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What's the true purpose of junior national sides?

The spat between Wenger and the FA over the use, or misuse of Walcott, has inevitably ended with the FA exercising their muscle and obliging Theo to appear for two international sides in the same short period. Fair do's you might say. It's their right innit!

That the FA, and Stuart Pearce, has the power to oblige a player to attend is clear but what`s the purpose of the power? Players need summer breaks. It makes sense to allow them to rest and then build fitness in a structured pre season. That can be disrupted by International tournaments but at least its equal for everyone.

Wenger`s contention is that calling upon Theo to make himself available for both the full England squad in their World Cup qualifiers played between 6th and 10th June and then 5 days later for the U21 squad in a tournament in Sweden running from 15th to 29th June is unreasonable. Play for one or the other he says but why both? From Stuart Pearce`s perspective, charged with getting the best result he can, the interests of Arsenal football club or even the player, aren`t of paramount importance to him. He wants to have every chance he can of succeeding which isn`t so hard to understand. But it then becomes much harder to understand what the real purpose of these junior teams is.

It seems I have been labouring under the misapprehension that each junior team was a stepping stone in player development ultimately leading to the full side. Yet if so it`s a misapprehension that the FA itself fosters. The FA fields teams in each year group from U16 through to U21 and then the full senior side. The FA`s own glossy vision document sets out with the top priority being to develop a successful senior side. The purpose of its junior sides the document tells us is to: " to implement a consistent player development philosophy across all levels of the game, based on technique, skills and age-specific coaching qualifications."

So the FA seems to be clear that the coaching of the various age specific teams is designed for players of that age and stage of their footballing development. It would seem logical then that if a player has passed that stage of their development and is selected regularly for the senior side then the coaching for the lower age specific level becomes redundant. You might think maybe Stuart Pearce hasn`t been told this or hasn`t read the brochure but you would be mistaken. Alongside a glossy photo of the U21 coach is a direct quote from the man himself:

"It is very important that the FA has a system in place to develop high quality young players and coaches. This will give our youth teams the best possible chance of success in the years to come and bring through top-class players for the senior teams."

So he too seems clear that his primary role is to feed players through for the senior team. But Walcott has made it so what benefit is derived by continuing to select him for the lower level? If he has been out of the senior squad for a time then it might be understandable but not when he is being asked to move from the senior to the U21 squad in the space of 5 days. In fact isn`t selecting a player that has already progressed to senior level denying a place in the U21 squad to a player who might benefit more from the experience?

That the FA has the power to ignore the wishes of the clubs is beyond doubt. It also seems beyond doubt that despite publishing its grand vision statement it doesn`t fully understand, and is prepared to ignore, its own stated mission. It has, at least in the case of Stuart Pearce, fallen victim to the jobsworth mentality that invariably attaches itself to such institutions.

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The Journalist

Writer: Amos Mail feedback, articles or suggestions

Date:Friday May 29 2009

Time: 12:58AM

Your Comments (oldest first)

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Great article Amos! And you're right, not only are they unfairly burdening Theo by making him play for both team thus practically removing his summer break almost completely but they are also denying another young player the chance to play in, what would be for him, a major international tournament just so they can win at all costs ....... which they probably won't.
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29/05/2009 01:09:00

I disagree. If anything's wrong it's the idea that Theo shouldn't be considered for both sides. I think it's a bit dubious to expect him to play in all the matches this summer if England win the youth tournament he's in, but that's a long-shot anyway. In general, though, I don't see why there should be a one-way gate at the top-end of the youth-international ladder. Just because a player's appeared in the senior side doesn't mean he can't still sometimes benefit from playing in the U21 side. In this specific case, Theo should undoubtedly play in the U21 tournament. It'll do him good to have experience of managing his body through the physical demands of a long tournament in which he actually plays :) I'm not so sure about whether he should play 90 minutes twice in five days for the senior team, but it's not likely that he would. Does the whole thing really matter much if he plays 15 minutes as a sub, twice, and is more along just to be part of the squad? Oh, and it goes without saying that this is all from England's perspective. From an Arsenal perspective, he should probably have a full holiday, and not play in either international team. One possible upside if he plays, though, is that he might start the season full of confidence if he does well.
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29/05/2009 01:30:00

I think it is naďve to believe that Theo is being selected for the U21 side because it will make him a better player for the senior squad. His developmental needs can be satisfied within the coaching framework of the senior side. He doesn't need more than that unless he hasn't benefited from involvement for a time. In this instance he is being asked to participate in a junior tournament 5 days after senior involvment. He would be far better off having a decent break and a proper pre-season. If he has to play for the U21s then he has to play. But let's not pretend its for the good of the player or the senior side. Or that it satisfies anything more than a desire to win at all costs.
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29/05/2009 02:11:00

I don't think this will shorten Theo's vacation time. He will most likely get extra time off and miss the beginning of the season in August. Like Gilberto after the 2007 Copa America. The importance of his absence could be amplified this year because of the restructured qualifying rounds of the Champions League. This makes the decision by Pearce even worse for us. But like LD said earlier. With Pearce at the helm, the U-21's probably won't make it far.
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29/05/2009 03:43:00

Congratulations to Gibbs though. With all the controversy surrounding Walcott, Kieran's selection has been somewhat overlooked. His performances at the end of the season definitely merit an U-21 call up if not the full senior team.
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29/05/2009 03:46:00

Come on it's clear that the FA sees Theo as a great weapon for Stuart Pearce to have to try and win the U21s tournament. That's it. I bet my dowry on it, they're not thinking about the silly development or anyone or anything! I'd also like to know if Theo's the only one - has someone done this before? How about the other 'kids' like Joe Hart, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Aaron Lennon, Stewart Downing, Mark Noble, Micah Richards, Steven Taylor, etc.?
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29/05/2009 03:46:00

He's still got a lot to learn and U21 football might help him mature. You've also got to consider he's fallen down the senior pecking order abit since Beckhams 'return' and Lennons refound form so isn't going to play (whilst fatigued) for 90 minutes in every possible match. I think Fabios keen to give him as much experience as he can as fast as he can with a world cup next year, can't blame him for that in the same way you can't blame Wenger for wanting his players to get as much rest as possible in the summer. He's a young lad though, shorten his pre-season and jobs a good'un
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29/05/2009 06:31:00

U21 football won't help him mature. It's not a high enough level to provide that sort of challenge. Not that senior games against Kazakhstan and Andorra are going to provide any great test for anyone either.
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29/05/2009 08:11:00

It's not necessarily the level of opposition that hepls him mature but being exposed to other environments, philosophies, styles of play etc which can give him different skills than what he'd develop if soley influenced by Arsene Wenger. Might be talking out my arse but to me it makes a little sense
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29/05/2009 10:30:00

Isn't that what he's supposed to be getting involved in the senior squad? What's the benefit of playing with the juniors? It's quality of coaching he would benefit from not quantity.
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29/05/2009 12:04:00

Phartman, he's hardly fallen behind Lennon in the pecking order, or Beckham either. Becks was only a sub until Walcott was injured in the last round of internationals, and Lennon was an unused sub, as he will remain. Walcott can benefit from working with Capello and the seniors, but what could he possibly learn from Pearce and the kids? Walcott is the ONLY player being asked to do double duty. I'm hoping he may have one of those mysterious hamstring injuries that only heal on a beach in the Caribbean Sea but will be ready for pre-season. Remember, Cesc missed training camp last year when Wenger gave him extra time off and he never was at 100% all season. Risk burnout or miss pre-season training? The only good thing is Walcott isn't really that important to us yet.
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29/05/2009 12:39:00

Amos> As I said above, I think playing in, and especially winning, an international tournament is good experience of something he hasn't done before. He's been along with the England WC squad, but he didn't play. Meanwhile, from Capello's point of view, there's only a year to go til the world cup, so he wants to have Theo with the squad for bonding purposes and so he feels comfortable there, more than to play a key role against Kazakhstan. If Theo doesn't join the squad in the summer, and then got injured for the autumn international break, he'd end up being with the squad for something like a week in the year before the WC squad is selected.
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29/05/2009 14:15:00

All I know is that I don't like the fact that both Theo and Cesc will have summer tournaments to occupy their talents with. For Cesc, this will be the 2nd summer in a row in which he'll come back to us having participated in a summer tournament. The same will happen next season with the world cup. Cesc himself recently pointed out the affects of these summer tournaments on the Spain squad. He cited himself, Torres, Villa, Iniesta, Senna and I forget who else from the national team as players who suffered injury spells and fatigue this season as a result of the Euros. For Theo, ok, he's young and should be able to handle both duties. But he also has a serious injury record that might be affected by his double summer duties. I don't know any other player in world football playing for both national teams. You won't find Pato in Brazil's youth team. Hopefully none of this will matter and Theo will warm the bench for at least one of the nat'l teams. // And a big shout to Gibbs, good to see him recognized for NT duties.
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29/05/2009 14:47:00

It's a knockout tournament. The chances of winning aren't that brilliant but in any case it's a junior knockout tournament. How many players do you know who readily wave their U21 medals around? It's fine if Cappello wants him in the full squad for whatever justification he has. Having done so the need for him to figure in an U21 tournament as well diminishes to pointlessness. The fact is that Arsenal will now have to do without him for a few weeks at the beginning of the season in order for him to recover from his international duties. If he doesn't play a role against Kazakhstan and/or Andorra (which seems unlikely seeing as both SW-P and Lennon are out) then it's pointless having him in the squad if he is needed in the U21s. This bonding stuff in national sides is nonsense. There is plenty of time for them to bond in the period before the WC. Most of them know each other and spend enough time together in the same night clubs anyway. As for the injury risk, on that basis he is just as likely to get injured for the WC itself as at any othertime which makes the whole exercise a waste. The FA needs to decide whether he is a senior or junior squad player. It's that simple.
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29/05/2009 14:49:00

The only possible positive for Theo is to score some goals at the junior level and gain some confidence. He has looked lost recently for Arsenal and is out of his depth in some big games. I doubt that he will get a lot of playing time at the senior level (perhaps a few sub appearances at most) and he is young, so hopefully he will not risk burn out as well. The decision to call him up for both teams doesnt make sense to me, but hopefully, there still can be positives for Theo.
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29/05/2009 14:59:00

I think that whilst he might be selected for the World Cup qualifiers there is no guarantee he would play. However it benefits someone like Walcott to train and attend meetings with Capello and the senior players especially if he is likely to be in the full squad next year. After all with the pressures of the Premiership and few remaining qualifying games there is very little time to have these sort of encounters before the World Cup. However, for the U21 team he will undoubtedly be playing alongside not only his contemporaries but also against those he will likely face at both international and club level in the future from countries like Spain, Italy and Germany and be able to get one over the opposition as a future marker benefiting both country and club as we can expect these youngsters to be at the likes of Real and Barca, AC Milan and Bayern. Its not as if these players actually get rested because they frequently turn out in pointless four club tournaments or friendlies against lesser sides desperate to kick the hell out of them. Better keep fit playing competitive games rather than risk injury in irrelevant friendlies designed simply to help part fans from the content of their wallets.
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29/05/2009 15:08:00

An U21 tournament is about as irrelevant as they come and just as designed to part fans from the contents of their wallets. As for pre season friendlies it depends pretty much on the level you are testing yourself against. The Ajax and Emirates tournaments have usually featured fairly strong teams at least the equal of most U21 competition and certainly no less challenging than Andorra or Kazakhstan. Of course there is a benefit in playing for any side against most competition but there is also a case for the clubs desire to enable their players to participate in full pre-season preparations so that they are as ready as they can be to face a level of competition that exceeds most of what they'll encounter at national level. Most certainly higher than the average U21 side. They only get selected based on what they do for their clubs anyway. It isn't a matter of whether the national side has a call on players or not. But burdening players with the need to meet the demands of two national sides is going further than it needs to.
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29/05/2009 15:37:00

Jaelle> As it happens, it's standard practice in many other countries to move players backwards and forwards between the U21 and senior sides. Amos> You won't have seen many U21 medals being waved about because they haven't been won by England, so are of no interest to the English media. Players tend to be very proud of them. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Fabregas due to play in the same tournament? The only issue here is the possibility that Walcott could play 90 minutes in each WC qualifier, and also 7/8 matches in the U21 tournament - but that's not going to happen.
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29/05/2009 17:52:00

It's not usually standard practice to move them in the space of a couple of weeks. Moving players between senior and junior sides is fair enough but usually it's to allow checks on current form and fitness to establish whether they are ready to go back into the senior side. That isn't the case in this instance. I believe Cesc is playing for the senior side in the Confederations Cup next month but not for the U21s. He said: "I'm looking forward to the Confederations Cup but the only thing is it means another tournament in the summer and next year is the World Cup so it will mean three years in a row without a proper break. That's difficult. We want to do well in the World Cup but sometimes you get burned out playing so much football and you pay for it. You have seen this season how many players from last summer's Spain squad got injured – myself, Torres, Iniesta, Villa. It happened with France after the last World Cup, too. We all like to play for our countries, I would love to play every day if I could but at the end of the day, your body is the boss and you can only do so much." England has won U21 tournaments in the past but no-one remembers them. Walcott probably won't play all the games but will still have to train with both sides as though he were. In some ways that makes it even more of a nonsense.
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29/05/2009 19:15:00

Well with Arshavin, Nasri and (hopefully) Rosicky as well as Eboue he shouldn't be missed too much for the month or so it takes him to catch up with everyone else (if England get to the final that is). Capello claims he's playing both tournaments "because he wants to".
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30/05/2009 21:36:00

Apparently he wants to play in both tournaments because he had his 'rest' in the winter (when he was injured that is). I can't think of many reasons he'd be doing this. Maybe it's for the 'patriotism' or because he's lost some confidence after his recent poor performances, but Theo doesn't seem like the brightest of players.
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30/05/2009 21:45:00

I wonder if Theo is going to play striker for Pearce? I would like to see him pushed up top next season, and if he is to play as a forward in this tournament, then it might be beneficial for him to play. I hadn't thought about this aspect before.
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30/05/2009 22:20:00

I agree with GK, if he plays up front, I would be very happy for him to go there. Also, I think it could be a positive because, lets be honest, he is hardly the finished product. But if he is being wasted on the wing, i see no point.
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30/05/2009 22:46:00

He has always played up top for the U21's before, I see no reason that should change. Hopefulyl he'll get a shot at it for us next season with the (fingers crossed) sale of Emanuel Greedympaymemore.
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01/06/2009 16:50:00

He plays on the wings LG, then moves up top.
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01/06/2009 18:10:00

I think the role of the national youth teams is set for a major change. The first sign to me is the revamp of the Olympic teams to ensure more younger players get to represent their countries in the London Olympics and beyond. In the past the U21 side has had most relevance as an incubator for the national sides. But now that many more Olympic medals are to be up for grabs we can expect many sides around the world wanting their slice of the action. The re will be great marketing opportunities on a global basis with this, shirt sales and real kudos. Clubs with top Academies, like Manchester City who i support, will take great pains to use this new competition to develop the club's global brand. That's my view anyway. If this was 2012 and Walcott was his present age some FA critics might take a different view of his involvement? Many City players have been drafted into U21 tournaments by Stuart Pearce, so I well understand the frustration of fans who see prize assets put at potential risk, but the top clubs will have to be involved in these tournaments in future to attract the best young talent. That's my pennyworth anyway.
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05/06/2009 14:36:00


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