The international football highlight for thousands of English fans this weekend was not Harry Kane cancelling out Leigh Griffiths’ free-kick brace at Hampden Park. Compared to the thrill of watching Dominic Calvert-Lewin firing past Wuilker Farinez in Suwon, that was a moment of vapid irrelevance.
England are Under-20 World Champions; and deservedly so. The team has performed consistently well, and has displayed a blend of dynamic, flair-based and ultimately successful football that the senior team has been woefully unable to produce for the best-part of fifty years.
As the celebrations and memories fade, there must be a sense that this is just the beginning. This victory is a testament to the level of potential of English football, but its realisation is still very much in the balance.
After all, it feels like we’ve been here before. The England Under-17’s have won the European Championships twice in the last seven years alone, and finished runners-up this year. The Under-21 unit have just won their second consecutive Toulon Tournament. Although youth-level success is a relatively recent phenomenon, it is not an entirely new one. Did those past successes actually translate to anything tangible?
Of the whole of the successful 2010 Under-17 European Championships squad, only two players have earned an international cap
Of the whole of the successful 2010 Under-17 European Championships squad, only two players have earned an international cap (Jack Butland and Ross Barkley). When considering the apparent ease by which English players who play regularly can earn a call-up (see Jake Livermore), that is a remarkable failure. Arguably a worse failure still, only four of the 18-man squad made over ten appearances in the Premier League last season. Bearing in mind that the youngest member of that squad is now 22, with most 23 or 24, it seems like it will be a permanent one. Only four of the under-20 squad were not contracted to Premier League clubs last season, but none of them can be considered regular features of any top-division side.
There are mitigating factors. Clubs often block their more important young players from playing in summer youth tournaments, which can skew the statistics and general perception. Marcus Rashford and Tom Davies, for example, will never be considered as part of this successful under-20 crop, but will almost certainly go on to have fantastic careers for both club and country. Players develop at different ages, and some that look amazing aged 16 will never deliver at adult level even with sufficient exposure. Connor Wickham is a prime example – the star striker in 2010 who scored in the final and drew relentless comparison to Wayne Rooney has played almost 200 games in the Championship or Premier League by the age of 24. Returning just 40 goals, his career has never got out of first gear, but equally can’t be accused of being strangled.
Nevertheless, it appears that much of the narrative regarding England’s perennial failings and the inefficiency of the youth conveyor belt has been misplaced. The comparative lack of coaches in England, for instance, would explain more an inability to mould capable 15 or 16 year-olds, rather than the paucity of those teenagers becoming Premier League players. The much-derided elite academy system, and its propensity to produce stylistically homogenous, unintelligent players (on and off the pitch), actually appears to be doing its job fairly well. The under-20’s we’ve all been enthralled by of late are as technically adept as they are physically impressive.
Absence of game time stunts development, both technically and tactically, not to mention confidence and enthusiasm
Although most of the squads from the 2010 under-17 tournament have only produced a couple of elite national-team players, far more of the French and Spanish contingents are now capable players playing in the highest division of their respective countries than England’s. The problem is clearly primarily the 18-21 bracket (identified in the FA’s 2014 Commission), and the (lack of) regularity of game time in the Premier League. That absence of game time stunts development, both technically and tactically, not to mention confidence and enthusiasm. English teams’ tendency to not play youngsters is understandable – they’re under no obligation to care about the national team, or even their academy products, and there is so much money at stake for even the smallest of relative successes that the pressure to not take superficially unnecessary risks is colossal. Managers are required to produce immediate results, and have no real prospect of building a team over a long-term period, so naturally pick ready-made senior pros over inexperienced, ‘room-for-potential’ types.
‘It happens in Serie A, why not England?’
Changing those imperatives won’t be easy. The financial motivation in football is having corrosive effects in all sorts of areas, and won’t be leaving any time soon. There are already registration rules on home-grown players, and they don’t seem to be making much of a difference. Perhaps appealing to the financial worth of picking academy products (which are in their own way expensive) as opposed to buying a marginally better alternative for £20 million would be prudent. Gareth Southgate was right to draw attention to this after Sunday’s win, saying ‘I think they’ve shown if we’re world champions at U20s then there’s enough players there to fulfil careers in the game without clubs looking elsewhere’. In Serie A, teams name 12 substitutes in their match-day squad – introducing that to the Premier League would be a great place to start. As Claudio Ranieri explained after his appointment at Leicester, ‘It is a good opportunity for the young players. You would have an opportunity to put the 17-year-olds or 18-year-olds on the pitch. It happens in Serie A, why not England?’
In fairness, there should also be some incumbency on the players in question to be proactive and exploratory in their development. Adapting to a new culture, developing their understanding of the game and playing at a high level with technically adept players would probably benefit them more than accepting a future in the Football League immediately. That may not be a cure-all solution (Nathaniel Chalobah and Ravel Morrison stand out as players who took that chance with limited results), but it would be a positive change.
In 2013 the FA officially set the target of winning the 2022 World Cup. However characteristically brash, however misguided that was to do, this weekend England’s young players suggested that, under the right circumstances, that might actually be feasible. They should be given the chance to prove it.