FA Editor Jamie Bradbury blogs after England’s elimination from the UEFA Under-21s Championship…
Throughout the UEFA Under-21 Championship, I’ve been writing my tournament blog on matchdays as we were getting ready for our games inside the England camp. Today is another matchday, the semi-finals, but sadly England are no longer in Denmark. I’m now back home and contemplating a return to the office at Wembley Stadium on Thursday, a week earlier than I’d hoped.
To go out in the group stages was painful and has no doubt been regarded by many as an under-achievement. And in terms of England’s objectives it was. We went to the Finals to win it and after coming so close on the two previous occasions we were hoping that it would be a case of third time lucky.
After two performances that didn’t reach the team’s potential against a Spanish team that passed the ball for fun and a Ukraine side that was more direct, we needed a win. Defensively we were superb, but going forward we couldn’t find a rhythm. Coming back to draw against Spain showed grit and determination. For all but three minutes against Czech Republic we’d done enough to get the result needed against a side who’d lost just once in two years.
Looking back, the draw with Ukraine, who the Spanish and Czechs dispatched with comfort, was the one that cost us. Nevertheless, it was still in England’s hands on Sunday as our coach departed Kellers Park at midday to head to another hotel in Silkeborg where we had lunch and the players had some rest for a few hours.
Meanwhile, out in the hotel grounds a few of the team staff wandered about to first investigate the automated lawnmowers that patrolled the grass and then enjoyed a game of boules. It was here that we found out that these lawnmowers cost £3,500 each (there were two), if you press the ‘STOP’ button it sends a text to the groundsman three miles away and when groundsmen are disturbed on Sundays they get the hump.
After the six of us got a telling off – we weren’t going to grass up (pun intended) the culprit so took it as a team – the Dane proceeded to tell us that it costs 20 Euros a year to keep the grass continually trimmed and the process takes 32 hours before the two ‘K9-style’ beasts start all over again.
This took our minds and nerves off a game that we knew we had to win. We were confident, though, and the players were all relaxed – Jack Cork and Scott Sinclair even had a game of chess which Corky won – before we boarded the bus for the half an hour drive to Viborg. It was a similar journey to the one made in March that ended in a 4-0 victory over Denmark. We’d take just one of those goals tonight.
With the game still goalless at half-time, I probably wasn’t as nervous as I was pre-match having seen England control the play as the Czechs got ten players behind the ball as soon as they lost possession.
We were probing again in the second half, but finding it tough to get in behind them. Henri Lansbury again had a positive impact adding verve, despite not being 100%, and with 14 minutes left the goal that we were desperate for arrived. Sturridge’s cross from the right and a powerful header from Welbeck put us in charge. Delight in the press box, Scott (Field, Press Officer) and I probably happier than most and the win looked on. Against the best defence in the tournament, it would be tough for the Czechs to come back. And they looked gone when two rash challenges in dangerous positions almost helped England to a second goal.
But with three minutes to go a split-second lapse and an unfortunate deflection presented the ball to Jan Chramosta to lift over Frankie Fielding in goal. Deflation. My head dropped into my hands. 87 minutes of hard work washed away in an instant.
Their second was academic, though it did arrive seconds after Sturridge was waved for offside when clean through. But not having seen it again I’m not going to bemoan the officials, particularly when I think they all had a decent tournament.
Heading down to the dressing rooms after a huge defeat like that is not nice. It’s hard to know what to say, everyone was gutted. One person I felt sorry for more than most is our Team Operations Manager Carol Day, whose full-time job is ensuring everything is in place for the team to get to and play games. Two years’ work had come to a premature end. Well almost. She now had to call round to make arrangements for our journey back to England the next morning. Painful.
For the players who were called to speak to the press it must have been tough. Danny Welbeck was speaking to the host broadcaster within seconds of the final whistle, Michael Mancienne, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Fabrice Muamba all spoke on TV too. Big characters and all the players when called upon for press activity throughout to tournament were absolutely first class.
The bus ride back to Kellers Park was in relative silence, apart from the consumption of the dinner of lasagna and caesar salad that Sean the Chef had prepared for the journey.
Clean up at the hotel started instantly and went on into the small hours as the sun began to rise. During the trip home on Monday, it didn’t feel right leaving Denmark as the tournament was still in full swing.
I was thinking about the positives from this whole campaign. While this is a tournament we wanted to win, we must also think about the development of our game, our players, and how this experience has helped.
Phil Jones and Chris Smalling just grew with every game they played and showed that they are more than capable in a tournament environment. Frank Fielding will go to Derby for pre-season having proved himself at this level, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge also showed real flashes that they are England senior players of the future.
And despite a few not playing to their pre-tournament hype, I’m confident that a large proportion of the squad will go on to gain full honours for England. They will certainly have benefitted from the trip and will have learned lessons in what is essentially a development team. Better there than having their first tournament experience in a World Cup or European Championship when the eyes and expectation of the whole nation are focused firmly on them.
From my own point of view, in my role, I have got better and felt more comfortable in a tournament environment over the three tournaments I’ve been to and, as much as I missed my family, I didn’t want to come home until the job was done. I certainly appreciate how this experience can only help the players.
So where next? Inevitable comparisons to Spain were made and how they are producing team after team of talented players, and no doubt they will take some beating this summer. They have got something right, but we will never be like Spain, we have to form our own playing style, our own philosophy, and not try to copy one nation or another. Ten years ago it was the French, before that Brazil and so on.
But we certainly have hope for the future. At Under-21s level we have been in the top eight nations in Europe for the last four years, something no other country can say, and Stuart Pearce and his staff will start the 2013 qualifying campaign in September aiming to make a fourth Finals on the trot.
Our U20s are one of six European sides at the World Cup in Colombia next month, and our U17s are in Mexico right now with one win from one game in their World Cup. Spain, however, aren’t there, proving how difficult it is just to qualify for some of these competitions.
So we are where we are, one of ten or twelve teams worldwide with designs and expectations on winning the prize. We just have to keep making sure we are there come the shake-up.
Thanks for reading my blog throughout the tournament, it’s a shame that this is the last one. But if you have more appetite for reading about what goes on behind the scenes in an England camp, we still have plenty of action this summer.
Members of The FA’s Communications team are at all tournaments this summer. James Marshall is in Mexico, follow him on Twitter @jamesmarshall_, Glenn Lavery (@laveryglenn) will be blogging from Germany and the Women’s World Cup and Nick Veevers (@nvivas79) will be doing likewise in Colombia with the U20s.
Then it all starts again in August, Stuart Mawhinney (@smawhinney) will be in the Senior Team camp as they look to qualify for the European Championship and I’ll be back with the Under-21s in September when we meet Azerbaijan. in the meantime, you can still follow me on Twitter @jamiebradbury.
You can also get the latest by ‘liking’ England Under-21s on Facebook.