"I think and hope the English public have seen that these boys have given absolutely everything and have played with pride and passion. I hope there's a little bit more of a connection between the supporters and the team." England manager Gareth Southgate said after his side held the much-fancied Brazil to a goalless draw just days after producing a similar result against world champions Germany. It was a big improvement from their performance in their defeat to Iceland at the European championships last year, that saw most fans lose faith in the Three Lions.
That performance in France had received a lot of criticism back home with fans and pundits expressing their displeasure at the manner of the team's exit at the hands of Iceland. Former England striker Alan Shearer had came down particularly hard on the team calling their performance against Iceland the "worst by any England team ever."
A year on, things are looking brighter for England who haven't just secured a place in next year's World Cup in Russia but also gone toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world in the past week and given a good account of themselves. The success of the English youth teams this year have further instilled optimism, but Shearer, who donned 63 caps for the national team, is yet to buy into the hype.
"I don’t see England being successful at the World Cup in Russia next year in terms of going there and winning the tournament. We have a few good youngsters coming through, but there’s not that many who are guaranteed a starting place in that England team," Shearer told Firstpost over the phone during his visit to India for the Premier League fan park in Bengaluru last month.
"Maybe Harry Kane and Dele Alli (are a few), but Alli’s performance or goal scoring record is not as good for England as it should be with his ability. He has to improve in an England shirt," he added.
Southgate has since blooded more youngsters in the England side in the shape of Rueben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Harry Winks and Dominic Solanke, and has promised to continue do so with players from the English youth teams who have enjoyed great success on the global stage in recent times.
The England U-17 team came back from 2-0 down in the final to win 5-2 against Spain and lift the FIFA U-17 World Cup in India last month. The same team had finished runners-up in the U-17 European championships in the summer, after the England U-20 side had done their bit to win the U-20 World Cup in Korea earlier in the year. The U-19 side won the European championships while the U-21s bagged the Toulon tournament, all in 2017.
But Shearer who himself enjoyed success as an England youth footballer warned that his countrymen must not get carried away by the success of the junior teams as the success at youth level has rarely translated into a strong senior side. "The England youth teams have had a very successful time of late but that’s happened before. Certainly in my time we used to win the prestigious Toulon Tournament. But the only players from the U-21s, the U-22s or the U-23s that went onto represent England were just David James and I," recalled the former Newcastle United striker.
"So it is nothing new that younger England teams are successful. What is difficult now for these young boys is getting a chance in their Premier League teams and playing on a regular basis. That’s where the England teams have been falling down over the years because there aren’t enough English players or young English players playing in the top league," he added.
The striker pointed at the high level of pressure on managers of Premier League clubs to deliver instant results as a reason for the youngsters not getting enough minutes. "The managers are reluctant to give them a chance. Managers need results tomorrow and not in 3-4 years’ time. It takes young players time to get into things, develop, and get better. We saw that with Harry Kane who had to go out on loan to 4-5 clubs before having a chance at his club to be successful," Shearer reasoned.
Kane, along with his Tottenham Hotspur team-mates Alli and Winks are the few local youngsters who get regular game time at their Premier League clubs, but the trio, especially Kane and Alli haven't been able to replicate the level of performance they usually show in Tottenham jersey for their national side. This has been a problem for many Three Lions' stars of yesteryear. In the last 15 years, England have boasted teams full of star-studded players who have formed the backbone of their respective club sides. But the same players struggled to reach those heights in an England shirt.
Shearer feels it's the pressure of underachievement in national colours more than the club performances that has weighed English players down in big tournaments.
"There’s a pressure that comes with playing for England, there’s also a pressure that comes with the lack of success that the team has had over the years. The longer that it goes on, the harder it will become. That’s because the last World Cup England won was in 1966 and that’s too long," Shearer, who scored 30 times for the Three Lions, reasoned.
However, the Englishman believes that in the last decade the pressure has vanished as the supporters in England no longer have high expectations from the team. "There’s isn’t a huge expectation from this England team anymore and it hasn’t been for a number of years now, certainly for the last 10-12 years we’ve gone into tournaments not expecting to win," the striker stated, before calling England to put up a "much improved" show in Russia next year than what they managed to do in France, especially against Iceland.
'Premier League's unpredictability makes it interesting'
While the English national team has faltered at the big stage, the Premier League clubs have been a lot more competitive in Europe. They may have lagged behind their European counterparts in the last 4-5 years, but this season in the Champions League, the English clubs have shown that they are ready to challenge Europe's big guns again.
There are five English teams in the Champions League this season thanks to Manchester United's entry as Europa League winners, and all clubs are in a good position to progress from their respective groups with two games left to play. English teams have suffered just one loss in the Champions League so far and the early signs are positive for the return of English dominance in Europe's premier competition.
Shearer believes the team that will deal with the demands of playing three tough games in a week best, would go farthest in the Champions League. "The difference between the Premier League and all the other leagues is that it is far more competitive. If you compare it to Germany or Spain and even France, we have clubs in our league that can go to any of these leagues and get a result on any weekend," the striker asserted.
"This is one of the reasons why the Premier League is more interesting than the other leagues because of its unpredictability where the ‘so-called’ smaller clubs at any point can and will get results against the bigger clubs," he added.
On being pushed to pick the side that has the best chance among Premier League sides to go farthest in the Champions League, Shearer couldn't look beyond Manchester. "I think both Manchester clubs (can go far in the competition). Similar to the Premier League where it will most likely be the Manchester clubs that will fight for the title, I won’t be surprised to see either Man United or Man City to go far in the Champions League too."
Meanwhile, in the Premier League, it's been a good season for those practicing the same trade as Shearer. All the top marksmen in the league have hit the ground running, and the race for the golden boot promises to be the most fierce in recent times.
After being put on the spot, Shearer endured the same struggle as any other fan to make a specific choice, but picked his favourites among the pack of the league's most lethal predators to emerge at the top of the pile come the end of the season. "All the strikers have started brightly. They are all doing well. (Romelu) Lukaku is going to get better with him getting more chances (to score) in this Manchester United team. Kane didn’t score in August but had one hell of a September and October. (Sergio) Aguero had a bit of an injury but he’s come back and scored goals. (Alvaro) Morata has come into Chelsea and started scoring goals straightaway. So they all have been on it, really. But it won’t surprise me if it was between Lukaku and Kane in the end," the Premier League's all-time record goal scorer signed off.
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Updated Date: Nov 15, 2017 18:56:28 IST