The England ‘B’ team was once a critical tool for the Football Association. It was a stepping stone, used by managers to see if players were ready for the big stage.
Paul Gascoigne played for the B team eight months before he lit up the 1990 World Cup. Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler, Sol Campbell and Tony Adams won B caps in the 1990s. Go back a little further and you will see the names of luminaries such as Bryan Robson and Glenn Hoddle in the record books, too.
England haven’t played a B team game since May 2007 – they beat Albania 3-1 at Turf Moor, a game that featured Michael Owen – but there is an argument to say Thursday night’s fixture against San Marino should be treated as one.
England’s players line up before their last B team game – a 3-1 win over Albania at Turf Moor in May, 2007. (Back row, from left to right) Scott Carson, Michael Dawson, Ledley King, Jermaine Jenas, Gareth Barry and Alan Smith; (Front row, from left to right) David Bentley, Phil Neville, Michael Owen, Aaron Lennon, Nicky Shorey.
Alan Shearer (left), pictured in an England B game in 1982, and Jermain Defoe (right), pictured in action in the last B fixture against Albania, are among the big names to play for the B team
England’s B team pose before a game against Italy in Brighton in November, 1989. (Back row, from left to right) Michael Thomas, Tony Adams, Gary Pallister, Mike Newell, Steve Bull and Nigel Martyn. (Front row, from left to right) Dennis Wise, Paul Parker, Tony Dorigo, David Batty and Paul Gascoigne
Yes, this is the start of a road that will lead to Qatar but Gareth Southgate does not need to play his first-choice line-up to begin this qualification campaign with a victory. San Marino will play 11 men behind the ball with the intention of limiting the damage. We know that in advance.
Southgate will argue time is not on his side as he prepares for Euro 2020 and each game carries great significance as he looks to hone his plans. He will treat San Marino with respect and want to play a strong team to build momentum.
But what will he learn if he starts Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling? When Southgate was Under-21 head coach, England played San Marino twice in the space of four weeks in autumn 2013 – the results were 5-0 and 9-0. Kane and Sterling scored five of the 14 unanswered goals.
The England boss will learn little from playing Harry Kane (centre) and the rest of his usual XI
Young midfielder Phil Foden has impressed for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City this season
He’s known for eight years they can produce against this type of opponent.
Kane, for selfish reasons that all strikers will understand, will want to play so he can push himself up the all-time leading scorers chart. Whatever gripes Jose Mourinho has about game time, Kane will see the potential to get nearer to history.
What Southgate should look at, though, is the bigger picture. Chances to experiment without risk are very rare but he has that chance on Thursday evening.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if he selected an inexperienced team – the kind you used to see represent the B team – and not pick any with more than 15 caps?
Manchester United’s Luke Shaw is back in Southgate’s plans and deserves a chance to impress
It could be easily done. Whichever of the goalkeepers he selects – most likely to be Nick Pope – all fit the criteria.
Pope has played four times for England, Dean Henderson has a solitary cap while Sam Johnstone has solid claims to make his debut.
The indications are that Southgate will play 4-3-3, so the defence would be easily called. Reece James (four) at right back; Conor Coady (three), Tyrone Mings (seven) and Luke Shaw (eight). Move into midfield and Kalvin Phillips and James Ward-Prowse (both four) could accompany Jude Bellingham (one).
Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins would be perfect for the B team after winning his first call-up
As would Conor Coady (right), Tyrone Mings (centre) and James Ward-Prowse (front)
That leaves the attack. Mason Mount (13) could feature on the right – he did media duties so we know he is starting – with Dominic Calvert-Lewin (five) through the middle and Phil Foden (three) on the left.
It is a team, without question, that would take care of San Marino.
More than anything, it would be full of hunger with players desperate to impress. Southgate could see how they responded to different challenges and dealt with new problems, all while there is a degree of tension for them to deliver three points.
There would be no better outcome than the B team delivering straight As in a test for Southgate. It will be a missed opportunity if he does not set it.
Sportsmail’s England starting XI made up of players who all have under 15 caps