KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - Ashley Young smiled just once when he faced a room of reporters at England’s Euro 2012 city-centre media hotel on Saturday.
When asked what he thought about stories claiming that the French central defenders he will face in Monday’s Group D opening clash are slow and overweight, the forward latched onto the invitation as if it was an opportunity to score.
“I hope they are -- it would give us a chance,” he quipped.
It was the only flash of the man behind the mask and the only natural answer that went beyond the control of media training exercises.
But if any England player has a real chance to enhance a growing reputation at Euro 2012, it could be Young.
The 26-year-old Manchester United forward scored one goal and made the other in England’s two recent warm-up games against Norway and Belgium, the first of the ‘new’ Roy Hodgson era.
Playing ‘in the hole’ behind a centre-forward, or on the left wing, he has scored six goals in 21 appearances, four of those coming in his last five appearances.
The statistics confirm he has the ability to replace, albeit temporarily, the suspended Wayne Rooney as the fulcrum of England’s attacking play.
“I‘m enjoying it,” he said. “We are feeling confident and, of course, I know Wayne and he is a world-class player... but I am hoping to do well for the manager, if I am selected.”
Softly-spoken, almost diffident, and as withdrawn in public as he is as the second striker in the England team, Young could emerge as the joker in Hodgson’s squad.
His technical ability, especially his right-foot shooting and dribbling, and his speed, came to the fore with Manchester United last season and saw him score several spectacular goals, often with curling long shots.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmotts picked him out last weekend as the most dangerous and difficult opponent in the England team, a role that Young will hope to reprise against old foes France in their Group A opener in Donetsk on Monday.
“We know they are a very good team, a great team, and they are very dangerous, so we expect a tough game,” he said. “But we are going out to win as we always do.”
In an almost-mumbling cameo of a sportsman at a news conference, he avoided direct answers to questions about racial abuse, team selection and his family’s attendance at matches, but he clearly welcomed fellow-striker Jermain Defoe back to the fold.
Defoe had returned to London following the death of his father, but rejoined England’s squad for a closed training session on Saturday morning.
“It’s good to have him back,” said Young who began his career under current England assistant coach Ray Lewington before later joining Aston Villa en route to Manchester, where he signed for United a year ago this month.
He suggested also that it was better for Defoe to be with the England squad, given his current feelings. “He seemed to be in high spirits to be back,” he said. “We are all pleased to see him.”
He added that he also felt “the buzz” as he watched the tournament begin with two exciting Group A games on Friday evening. “I felt the adrenalin running through my body... Now I just want us to get on with it too.”
Reporting By Tim Collings, editing by Justin Palmer