England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce, a top-class and much-feared full back for club and country in his playing days, admits he is glad he didn’t have to mark the lightning-fast forwards at his disposal now - players like Gabriel Agbonlahor and James Milner, both currently plying their trade with Aston Villa.
Pearce believes the quality and depth of the squad he is lining up to meet Wales over two legs this week in the plays-offs for a place in the European Under 21 Championship Finals means, he believes he can create a euphoria in England not seen for more than a decade.
The first leg is in Cardiff on Friday night with the return in front of Agonlahor and Milner’s home fans at Villa Park next Tuesday and the former Manchester City boss said: “The one thing this young side has is pace and with players like Gabby Agbonlahor, it depends sometimes what the opposition do, as to how we play him.
“We know what our strengths are as a group of people. We feel as though we have got them in a formation that suits them as individuals. We want them to flourish but we also know the Welsh will be different oppostion over two matches. They are more direct than maybe Portugal were in our last game, but that is the beauty of international football.”
Pearce belives Agbonlahor and Milner can improve their game from their experiences of playing in major tournaments like this at international level. He said: “That is why I think it is important these young players come out of the Premier League and come and play international football.
“They should come and experience contrasting styles. We will have a more direct approach from Wales over two games and then after that we play the Czech Republic, who are a different proposition to cope with.
Pearce is very much of the same mind as Villa manager Martin O’Neill on how to play 21-year-old Agbonlahor who has found the back of the net five teams so far this season. He said: “Gabby’s favoured position is down the middle and that is where Martin (O’Neill) uses him but he also drops him into the wide areas at certain times during matches.
“The beauty of him and Theo Walcott, when he is with us, is that he can play anywhere across any of the front three positions. We have one or two like that - James Milner can probably do it as well. If you get a few players in your squad who can mix and match a little bit, it is very helpful. “
Recalling his own days in defence with England and Nottingham Forest, Pearce said: “As a full back, the one thing you really feared was marking someone with pace.
“You knew full well that if someone could out-run you and then you didn’t stick tight on them, then you would have to rely on a covering tackle. With the likes of Agbonlahor, or Walcot,t there is no recovery time. Once they are the other side of you, they are off again.”
Pearce, who was speaking at a grass roots football event at New Oscott Primary School in Sutton Coldfield, said he believed his young side were ready to go one better than last summer when they were cruelly knocked out of the European Under 21 Championships in the semi-final on penalties by the hosts, Holland.
He said: “This squad has such an appetite to learn and improve and that makes my job easy. For me doing this job, this is the biggest game for two years. When you are in the group stage, you know you can have a slip up and get away with it. There is no time for that now. The players know it is all or nothing.
“We want to go to the tournament next summer but we are acutely aware the Welsh want to go as well. We have seven play off matches now and which ever seven teams go through will be very strong for next summer.We want to be at that party.”
Should England achieve that place in the last seven and the possibility of lifting the European Championship trophy in Sweden next summer, Pearce knows he will not suddenly have the credentials to be senior coach Fabio Capello’s successor.
He said: “I enjoy this job and feel very fortunate to work with the group of people I am with, people like James Milner and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake.
“I haven’t really given the (England job) a great deal of thought. I really enjoy this and my involvement with the seniors is massive for me but it is not why I joined the FA. It is fantastic opportunity to work with Fabio but thi is Utopia for me - to work with the Under-21s and then link with seniors.”
Pearce admits he is still as nervous before a big game like tomorrow’s as he was as a player. “I still get the same feelings,” he said. “As a player it is is in your hands but as a coach, when the players walk out of the door, you keep your fingers crossed that they do everything you have asked them for. It was difficult at first for a hands-on lunatic like myself but the longer you are in management, the better you come to trust your team.”
His one aim now is silverware - something he is convinced will lift the spirits of the nation. “We want to take, for the good of English football, the biggest and best squad we can take to the tournament next summer (if we get there) to win it and that might mean pinching back Theo Walcott from the seniors!
“What is the point in qualifiying over a two- year period with strongest team and then sending your second-string squad?. What’s the point in taking the tournament on and then not giving it your best?
“There isn’t a club anywhere who would get to the final of the Champions League or the FA Cup and rest eight of their players.Who would do that? It is madness.
“The England side at under 21 and senior level have not been successful. For me, the excitement and euphoria that gets generated when we bring a trophy back to these shores will be unrivalled - unrivalled by any club winning the Champions League or whatever.
“I saw a glimpse of that euphoria with England in Euro 96 and in Italy in 1990. Now to bring some silverware back whether it be with the under 21s or seniors, has got to benefit this country.”