England Women Under-19s are all set to take on Europe's best as they prepare for
England Women Under-19s are all set to take on Europe's best as they prepare for this week's Second Group Stage qualifying for this summer's UEFA U19 European Championship Finals in Germany.
Mo Marley's England side face three games in just six days as they attempt to overcome the Republic of Ireland, Denmark and Spain and claim the single automatic qualifying spot for the finals.
England kick-off on Tuesday evening against Republic of Ireland at Bedford Town with a 6.00pm start.
The England Under-19s are a force to be reckoned with and had a fantastic 2002, reaching the semi-finals of the annual European Championships and the quarter-finals of the inaugural FIFA U19 World Championships in Canada.
An integral part of the team's success was Everton star Kelly McDougall, who is one of only nine players remaining from the squad that reached the semi-finals in Canada last year. But despite last year's experiences she is really looking forward to next week, especially as the tournament is based in this country.
"It is going to be the first time a lot of the girls have played a tournament on home soil so that is part of the excitement," she told TheFA.com. "I think it will be a lot more physical this time around but if we play our game I think that we can play football around them."
The preparation for the match hasn't all gone to plan, with the influential Fara Williams unavailable for selection due to a stress fracture of the back and three players have pulled out of the squad over the past week - Georgie Adams, Kim Holden and Laura Husselbee. The three replacement players called up are Claire Bridgett of Sunderland, Portsmouth's Laura Frogatt and Emma Thomas of Arsenal.
But McDougall has no doubts that the new members in the squad can prove as successful as their counterparts before them. "Some of the other squad members have been in and out of the squad before and we played together in the first qualifying tournament. We are a young side but we have come together well. We have lost a lot of experienced players but experience isn't everything and those who have come in are really fit and talented, so if we all play well together than I can't see a reason why we won't qualify."
England sailed through the First Qualification Group Stage in October with good wins against hosts Bulgaria, Lithuania and the Faroe Islands. They now face the challenge of winning this group stage, which assures only the winners of an automatic qualifying spot. The three best runners-up from the four groups will also join automatic qualifiers Germany, as hosts, in the Finals.
The qualifying campaign is very intense, with the teams playing three games in six days from Tuesday 15th to Saturday 17th April, but McDougall is not worried about the busy schedule. "It is very hard when we do have three games in one week, but all the staff know what is best for us and give us our rest and prepare us to the best of their ability. More than likely the first XI won't start all three games, so it is going to be important that the whole squad are together on this and not just the first team."
The Everton midfielder's experience will prove invaluable and McDougall is confident that England are more than capable of progressing to the finals. "Last year we showed that technically we were probably, if not the best team, then one of the best teams in the European Championships and I feel that again this year we are technically one of the better teams. It will just be whether we can compete physically.
"I am very confident that we will win the group. The first game is going to be the important one against the Republic of Ireland and if we win that it will set us on our way."
With the qualification tournament being on home soil for the first time, the backing of a home crowd could provide the edge that England need to win the group and McDougall has a message for the people of Bedfordshire.
"A lot of the girls will be nervous so it will be nice to get a bit of support from everyone. It is not often that the women get the chance to play on home turf in a big tournament in front of a big crowd and it will be really nice to see some familiar faces there cheering us on and giving us support."
With England coming so close last year to the European crown, McDougall believes that the European Championships in Germany this summer could end in success for the Young Lions. "I think that if we do qualify this time, I feel there is no reason why we can't do as well as we did last year, if not better. It is always luck of the draw but I think this could be our year."
You can keep up to date with the England Under-19s' progress on TheFA.com
How to watch the games:
Tuesday 15th April 2003
Spain v Denmark at 2.00pm
England v Republic of Ireland at 6.00pm
Both matches at Bedford Town FC
Ticket details: £1 adults & concessions - entry on the gate
Thursday 17th April 2003
Denmark v Republic of Ireland at 2.00pm
Spain v England at 6.00pm
Both matches at Arlesey Town FC
Ticket details: £1 adults & concessions - in advance via phone/fax - 01462 734512 - or on the gate
Saturday 19th April 2003
Republic of Ireland v Spain
at 3.00pm at Bedford United FC
Denmark v England
at 3.00pm at Barton Rovers FC
England ticket details: £1 adults & concessions - in advance via phone/fax - 01582 882398 - or on the gate
By Ben Rice