Following his lovely free-kick on his Champions League debut, Trent Alexander-Arnold is not only the best footballer you can name with a surname for a first name and two first names for a surname, but has also announced himself definitely as One To Watch, a Prospect For The Future.
Only…what does that mean?
This is changing a little, but it has long been the pattern that following England’s latest (inevitably humbling) exit from a major tournament, we start hypothesising about what the national team might look like in two, four or eight years, and invariably we decide that there aren’t enough talented youngsters coming through. Oh what a terrible crisis we’re in, how did we get here, there’s too many foreigners, yes we demanded our clubs sign the foreigners but shut up.
Here’s the thing, though. Let’s say for the sake of argument there is an absolutely wonderful generation of players currently ploughing away in the big club academies. This is a group of players who will take England to back-to-back World Cup victories in 2024 and 2028. They lose in the final of Euro 2026 only on penalties, to Germany, because even in utopian visions of the future there are some facts of life you simply cannot change. They go down as one of the greatest international sides of all time. After decades of knowing nothing but how to tear down the national team, the tabloids are stunned into silent confusion, their back pages blank.
Here’s the question: at what point over the next seven to ten years do you think we would become aware that we have a really sodding wonderful team on our hands? Would we know it when we saw it?
My suspicion is we’d probably only realise a few months before at best, possibly only once the tournament itself reaches the knock-out stages.
Why? A host of reasons. Because youth football is a poor indicator of future success; because successful squads tend to span a whole range of ages (at least two members of that 2024 side must already be 25 years old); but mostly because with a few once-in-a-generation exceptions, it is nearly impossible to see really, really good individuals coming, let alone a whole squadsworth of them. That’s a valid unit of measurement, right?
Sometimes it seems like when some people say there are ‘no youngsters’ coming through, what they mean is that we’ve only had one Marcus Rashford in the last 18 months, rather than six. But players like the Manchester United forward are the exception, rather than the rule. A teenager absolutely exploding into superstardom in their teenage years happens so seldom that it still provokes a flurry of media coverage every time.
These are the kinds of player whose arrival is so impactful that you know, instantly, they are going to be huge stars, who even rival fans can’t wait to see turn out for the national team. Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Raheem Sterling and Rashford are the big British examples from the past 20 years.
By definition, you don’t see these teenage sensations coming: they’re like being smacked around the back of the head with a phone book.
At the other end of the spectrum are players who have worked their way up more slowly, possibly through the divisions, probably overcoming a period of multiple loan spells: Danny Rose, Harry Kane, Michael Keane, Jamie Vardy, Peter Crouch, Teddy Sheringham and Adam Lallana fall into this category. Once again, you don’t see this group coming because their rise is steady, boring and quiet, until you suddenly realise: “Oh yeah, they’re pretty good, aren’t they?”
Then there’s the middle group: those who were good enough as kids but there was always a cautious optimism that followed them into their 20s. This is the one group you do actually have on your radar; the only problem is that it’s so loud and varied, you can’t tell the signal from the noise.
Yes, sometimes it works out phenomenally well, but more often they live up to the potential their relatively muted emergence would suggest without really exceeding it, or are tragically underwhelming. There are so many examples of players that took all three paths that I’ll let you make your own lists, but I’d suggest Cristiano Ronaldo, James Milner and Francis Jeffers are good starting points. With results as varied, unreliable and unpredictable as that, do you really put much faith in your ability to divine the wheat from the chaff when weighing up our hopes for the future?
If England’s youth performances this summer are anything to go by, this season will see the emergence of plenty of fresh young faces, if you’ll pardon an expression that becomes so incredibly gross when imagined in a butcher’s window. Alexander-Arnold is merely the first.
But. But. Sitting on fences is unsexy, unfashionable and leaves you prone to splinters in some very nasty hard-to-reach places – but as far as teenagers are concerned, it’s the only sensible thing to do. Who knows? Perhaps that’s just the kind of encouraging, pressure-free attitude our kids need in order to flourish.