I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but, whisper it quietly, England’s national teams are doing rather well at all levels. Could we…y’know…actually be getting better? A lot better? I know, it sounds crazy but England have been quietly winning a lot of games of football, as Paul Merson would say, as though we might have forgotten what the game was called. I know none of us can be positive about England for more than a half-second but bear with me.
The senior side are top of their group, undefeated going into Saturday’s game against Scotland with four wins out of five and zero goals conceded.
The U-21s have qualified for the European Championship in Poland due to start on June 16, topping their group unbeaten in eight games, scoring 20 and only conceding three.
The U-20s are in action right now in their World Cup. They topped their group unbeaten having stuffed Argentina 3- 0 and the hosts South Korea by a single goal. They defeated Costa Rica 2-1 in the round of 16 and have just beaten Mexico to reach the semi-finals.
The U-19s reached their Euro semi-final last year, losing 2-1 to Italy but beating eventual champions France along the way.
The U-18s have topped their Toulon Tournament group with a 100% record, including a 7-1 win over the might of Cuba, with the knock-out games still to come.
The U-17s topped their European Championship group, also with a 100% record and then progressed all the way to the final and only lost on penalties to Spain.
I know we’re all prone to cynicism about England and with very bloody good reason, but it would be hard to interpret this string of results in anything other than a positive light. Naturally, with England, disaster always feels just around the corner, largely because it is, and youth tournaments are a flaky guide to senior success. Instead of a progression up the England national ranks, from schoolboy upwards to the senior team, all too often the best players get launched into the senior team almost immediately. But even so, there is cause for hope that we do have some sort of trickling stream of quality making progress internationally.
The Under 21s play Poland, Slovakia and holders Sweden in the upcoming tournament and Aidy Boothroyd has now named his squad, drawing from this 28-man group. The fact that many of us won’t have heard of some of these tells its own story…
Angus Gunn (Manchester City), Jonathan Mitchell (Derby County), Jordan Pickford (Sunderland), Joe Wildsmith (Sheffield Wednesday)
Calum Chambers (Arsenal), Ben Chilwell (Leicester City), Kortney Hause (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Rob Holding (Arsenal), Mason Holgate (Everton), Dominic Iorfa (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Alfie Mawson (Swansea City), Sam McQueen (Southampton), Jack Stephens (Southampton), Matt Targett (Southampton)
Lewis Baker (Chelsea), Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea), Jack Grealish (Aston Villa), Will Hughes (Derby County), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea), John Swift (Reading), James Ward-Prowse (Southampton)
Tammy Abraham (Chelsea), Isaiah Brown (Chelsea), Demarai Gray (Leicester City), Jacob Murphy (Norwich City), Nathan Redmond (Southampton), Patrick Roberts (Manchester City), Cauley Woodrow (Fulham)
Of the players at the top clubs, none are regulars and it is notable that nine are from the Championship and the rest from the middle and lower range of Premier League teams. Seven are drawn from the top four, most of those coming from Chelsea, for whom it’s hard to see any of them ever becoming first-team regulars at a club not known to be over-interested in developing players and very interested in buying the world’s best. There’s no point in playing for Chelsea if you want to play first-team football and you’re not already a full international; that’s not how it works there.
Nat Chalobah has played over three times more games for England U-21s (34) than for Chelsea; Ruben Loftus-Cheek has only played 22 games for his club and 17 for England U-21s; Izzy Brown and Tammy Abraham have played three games for Chelsea between them; Lewis Baker is 22 and has played three minutes of football for Chelsea. Being a young players a Chelsea is a dead end. You’re loan fodder and just so much capital to be sold on.
Can you imagine any of these becoming full cap regulars? Nathan Redmond, Rob Holding, Mason Holgate and Jordan Pickford have a chance because they’re at clubs where they’ve an opportunity of playing regularly. Oh and I thought James Ward-Prowse was about 28 already.
However, if they can do well this summer, some might move to a club which might actually value them as a player and not merely as a unit of profit. And there is a clear chance of breaking into Gareth Southgate’s squad next season. This is also a major test for Boothroyd, a Yorkshireman, a blunt, former no-nonsense defender with triangular head, who has managed England at 19, 20 and now 21. For a man with a league win ratio of 36.8% who many see as part of the old school, long ball, PFM “more energy” school, he has a lot to prove to many. However, this is the man who said: “Professional footballers should be professional. They have a responsibility to come in, listen and learn, watch their performances, analyse where they went wrong and improve. Not to come in, have a five-a-side, bugger off and play golf. I get quite passionate because I was that person. I was a mercenary who went from club to club on a free transfer and, really, that’s not how football should be.” And that sounds quite encouraging.
A few years ago, when Spain was the country for our dopey FA officials to follow, there was talk of establishing a way of playing from youth to senior England teams. I don’t know, but suspect, that is all hogwash and each level simply coaches the players in whichever way they see fit. This is no new dawning, and is more likely a blip.
However, if we can play against other countries’ youngsters and do well, it should bode well for the future, as long as these players can actually play regular football and not just be paid handsomely for making up the homegrown numbers on the squad sheet.
If we could win the U-21 tournament this summer, it would be a powerful statement of rejuvenation after last year’s clown car stylings at the Euros. It would suggest we are not losers, managed by losers any longer.
Obviously, I don’t think we will, and maybe neither do the players, or the manager, and that is part of the problem. It is so hard to be positive about England, even when they’re doing well at all levels and if it’s hard for us, it must be hard for the players. But maybe, just maybe, something positive is actually happening.
A pint of wine, please, barman.