Youngsters give heart to old guard
Storm clouds were banking up on the hills behind the Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia - but Fabio Capello adopted a brighter outlook as England trained ahead of Friday's Euro 2012 qualifier in Bulgaria.
Manchester United's Chris Smalling drew noises of appreciation from his England colleagues for a flamboyant piece of footwork, while Old Trafford team-mate Phil Jones was barking out orders in a manner that belied his 19 years.
Capello spent Thursday giving serious consideration to playing both of Sir Alex Ferguson's young pair against Bulgaria as England seek to establish a firm foundation to take them towards Poland and the Ukraine next summer, although Bolton's Gary Cahill may yet gain consolation for missing out on a move to either Spurs or Arsenal by winning a fourth cap.
England's visit here has hardly grabbed the undivided attention of Sofia's population. Only 15,000 are expected to file into a stadium with a capacity of nearly 44,000, but the new young talent emerging into Capello's ranks has captured the imagination of 4,000 visiting supporters expected to file into the Bulgarian capital.
Smalling and Jones (second and third from left) helped a youthful Manchester United side win the Community Shield. Photo: Getty
Tickets have been available for purchase at local petrol stations but there has been a shortage of takers as England face a Bulgaria team in reduced circumstances, with former Germany captain Lothar Matthaus continuing to prove players can struggle to take their greatness into coaching, while Manchester United's Dimitar Berbatov is now part of his national team's past.
Capello's future is limited to the conclusion of Euro 2012, but he is at least seeing the discovery of precious raw materials in the shape of Smalling and Jones, as well the brilliant but absent Jack Wilshere of Arsenal. United's Tom Cleverley could also make his debut in the next two games, while team-mate Danny Welbeck would also have been included were it not for his injury.
Smalling and Jones have impressed coaches and colleagues alike since joing England’s squad this week. Smalling was used as right-back in training and Jones has been captain John Terry’s defensive partner in two behind-closed doors sessions, but the Italian may decide using both in such a vital match runs too much of a risk.
Terry makes no secret of his admiration for Jones, having been alerted to his potential when he made his Blackburn debut against Chelsea in March last year - revealing an immediate desire among his colleagues to see Jones eventually arrive at Stamford Bridge.
Manchester United won the battle for his signature in a £16m deal in the summer, but Terry's respect for Jones has only increased after working with him at close quarters with England.
He said: "He's really impressed me. He made his debut for Blackburn Rovers against us against Didier Drogba. He was outstanding. The lads were talking after the game and were eager for Chelsea to go and sign him even back then. He went on to play a lot more games and establish himself.
"He's very quick. He's good in the air, very comfortable on the ball left and right foot. I've had the opportunity to play with him in training a couple of times and he reads it very well. He's got all the attributes he needs to be a very good England player I'm sure.
"From what I've seen of him, even playing at Manchester United for such a short time, he looks like he's come on in leaps and bounds from where he was last year. He's the one that really sticks out in our position and he's one I'm looking over my shoulder at because clearly he wants a place in the England side whether that is at the expense of myself or somebody else. He's very hungry for that."
And Capello, not known for dispensing praise without lengthy consideration, turned his attention to Smalling, who has impressed at right-back and could take advantage of the absence of injured Glen Johnson.
He said: "Smalling he really surprised me when he played against Manchester City in the Community Shield at Wembley. The first 30 minutes was so-so but after that improved, improved, improved, improved.
"Smalling has played really well, really good and with a lot of confidence. He can play for England."
The exposed old Sofia stadium is not the hostile bowl of days gone by, but England will still face a test and Capello knows defeat will make his and his team's life highly uncomfortable.
And yet the young bloods, led by Jones, Smalling and Wilshere, put Terry and Capello at their ease as they spoke in a Sofia Hotel on Thursday night.
As England trained, a group of youngsters were inside and outside the stadium wearing Manchester United shirts, no doubt in honour of Berbatov. The words of Capello and Terry suggest they may have new Old Trafford heroes to celebrate when memories of their revered fellow countryman fade.