectations with which their elders wrestled.

And understand that, now, the most vaunted group of youngsters, and rightly so, are those from Spain.

The task of their English counterparts, over the course of time, is to achieve something that Messrs Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard and co could not: Reach the semi-final of a major tournament and become the bronze generation.