Under-21s a fundamental rite of passage, says Eadie

The brightest and best of the England Under-21s taking on Romania at Carrow Road tonight will be hoping they are now only a short step away from full international recognition.

Go back more than a decade and that same wish was so nearly fulfilled by one of the Canaries’ most popular players after he made seven under-21 appearances for his country.

Only injury denied star forward Darren Eadie an almost certain England senior appearance after he twice forced his way into then boss Glenn Hoddle’s squad.

But the one-time City player of the season still treasures the memory of his time as an England player.

Between 1994 and 1997, he appeared against France, USA, Moldova, Georgia twice and Italy twice. Those matches yielded a healthy return of five wins and a draw, most of them coming during the first England Under-21 reign of Peter Taylor, later Eadie’s club manager for more than a year at Leicester.

“I look back on it all with great fondness. It’s always great to be called up by your country at whatever level,” said Eadie, now 35, who was also an England youth international.

“The under-21s was a good place to be for carrying on into the full squad, which is what happened to me, because I did get called up.

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“As I heard Stuart Pearce saying the other day, you get a sense of being close to the full squad and it gives you a lot of confidence.

“We would travel with the senior team, so you got an insight into how the full squad worked.

“And to train with people like David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt – it was a great group of players.”

The highlight of Eadie’s England Under-21 career came not at Carrow Road, however, but closer to home in a different sense.

The Chippenham-born forward scored the only goal against Italy at Bristol City’s Ashton Gate ground in February 1997 – outwitting future World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon in the process.

“With the Italy game being played in the West Country, it was nice for me, coming from down that way and I had a lot of family there,” he recalled.

“The Italians were always tough opponents and we weren’t really expected to win.”

They reckoned without Eadie’s quick thinking and an uncharacteristic error from the man between the posts.

“Buffon was in goal and he went on to be regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world,” said Eadie.

“It was quite a bizarre goal because he came out to try to shepherd the ball out for a goal-kick.

“I chased it down and forced him into touch, off the pitch, and I managed to turn and put the ball in from a tight angle.”

Eadie, who played alongside Emile Heskey in attack that night - and had City team-mate Andy Marshall behind him as the last line of defence – had little time to enjoy his 50th-minute winner, however.

He hobbled off 10 minutes later because of a thigh injury, to be replaced by a certain Darren Huckerby, winning the first of his four England Under-21 caps.

But 1996-97 was a golden season for Eadie, who won the Barry Butler Memorial Trophy after scoring 17 times for the Canaries and was called into Hoddle’s senior squad for Le Tournoi summer tournament in France, only to be forced out by injury.

The following season brought his last under-21 cap with a second 1-0 success over Italy secured by Kieron Dyer’s goal, on a day when Rio Ferdinand and Jamie Carragher were among Eadie’s team-mates.

But it was another name that came swiftly to prominence as Eadie’s injury misfortune struck again and he was ruled out of the game against Greece in December 1997 – missing the chance to play for his country in front of his home crowd. Instead Heskey found a new partner up front and forged a partnership that was to blossom at senior level.

“I missed the game at Carrow Road because I was injured, and Michael Owen played. He was only 18, a few years younger than me, but they brought him into the under-21 side and he scored that night,” said Eadie.

England won 4-2 with Heskey scoring twice, and six months later Owen was a World Cup star in France, earning instant acclaim for his stunning goal against Argentina and playing in two more World Cups.

For Eadie, who moved to Leicester for �3m in 1999 but was restricted to just 47 appearances in three and a half years before retiring through injury, the dream full England cap never came.

But he will be willing the Young Lions of today to light up Norwich tonight on his old home territory.

“Carrow Road will be a great place to play an under-21 game because the Norfolk crowd turn out in their thousands and they appreciate good players to come and watch,” he said.

At his best, there were few more appreciated in Canary colours.