Ben Joyce looks into the recent successes of the England national youth football teams, and ponders on the future for the young players of English football.
This is the modern world. A world in which young English footballers are the best in the world. This is something fans, pundits and coaches have been dreaming of for the decade since the disastrous qualifying campaign for Euro 2008. Rather than just the one golden generation with the likes of Terry, Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney, England now seem to have several age groups full of top talent at their disposal. An unprecedented summer of success in under-age tournaments – not just for England but for any nation ever. This should be celebrated, and provides hope for the future of English national football. However, the pessimism of a footballing nation created by what are now 52 years of hurt, combined with the experiences in recent years for promising youngsters in the English game, is understandable.
The most recent exploits were those of the U17s side at the World Cup in India. They beat Spain 5-2 in the final, coming back from going 2-0 down, as well as being without star man Jadon Sancho for that game (and in fact all the knockout stage games) after being recalled by his new side Borussia Dortmund. An impressive feat when remebering that these young men lost to the same Spanish side on penalties in the summer at the U17 European Championships, again in the final. It is a squad that includes Phil Foden, a midfielder at Manchester City who is highly rated by Pep Guardiola, who proselytised over him in preseason, and won Player of the Tournament in India. It also includes Rhian Brewster of Liverpool – the top scorer in the tournament, including two hat-tricks in the quarter and semi-finals, as well as the first of the comeback goals in the final.
The next age group up, the U19s, won their European Championship in Georgia. This was especially impressive as many of the players who would normally have played in this age group were with the U20s side in South Korea for the World Cup at the same time. As such, many of the players here were gifted, but mainly without first team experience and were mainly based from Premier League academies, with perhaps the odd loan spell. The main exception to this rule is Ryan Sessegnon, a highly rated full back playing regularly for Fulham in the Championship.
Talking of the U20s, that side, which also won, was also weakened by another competition occurring at the same time, the U21s side at their European Championships. Despite this, the side was still successful, and had more names familiar to the average football fan, like Golden Boot winner Dominic Solanke who had moved to Liverpool just before the tournament started. At the same as this, another U20s tournament took place, the Toulon Tournament, the prestigious Youth tournament held annually in France. England won the tournament in 2016, but most of that squad was at either the U21 or U20 tournaments. Granted, this was likely to be the case for most of the other competing sides, it is nonetheless impressive that England managed to add this piece of silverware to their then-growing haul of 2017. This squad featured names such as Ronaldo Viera, the Portuguese-born Leeds regular in midfield, and Sheffield United’s David Brooks, player of the tournament award winner.
Finally, the oldest age group to have played this summer were the U21s, who played in their age group’s European Championships in Poland. This was the biggest failure of the summer, and even then it was a comparative success in contrast with previous campaigns where England have failed to get out of the groups. The side were knocked out in the Semi Finals to Germany, inevitably on penalties. This squad was by far the strongest of the summer, and, unlike the others, was almost entirely filled with players who had played on a reasonably regular basis for club sides.
“An unprecedented summer of success in under-age tournaments – not just for England but for any nation ever.”
This is surely promising signs for England. The idea of St George’s Park, the national footballing centre, producing promising youth had long been a dream for the FA, and this new centre is meant to be it. However, it is heavily dependent on the club system. A Lilleshall it is not, the famed FA centre of excellence in the early to mid-90s which selected the sixteen best 14-year-olds in the country and kept them in what was essentially a boarding school, before they went off to sign for club sides. Stars like Michael Owen, Jermain Defoe, Andy Cole, Jamie Carragher and Sol Campbell emerged from the programme. Yet, it was superseded by the academy system we have now, where all the major clubs have sides going all the way down to under 8s. The elite clubs heavily dominate the provision of players to these squads: of the squads listed above, there were 106 players in all of the combined squads (accounting for some players playing in more than one tournament); of these, 49, or 46%, played for the so-called ‘Big 6’. Other big contributors were Everton, Sunderland, Leeds and West Ham. However, the largest by far were Chelsea, with 23 players, or 22% of those squads being on their increasingly large books.
In here lies the problem: these players are the best in the world at 16-20, but will they progress on from that? The FA are beholden to the big clubs, and the Premier League in general. A decade or so ago, the progression path was obvious: players impressed in their academies, were given a chance in the first side, cemented their place, and then perhaps made a move to a bigger club. The Class of ‘92, the numerous players who came from West Ham, Everton, Leeds and Liverpool, all followed this pipeline to form the ‘golden generation’ of 2004-2006. This pipeline no longer exists. Managerial security at the clubs listed above was paramount to players being allowed to thrive: Ferguson at Man United with the Class of ‘92, Redknapp at West Ham playing Lampard and Ferdinand, Moyes at Everton with Rooney, O’Leary at Leeds with Milner and Alan Smith, Evans and Houllier and Liverpool playing Fowler, Owen and Gerrard. The two-previous title winning managers, Mourinho and Ranieri, have been sacked the following season, and the current champion Antonio Conte is currently the victim of press rumours. In this kind of even more intensely results-driven climate, a manager doesn’t have the time to be patient and allow the youngster to learn from their mistakes. They would rather spend £30m or more on a proven and established player approaching the wrong side of 30 for squad depth than risk a teenager. The purchase of Danny Drinkwater for Chelsea after the sale of Nathaniel Chalobah and the loaning out of Ruben Loftus Cheek is a perfect example of this.
Chelsea are a special worry for the FA. The statistic above says it all. Roman Abramovich is one of the most trigger-happy owners in football, which helps create an atmosphere of short term planning, meaning youth players are put on the back burner, and contribute to the extortionate number of players Chelsea loan out each year. This is something that has been happening long before Conte became manager. The statistic that Chelsea haven’t had a regular first team player from their youth system since John Terry is alarming, especially when you consider that Chelsea have appeared in 8 of the last 10 FA Youth Cup finals, winning six of them, including the last four in a row. They also won the UEFA Youth Leagues in 2015 & 2016, as well as winning last year’s U18 Premier League. Chelsea have undoubtedly the best academy in the country, perhaps even the world. However, none of these players make the step up for Chelsea. Of the players eligible to be handed out medals for last year’s title, only three were academy products: John Terry, Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus Cheek. None of those three remain at Chelsea: the only English player to have started a league game for Chelsea this season is Gary Cahill. Will that change soon? Tammy Abraham is scoring regularly on loan at Swansea, and Loftus Cheek is managing to impress in an abysmal Palace side. Will any of these actually manage to become regulars?
This is the issue with the progression path for these elite young players: it doesn’t exist, even at other clubs. Man United’s current manager is notorious for being a manager who doesn’t use young players often; Liverpool have several top quality young players, but only Joe Gomez is currently getting a look in; Man City have spent masses of money on talent from across the globe, but Pep Guardiola seems to be a fan of Phil Foden, so perhaps he is the only one who can hope for game time; even with Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, there has been a lack of young players coming through. The only big side to be trusting youth are Spurs, where Pochettino has been blooding through players like Harry Winks, who was supremely impressive in the Bernabeu recently.
Increasingly, these players are deciding to leave the big English clubs permanently in hope of getting more game time. Jadon Sancho has gone to Dortmund from Man City, Chris Willock and Kaylen Hinds leaving Arsenal for Benfica and Wolfsburg respectively, Chalobah’s aforementioned move to Watford, Dominic Solanke moving from Chelsea to Liverpool. Then there are masses of loans to all corners of Europe and beyond. Loans are no doubt good, almost every member of the 04-06 ‘golden generation’ went on one. But that is the point, they went on one, not several. Few players come out of several loans to thrive at the top level, with the sole exception of Harry Kane. Loans were once a process of toughening you up, giving you a kick up the backside, showing what you could do, all before you got your opportunity in the first team. Now it seems loans are used to fatten up players’ transfer fees to pay for more foreign imports.
There is also another important caveat to this success that will go under reported: the vast majority of these young English players will be of dual heritage. Successful squads have been incredibly diverse, and while this is a great sign of the progress in football in the past few decades, it has a hidden danger. With many players with backgrounds outside of England, they are able to play for other nations. If an obvious pipeline from age group football to the main national side isn’t obvious, there is a big chance of players deciding to play for another nation. This has happened with players like Wilfred Zaha, who after a long saga chose to play for the Ivory Coast, or Ben Woodburn, who made that stunning impact off the bench for Wales recently after rejecting the chance to play for England. Ethan Ampadu and David Brooks have also been called up to the Wales first team by Chris Coleman. This is a growing problem for many sides across the globe as migration patterns increase, and many of the European nations are having to deal with the effects more. How are the FA meant to deal with this? In France, this situation caused a large row over race in the country after then-manager Laurent Blanc suggested a maximum quota of non-native French players allowed in youth teams across the country. This shows the scale of the problem that many sides are facing, but many are also profiting from: Eric Dier grew up playing his football in Portugal, and qualified to play for their national side, but chose the country of his birth and ancestry.
“Successful squads have been incredibly diverse, and while this is a great sign of the progress in football in the past few decades, it has a hidden danger.”
So, the press are in the process of hyping this future ‘golden generation’. Can they live up to their tag, unlike the boys of 04-06’s iteration? Golden generations are a tricky thing, and they need many-a-thing to go right. The current Belgian side looks ridiculously gifted on paper, but has struggled in recent tournaments; the Argentine’s have one of the greatest players of all time in their side and have still been unable to win a major tournament in that time. However, they can prove fruitful. The Spanish generation dominated by the crop out of Barcelona’s La Masia won two Euros and a World Cup on the bounce. Currently, the French side in the coming few tournaments look like they should wipe the floor with anyone that stands in their way, and almost did in Euro 2016 before losing to Portugal. England fans should be quietly hopeful, but not get overly carried away. We know what can happen when we get too swept up. Let us just be thankful that there’s some more silverware to add to that Jules Rimet still gleaming.