LONDON – Young players tend not to make significant impressions at international finals. There are exceptions, of course, notably Pele (1958 World Cup), Frank Beckenbauer (1966 World Cup) and Michael Owen (1998 World Cup), but generally football’s top table is for the tried and trusted.
Before Tuesday’s emotional friendly against France, it was claimed, with some justification, that it is getting far too easy to win an England cap these days. Roy Hodgson has given 32 players their debuts and 42 different players have represented England since the 2014 World Cup.
How can Tottenham’s Dele Alli, who was playing against Yeovil for MK Dons in League One last May, be worth a first England start after just four Premier League matches?
A fair point, yet the forward woke up on Wednesday morning to find himself a national hero after scoring his first international goal in England’s 2-0 victory.
Given the shadow that hung over the game in the wake of the tragedy in Paris, Carlo Ancelotti’s assertion that “football is the most important of the least important things in life” rang truer than ever.
Yet football also unites people, even nations, as nothing else can and after the impeccably observed dignified tributes to those who died, the show went on to prove the sport will not bow to the terror of fear.
Alli lit up Wembley with a performance Hodgson called “faultless” and said the 19-year-old “deserved all the praise coming his way.” Pundits immediately tipped Alli to become an England great as the hype moved into overdrive.
He cost Spurs a bargain £5 million and when Mauricio Pochettino first saw Alli he described him as “a 17-year-old playing like a 30-year-old.” Unfazed by playing against Real Madrid in a pre-season friendly, Alli introduced himself to former Spurs midfielder Luka Modric by nut-megging him.
A box-to-box player, he is direct, combative, confident, intelligent, strong in the air, has an excellent first touch and makes passing seem easy. Off the pitch he is level-headed, though Pochettino sounded a word of caution amid Alli-mania when he said: “Be careful with the young players that arrive in the Premier League. It is not easy. You can see that Dele is very mature and a player who shows great quality. He has a great personality and good character. But it is too much of a rush to talk about bigger steps for him. Always in football, you need to take it step-by-step, game-by-game.”
Pochettino also knows football doesn’t work like that. Alli’s display against France ensured he was immediately tipped to secure a place in England’s Euro 2016 squad and his rapid rise will present Hodgson with the sort of dilemma he loves. Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck, who have barely played this season because of injury, have a battle to regain their places with the emergence of Alli, his Spurs teammate Eric Dier and Everton’s Ross Barkley.
Hodgson said: “Loyalty is an important quality and one should never dismiss the value of loyalty from player to coach and coach to player. But it is a world in which, unfortunately, if you want to keep your place in the team you have to be playing to a very high level, especially when other people are doing well around you.
“I would never be able to pick a team on loyalty alone. I would have to pick the best players at the time and someone like Dele Alli, and I would also mention Eric Dier who I thought was really good, (against France). I think they are going to get a lot of publicity for their chances going forward.”
The 2-0 loss to Spain in Alicante was a reminder of how far England has to go to close the gap on the best, but as the Euro countdown begins there is reason for cautious optimism.
However, this has been the case many times only for England to fail and under-perform when it gets to the World Cup or European Championship, so the jury will remain out until France is up and running next June.
Irish pride: It is some consolation that my pessimism about the Republic of Ireland beating Bosnia & Herzegovina in the playoffs to join England, Wales and Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 was shared by the majority of Irish scribes.
Once again the qualities of Martin O’Neill’s side were underestimated. We should have learned by now.
The sum total is far greater than Ireland’s individual parts. What Ireland may lack in the technique of Europe’s best, it more than makes up for with O’Neill’s superb organizational prowess, spirit, determination, commitment, heart and inner belief. Sometimes the will to win can beat the skill to win.
Three times during the qualifiers Ireland snatched victory and two draws with late goals — away to Georgia (2-1, McGeady 90), away to Germany (1-1, O’Shea 90+4) and at home to Poland (1-1, Long 90+1).
“You’ll never beat the Irish,” the fans sing. Well, Germany couldn’t in two matches.
This is probably the worst generation of Ireland players in a quarter of a century, but O’Neill has instilled in his players that they can beat anyone, not just park the bus and hope for a draw. They have heart and attack, steel and focus, yet Ireland is far from just muscle and bustle.
Wes Hoolahan, at 33 has belatedly emerged as a creative playmaker. Robbie Brady is a left-back who adds pace and power down the wing. James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan and Jeff Kendrick provide a solid midfield base for Jon Walters to show he is an expert at exploiting opponents’ weaknesses.
Of the starting XI’s against B&H in Zenica and Dublin, Richard Keogh, Hendrick and Daryl Murphy play in the Championship. So does Stephen Ward, but he has yet to appear for Burnley in the league this season.
Darren Randolph is West Ham’s second-choice goalkeeper, while Ciaran Clark, probably Ireland’s best player over the two games, is not assured of his place at Aston Villa.
Only Seamus Coleman, Whelan, McCarthy, Brady, Walters and Hoolahan are top- flight regulars.
Ireland was the worst team at Euro 2012, and while it will, again, be a side many countries will hope to be in the same group as when the draw is made next month, the 2016 vintage should leave a better taste in the mouth than four years ago.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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