• I don't care what Patrick Vieira says, insists England captain
• Gary Neville challenges Wayne Rooney to keep improving
Steven Gerrard has rejected Patrick Vieira's claim that young English players lack the pride and hunger to represent their country and pointed to a new-found strength in depth within the national set-up which is serving to "raise performances" under Roy Hodgson.
Vieira, now Manchester City's football development executive, had pointed to a lack of coaching quality as one explanation for why England "don't produce enough talent" and suggested young players "are not as proud as they used to be", citing the number of them who withdraw from international duty through injury between the ages of 16 and 21. Yet Gerrard, who will gain his 99th cap in evening's awkward World Cup qualifier against Poland, insisted he has seen no evidence to back up the Frenchman's assertion.
"It surprised me to read that and the impression I get, certainly from seeing the young players every day at Liverpool, is that they're desperate to get into this set-up," said the England captain. "You can see in their faces that when they're left out, they're disappointed. But what he said didn't annoy me because I don't really care what Patrick Vieira says. I know the young players are hungry."
The Liverpool midfielder has drawn encouragement from the emergence of a young generation of players now competing for places in the England side. "Maybe, in the past, there weren't youngsters coming through to challenge but the proof's there now," he said. "The likes of Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck are pushing for regular starts in this team, and we, as senior players, are aware of that.
"It keeps everyone on their toes and will raise performances, individually and collectively. I didn't really know it would happen like this after the Euros, when we were looking to move forward and strengthen. It's important not to get carried away with these youngsters – there's a long way to go. But there's talent there to give us real optimism for the future."
The England manager, Roy Hodgson, is expected to pick Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – another granted an opportunity under his management – against the Poles, with Cleverley a regular since the summer and Welbeck competing with Jermain Defoe to start at Warsaw's national stadium. The experienced Tottenham Hotspur striker spent a prolonged period of Monday night's training session in the arena working with Wayne Rooney, suggesting he could return to the side having sat out Friday's thrashing of San Marino.
Rooney will be key against the Poles, with the England coach Gary Neville challenging the Manchester United striker to continue improving his game, with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes to serve as inspiration. "At the age of 26 you always have to think that there's more to come," said Neville. "You can't get to the age of 26 and think: 'My best years have gone.' He has to now challenge himself. That's the challenge that always exists when you play for United and England, at the highest level of football: to keep reinventing yourself.
"He's a wonderful player: someone who's at his best when he's like the street kid, fighting for every ball – and with the passion to win. We need to see Wayne Rooney improve, and Wayne Rooney needs to see himself improve. The last couple of weeks, coming back from injury, I've seen a lean, fit, hungry Wayne Rooney. He has got a huge challenge around him just to maintain his position at United but he looks like he is really up for it."
Hodgson intends to select the Arsenal right-back Carl Jenkinson for next month's friendly against Sweden after receiving assurances from the 20-year-old that he wishes to commit his future to England rather than Finland. The youngster, whose mother is a Finn, has represented both countries at youth level but trained with the England seniors at London Colney on Sunday. He has yet to receive clearance from Fifa to play for England, though the FA will now secure that paperwork.
"He didn't take a lot of convincing," said Hodgson. "Carl was in my thoughts anyway, and we'd invited him to train with us knowing full well he couldn't take part in this game. But it gave me the opportunity to sit him down and ask him the question. I don't want to trick him to play for England with a few minutes in a game to 'block' him. But he had to make a decision because we're very interested in him, even if the competition is tougher to get him into the England team rather than the Finland team. He made it very clear he wanted to play for us."