It might come as a shock to some more casual followers of football, but take a look at England’s current Under 21 squad and in the ‘Defenders’ section, you’ll find Michael Mancienne, Ryan Bertrand, and Jack Cork. Three young, English defenders currently on the books of Chelsea – two of them having been with the club over a decade.
In a week where Roy Keane has expressed his disappointment at The FA’s rules regarding catchment areas for young footballers, it is perhaps refreshing to have the opportunity to throw these words in the faces of those who have expressed similar sentiments in the past. It’s entirely conceivable that at Cardiff’s Ninian Park tonight, England’s Under 21 back four will include the Chelsea three, as Stuart Pearce’s boys look to take a strong lead back to Villa Park for the Second Leg, chasing a spot in 2009’s European Under 21 Championships in Sweden.
Mancienne has been at the forefront of England’s campaign. With six caps under his belt and capable of playing at right-back or centre-back, he gives Pearce versatilty as well as outstanding talent. Cork and Bertrand, on the other hand, are new faces to the fold. Bertrand, the former Gillingham schoolboy, was a regular throughout the England youth ranks up to Under 19 level but fell foul of a curfew in an incident involving team-mate Scott Sinclair and Newcastle’s Andy Carroll. However, the young left-back has put his head down and turned in consistently superb performances for Norwich on loan, and has caught Pearce’s eye sufficiently to warrant a selection and likely start with Middlesbrough’s Andrew Taylor out injured.
Cork was a late injury replacement call-up himself, stepping in for Micah Richards. It isn’t necessarily an indication of the regard in which he’s held, but then again perhaps it should be. Currently part of a struggling Southampton team, Cork has proven himself one of the Championship’s outstanding performers over the last twelve months and, like Richards and Mancienne, can play at right-back or centre-back. He has the added benefit of being a strong midfielder, and gives Pearce options during a crucial time in the campaign.
It’s not all about England though. Wales are a force to be reckoned with at this level, their squad featuring the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Collison and Rhoys Wiggins. It could have been stronger – Wayne Hennessey, Gareth Bale, Sam Vokes, Chris Gunter and Joe Ledley would all have been eligible – but are part of the senior squad. This in turn plays into the hands of Chelsea’s Rhys Taylor. He’ll be competing for the starting gloves alongside incumbent Owain Fon Williams of Swansea, and on his form this season so far would be a stern test for England to get past. He only has one cap to date, against Sweden in 2007, but is still only 18 to Fon Williams’ 21, so his time is still to come.
Both legs are televised live, the First Leg on Sky Sports One tonight with a 7.45pm kickoff. The return leg at Aston Villa is on Setanta on Tuesday.