England Under-17s are world champions, claiming the trophy in emphatic fashion after a Phil Foden double and Rhian Brewster’s eighth goal of the tournament fired the Young Lions to a 5-2 World Cup final win over old foes Spain in Kolkata, India on Saturday.
A dramatic, come from behind victory saw Steve Cooper’s teenagers turn around a 2-0 deficit within a devastating spell of little more than half an hour in which youthful energy, dynamism and cool finishing swept away a Spanish side that must have felt they had one hand on the trophy, with them having taken an early two goal lead.
The U17s win is a result that matches the stellar achievements of England’s 2017 World Cup-winning under-20s. It was also a victory that avenged this U17 group’s summer defeat by Spain in the final of the European Championship.
Make no mistake, England have been a dominant force within youth age-group football in 2017, with every young England team playing with a footballing identity and incisiveness notably absent from a senior England side that are too often inhibited by weight of expectation
Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden and Liverpool forward Rhian Brewster are just two more names from the U17 World Cup that can be added to the roll-call of emergent talents at various ages. This has been a beyond vintage year for England’s Young Lions’ sides.
Winners at the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cup levels, U19 European Championships and winners of The Toulon Tournament (for U20 players), Young England teams were also runners-up in the U17 Euros and they reached the semifinals of its U21 renewal too.
For St George’s Park, the Staffordshire complex that hosts the English Football Association’s national football centre, this procession of successes will be hailed as an emphatic justification for a controversial project in its fifth year of operation.
But youth development is not about successful teams, sweeping all before them at under-age levels. Youth development’s raison d’etre is creating first team players. And that is no less the case at international level than it is for clubs.
The mature teams that win things, rather than flatter to deceive, have two things going for them – almost universally. And this creates a bind for English players of all ages, including the ones currently embarked upon the senior national side pathway.
Firstly, top teams have recognisable stars, those one or two players that lift their team to the next level, turn tight games their way, provide moments of decisive inspiration. You need them at the top level, and England don’t seem capable of producing game-changers either at full international or club level.
The most common criticism within the game is that the academy system creates polite, fit, fast, well coached teams but it doesn’t create true stars or tough individuals. And that is what currently consigns England to the same status that they have enjoyed throughout my lifetime. England are a team that at full age level, typically qualify, get through tournament groups and then crash on the rocks spectacularly during the knock-out phase.
The second factor is that real deal teams also have a football identity. And this is why the modern, cohesive style of play that is common to all the St George’s Park sides has been greeted with such enthusiasm in 2017.
Winning teams and Golden Generations exhibit a way of playing the game that is unique to the team in question and it is an expression of their qualities as individuals and a collective. And interestingly enough, all these young England sides are developing a way of playing that is based on a tacit acceptance that their international opponents are generally better players.
This means that England’s under age teams have been forced to play a game that emphasises their own players’ strengths: athleticism and stamina rather than an ability to dominate opponents with the ball.
It means, for example, that England’s U20 World Cup winners in May got off to the perfect start in South Korea in May despite being largely outplayed by Argentina in the 90 minutes. However, they nonetheless won the game 3–0 due to their ability on the break and with a game of fast transitions that is the current signature of the dominant Champions League style.
England’s youngsters almost certainly can’t win like Guardiola’s Barcelona but they look like they can prosper in the pragmatic style of Zidane’s Real Madrid.
That’s impressive. Truly.
However, it isn’t that easy to replicate that tight-knit dressing room mentality amongst millionaire stars in a full international context.
In addition, this is not the football that England’s fickle fans and excitable media want or expect.
They want their Three Lions to dominate opponents, as a misplaced expression of English exceptionalism. But the world has moved on. And those halcyon days, if ever they existed, are never coming back.
Nonetheless, English football and their 90 minute patriot fans may not yet be ready to tolerate the reality that their country is a second rank football nation at full international level or that their ‘English football’ won’t win anything anymore.
But if public and media pressure ever forces England’s football bureaucrats to forego the under-age teams’ current game-plan then they are faced with two unappealing alternatives.
England then will have basically two ways of playing: English 4-4-2 ‘set-piece and second ball’ football from out of the Ark. Or the latest bodge job, a modern ‘Roy Hodgson-style’ compromise pilfered from a pick and mix of fashionable, poorly implemented coaching theories.
One style is old hat. The other is desperately wrong-headed.
So, to recap: England rarely produce mature stars and face a likely kickback from employing a ‘non-English’ style of play.
However, what the English do have in their favour is the ability to market the last breath out of any old guff at a truly world class level. With sleight of hand, some fairy dust, a pop video Sky Sports ad, they’ll likely get away with selling this downgrade to the masses. However it really is will always be secondary to how it is presented in this country.
All that said, if we pause to reflect, these young England sides really have created a fantastic legacy and laid down some important foundations for the future. Unlike previous generations these youngsters are winners in big tournaments, tournaments that matter. That has to count for something.
This period of success for Young Lions’ sides can be really important as a precursor for what lies ahead. Winning these trophies at youth level can be a source of confidence and reassurance for these players as they face future challenges.
But what it doesn’t do is offer guarantees. Viewers of the Sky TV series The Next Jamie Vardy will already be familiar with the CV of Blair Turgott.
Not so long ago, Blair Turgott’s star shone very brightly as a former teammate of Raheem Sterling, Nathaniel Chalobah, Jordan Pickford and Nathan Redmond at the 2011 U17 World Cup in Mexico. But his story is a timely reminder of the traps that lie ahead for England’s teenagers.
After 90 minutes for his latest club Stevenage, the one-time hot prospect has found himself sent out on loan to Borehamwood in pursuit of game time. He’s started well enough with the decisive goal in a 1-0 win over Dover Athletic.
But the ex-West Ham youth will not be able to wholly make this latest fresh start quite yet, however. And possibly not at all.
Turgott is due back at Southwark Crown Court to answer two fraud charges from a case that’s details alone ensure that the player’s media profile is higher now than at any other point in his career to date.
But even with a legacy of success, youth also needs opportunity and the biggest challenge that these guys face now of course is that whatever they’ve achieved already, at their young age, every game is effectively year zero all over again. That’s ninety minutes that contains the seeds of their ultimate triumph and destruction as mature players, every time they take the field.
It is often said that the latest hot prospect is only ever three poor performances away from it all unravelling. If that happens, he’s replaced by a multi-million pound import of proven provenance and maturity.
And with megabucks TV money swilling around the likes of even youth-focussed clubs like Everton and Southampton there is an even tougher glass ceiling to break through for these England kids under the charge of Dan Ashworth’s DNA program at St Georges Park.
These players, like the hawked around 40-times under 21-capped Nathaniel Chalobah, are largely part of a lucrative secondary market for talent. That is players produced, not for their parent club’s first teams, but as transfer fee generators and ‘filler’ that allow clubs to comply with UEFA and FA quotas.
As ESPN reported: “Chelsea’s serial success in winning the last four FA Youth Cups has translated into a sum total of zero first-team regulars, instead creating a revenue stream of players sold on, like the £5.5m Watford paid for Chalobah and the £20m received from Bournemouth for Nathan Ake.”
Of England’s 23 U21 players who participated in Poland’s Euros tournament, only three (Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, Swansea’s Alfie Mawson and Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse) were first-choice Premier League players for their parent club.
And this quote below is worth repeating.
This is how the numbers stack up as per Michael Calvin’s superb book on youth development ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ The Players. The Journey. The Dream.
“Less than one half of one per cent of boys who enter the [English] academy structure at the age of nine will make a first-team appearance. More than three quarters are jettisoned between the ages of 13 and 16.
The odds are no less intimidating the further a boy progresses. Almost 98 per cent of boys given a scholarship at 16 are no longer in the top five tiers of the domestic game at the age of 18. A recent study revealed that only 8 out of 400 players given a professional Premier League contract at 18 remained at the highest level by the time of their twenty-second-birthday. Since only 180 of the 1.5m boys who play organised youth football at any one time become Premier League pros, the success rate is 0.012 per cent.”
I could only hazard a guess at how those numbers might work out in relation to these youth internationals, household name players, greats of the game, even ‘mere’ full internationals.
Here’s the reality: five out of every six of the scholars starting with Premier League academy contracts next season will not be playing football for a living in five years. “If it was a university of football, with our success rates we would have been closed down by now because it’s just not good enough,” Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the PFA, has said.
Success for the Young Lions will not be a legacy of seamless succession planning as these various young England teams progress through the age levels to first team and international football.
Rather, it will likely be something far more prosaic. Even five players from these Young England teams that go on to provide the backbone of England squads for the next 15 years would have to be considered a success. Any better than that really would be a major achievement.