England youths need playing time, not praise
England Under-21s prepare for semi-final against Germany without regular elite football
|ENGLAND U-21||GERMANY U-21|
Demarai Gray is an unfortunate poster boy for all that is wrong with English football.
Last week, the winger helped his country reach the semi-finals of the Euro Under-21 Championship for the first time.
Today, he'll line up to face Germany, the oldest of England's enemies.
Next week, he faces an uncertain club future.
Unsettled at Leicester City, he's the latest rising star to lose his way in the English Premier League's constellation of foreign dazzlers.
Call it the Gray area of English football.
The British media continues to celebrate Aidy Boothroyd's boys, beside stories on overseas transfer targets that could kill the kids' careers.
Their country praises them. But elite clubs rarely pick them.
Unless that failing is fixed in the near future - and it won't be - then most of the Young Lions are destined to become another cautionary tale.
Consider the common case of Gray. The precocious kid muscled his way into Birmingham City's first team at 17.
Three years later, he could be found dancing in a Leicester jersey, celebrating the unlikeliest of EPL title triumphs.
Now he wants out.
After a season that relegated him to the bench 38 times in all competitions, Gray's not feeling particularly regal at the King Power Stadium. He's angling for a transfer.
The final straw came when Young Lions coach Boothroyd, perhaps aware of Gray's lack of game time, dropped him for England's first two matches.
Gray was fast fading to black.
Fortunately, he came to the fore in the final group game against Poland, scoring the opener less than a week from his 21st birthday.
He's earned the right to start against Germany, but his rustiness was a result of English football's stubborn and systemic refusal to blood raw talent.
According to the Guardian, Spain kicked off the Euros with their youngsters clocking more minutes in Europe's top six leagues last season than any other nation - 38,891 minutes to be exact.
England are not even close.
Their boys managed just 17,914 minutes - less than half.
Nathaniel Chalobah (right) can't get a regular gig in the EPL or the English Championship, such is the panic-stricken nature of both leagues and their clubs' green- eyed obsession with avoiding relegation or achieving promotion.
That statistic is already remarkable considering La Liga's dominance of the Champions League in recent years, underlining the extraordinary pedigree of La Liga footballers - both local and foreign.
And yet, despite La Liga's omnipotence in Europe, reigning stars are still shuffled along the production line to make way for the next generation.
But it's not just Spain. Italy (33,367 minutes), Germany (32,994) and Portugal (28,402) are other leading nations that are way ahead of England (17,914) when it comes to incubating gifted kids at elite level.
English football's subservience to the Premier League's corporate clout has been well documented, with outlandish revenues forcing impatient managers to invest in established foreigners rather than take a punt on local raw gems.
As Gray seeks regular football elsewhere, the sports pages are dominated with the latest transfer rumours.
With the exception of Harry Kane being linked to Manchester United, every other potential target is foreign. The window of opportunity for promising indigenous talent continues to shrink.
When Chelsea loaned Nathaniel Chalobah to Watford in 2012, the defensive midfielder's impact was immediate, scoring five goals in 38 appearances. The big time beckoned.
And then it didn't.
Since Watford, Chalobah has started only 50 games through various loan spells at Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Reading and Napoli.
Chalobah's lack of elite experience suggested he wasn't competent enough at elite level, so he didn't get the necessary experience required at elite level and the initial scepticism became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As a result, only three of Boothroyd's current crop - Calum Chambers, James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond - have also played for the senior side.
Spain, on the other hand, boast six players with full international honours.
Promising forward Inaki Williams has already notched up 82 appearances for Athletic Bilbao, scoring 14 goals.
Bilbao have slapped him with a £43 million (S$75.9m) release clause. He's still only 23.
But he's blessed with the kind of regular, first-team experience that England's hopefuls can only dream of.
Chalobah can't get a regular gig in the EPL or the English Championship, such is the panic-stricken nature of both leagues and their clubs' green-eyed obsession with avoiding relegation or achieving promotion.
Several Spaniards in the Under-21s play regularly in the Champions League.
In terms of first-team experience, the gap between England and the rest remains a chasm, which seems such a waste of their talent, training and application.
So the Young Lions deserve to make a name for themselves against Germany. Most of them will be forgotten once the EPL season kicks off.