Debate: Manchester United youngsters Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are bright prospects, but not England’s future

By Jeremy Culley

Stuart Pearce said before last year’s Under-21 European Championships that Manchester United youngsters Phil Jones and Chris Smalling could forge a defensive partnership that could thrive for club and country for years to come.

After John Terry’s recent international retirement – with Rio Ferdinand seemingly out of England contention – his prophecy could conceivably soon come to pass.

But are they ready? And are they first in line?

Despite their abundant talents, the answer to both is probably no.

Joleon Lescott certainly hopes they are not England’s future, voicing his desire to play alongside former Everton teammate Phil Jagielka at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.

Manchester United fans will instantly point to Lescott’s comparative lack of technical grace – a gaffe never fells too far away with the City star, whose club have kept only one clean sheet in seven league attempts this term.

But that misses the point.

What Lescott and Jagielka have – which United’s young duo lack – is experience and familiarity.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been keen to justify the potential total outlay of £20million on Jones – deploying him in a holding midfield role when Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have held fort at the back.

The ex-Blackburn starlet has consequently played out of position for many of his limited Premier League appearances for United and, crucially, not partnered Smalling in central defence.

Jones was hailed as ‘immense’ by Pearce for his displays at the back for the Under 21s last summer but to graduate permanently to the senior ranks he must be producing those every week for United.

But he is not and neither is Smalling, who has been affected by similar problems.

His assets as a centre-half are there for all to see. He is composed on the ball, brave, good in the air and not lacking in pace.

United were so keen on him, he was prised away from Fulham despite the Londoner having made his first league start for the Cottagers only the previous month.

But, for a variety of reasons, he has hardly been a regular at Old Trafford, playing in well less than half the club’s Premier League games since joining.

Even then he has often been selected purely to deputise at right-back.

Indeed, with doubts over whether Glen Johnson or Kyle Walker can be England’s long-term solution in that position, Smalling’s international future could be filling that berth, leaving a gap in the centre free.

Either way, both he and Jones would have to be fit for a sustained period to cement a position in the national team and their track records are suspect.

Jones nursed several knocks during his encouraging debut season for United and is yet to appear this term as injury blows have mounted up.

He missed United’s first few games with back spasms before being sidelined in early September with a knee cartilage tear, an injury which not only is difficult to recover from but also inherently recurs.

Smalling’s knees appear fine but his progress at Old Trafford has still been halted by injury frustrations.

Like Jones, he has not featured this term, with metatarsal surgery undertaken in the summer consigning him to three months out.

Smalling is on the cusp of a return to action, with Jones only a few weeks behind, but their future England careers rest on more than match fitness.

Lescott and Jagielka – together mainstays for Everton with hundreds of league starts in the top flight between them – simply fit the bill for England better than Smalling and Jones.

Even Chelsea’s Gary Cahill – who appears to have overcome a challenging start to life at Stamford Bridge after leaving Bolton in January – may now be stealing a march on the pair.

To catch up, they could do worse than learn from two figures of England’s past.

Terry and Ferdinand established themselves as the last generation’s defensive stalwarts by being the heartbeat of their club sides.

When available, their Premier League places were not subject to debate and Terry, in particular, was a colossus in taking Chelsea to their first league titles in 50 years.

For Jones and Smalling to be held in similar reverence by the England management, they must get fit and force aside Ferdinand, Vidic and Jonny Evans to be Sir Alex’s first-choice centre-halves.

Until they do, their defensive partnership will thrive for neither club nor country.

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