As any long-term England supporter is painfully aware, following the national side in major tournaments is never a pleasurable experience. An inability to make it out the group in Brazil three years ago was followed up by that infamous afternoon in Nice last summer where a nation the size of Cardiff sent us packing. Even the relatively smooth qualification for Russia 2018 was uninspiring – suffice to say, there is an inherent gloom that surrounds the England national football team.
But there shouldn’t be. Despite the unwanted talent of the senior team to stumble from one disaster to the next, England youth teams have dazzled all year. Last night England reached the final of the U17 World Cup in India, beating pre-tournament favourites Brazil 3-1 in the semi-final thanks to the second hattrick in as many matches from Rhian Brewster. Chile, Mexico, Iraq, Japan and the USA have all been dispatched by a bold England side that has averaged three goals a game. They seek revenge in the final on a Spanish team that beat them (on penalties, of course) in the final of the European championships earlier this year in Croatia. England boasted six of the eleven players featured in the ‘Team of the Tournament’ there, along with player of the tournament, Jadon Sancho.
Manager Steve Cooper delivered a refreshing take on the identity the youth teams are trying to adopt in their football: “It’s about dominating possession and playing attacking football. We think it’s a style which can serve us well.” The way in which they beat Brazil yesterday epitomised this sentiment; speed, flair and swagger were showcased in abundance – words usually associated with the football produced by England’s opponents last night.
This is not a one-off either. As mentioned, the U17 team have already featured in another major final in May, but other age groups have made this a year of unprecedented success. The U19 England team were crowned European Champions for the first time in 24 years, winning every game leading up to their 2-1 victory over Portugal in the final. Exciting prospect Ryan Sessegnon headed up the tournament’s top scorer list along with England teammate Ben Brereton. Not to be upstaged by their younger counterparts, Paul Simpson led the U20 side to World Cup glory in South Korea earlier this summer, beating Venezuela in the final thanks to a goal from Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Their road to the final included victories over heavyweights Italy and Argentina and Liverpool’s Dominic Solanke won the golden ball for best player. Only a penalty defeat to Germany (who would’ve guessed it) in the semi-finals of the Under-21 European championship denied Aidy Boothroyd’s team the chance at more major tournament success this year.
Whether the U17’s win or lose their World Cup final against Spain on Saturday will not drastically change the unbelievable success of the England youth teams this year. Grassroots football in England is clearly delivering some of the best talent in the world to the England youth selectors and must continue to do so in order to keep pace with the Spain and Germanys of the world.
What is crucial is that these inspirational performances from England’s youth this year do not get ignored by their club teams and that they are given early chances to continue their progression by their senior club teams rather than continuously being shipped out on loan or stuck warming the bench. Speaking after the U20 success, senior manager Gareth Southgate echoed this frustration with Premier League clubs when he said: “Everybody knocks our youth development. Everyone says we don’t have good youth development, and people search the world to bring people in when players are under their noses. If we’ve got a team in a world final at that age group, why are we looking around the world?” Hopefully, these groups of English starlets can form the foundation of a much brighter future for the senior squad in major championships and youth systems across England can continue to produce the kind of talent that was on show this year.
It might be too soon to think of World Cup glory in Russia next year. But with the Young Lions showing the future is bright, Qatar 2022 could finally be an enjoyable major tournament for an England supporter.
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