One game in and Tom Lees and England’s Under-21s are already at the point of sudden death.
Lose to Norway this evening (June 8) and their European Championship is over, three days after it began.
Wednesday night’s defeat to Italy – an “awful performance” in the words of Stuart Pearce – ensured that England will do this the hard way, if at all. Their uncertainty is in contrast to the class of 1984 and the marauding power of the last Under-21 squad to win the Euros outright.
The format looked different 30 years ago but the crux of the tournament was identical: a competition between Europe’s burgeoning elite, played out in the warm months of summer. England’s Under-21s were untouchable in 1984, relentlessly strong at home and unflinching abroad. The Guardian described them as “marvellously composed.”
“That’s a good way of putting it,” says Mel Sterland, the man whose goal swung the final against Spain in England’s favour. Managed by the late Dave Sexton, the squad showed a streak of composure and understanding which was barely visible as Pearce’s team toiled against Italy in Tel Aviv earlier this week.
“There are times as a footballer when everything feels perfect, when performance follows performance,” Sterland says. “That was one of those tournaments. We looked like a team who were going to win it and I always thought we would. We were too good.”
Too good is not the half of it. Back in 1984, the European Under-21 Championship began with eight groups of teams playing each other home and away. England won five and lost once to Greece, averaging two goals a game.
The knockout stages from the last eight to the final were played over two legs and similarly emphatic. England annihilated France at Hillsborough and reached the semi-finals 7-1 on aggregate before riding a defeat away from home to dispatch an Italian side featuring Roberto Mancini. That result set up two games against Spain with a first leg in Seville.
Sterland, the former Leeds United full-back, had scored against France and produced the only goal on a night of sheet rain in Seville. “I played a one-two with Paul Bracewell, found myself in the box and put the ball to the keeper’s right,” he says. “You know me – I didn’t get nosebleeds at that end of the field. It was a gift of a chance and I buried it.
“Right from the start we seemed to click every time we played, with the odd exception. Dave (Sexton) was a smashing bloke and a unique coach, God bless him. He had an unusual way about him. You’d be involved in an important team talk in the middle of the pitch and some geese would fly by. He’d stop what he was doing and say, ‘hey, what lovely birds.’ You’d stand there thinking ‘er, I guess.’
“He disarmed you, he relaxed you and above all he put no pressure on you. The Euros were a big deal back then, a bigger deal than they are now I’d say, but I don’t remember that side ever feeling the heat. We had some cracking players – Bracewell, Dave Watson, Steve Hodge, Mark Hateley – and in that tournament we were different class.”
Sterland’s goal in Seville gave England a useful advantage and Spain were soundly beaten 2-0 during the second leg at Bramall Lane. Hateley scored a fine volley and took a sly elbow to the face, leaving him with a badly cut lip at full-time.
Eleven of the 17 players used by Sexton over two legs went on to win full caps and two – Mark Chamberlain and Nick Pickering – had already done so by then. They were freed for inclusion in the Under-21 squad regardless.
Pearce, in his defence, is not in a position to choose all of England’s leading Under-21 players in Israel. Several were involved instead in England’s senior friendlies against the Republic of Ireland and Brazil.
“That I can’t understand,” Sterland says. “I’m all for pushing lads on but this is a major tournament. The other games were friendlies.
“Send the best Under-21s to the Euros and they’ll go close to winning it. As far as I’m concerned the Euros are worth winning. We had loads of attention on us in ’84, loads of reporters following us and rooting for us. You felt like it mattered.
“I know things are different now and Under-21 football doesn’t really have any profile at all but I sometimes think that the rush to push lads up to the senior squad is a bit strange. Fair enough if they’re different class but not if they’re on the fringes – not at the expense of playing in the Euros.”
Photographs of Sterland holding the European Championship trophy show him with a look of pride as clear as the sky.
“We’ve reached a point where things like the Under-21s are a bit of an after-thought for most people,” he says. “Maybe some players too. That’s not how it should be.
“I got rid of my medal and I’ve no idea where it is but I’ve still got the memories and they mean more. The memories are what matter most.”